Lesser Known Wine Regions in California
Napa Valley and Sonoma County might be California’s most famous wine regions, but they’re only part of today’s wine story in California. Vineyards that are north, east, and south of Napa and Sonoma grow all sorts of grape varieties for producing all kinds of wines.
The following California regions start with idyllic Mendocino and Lake Counties in the north, followed by the rest of the major wine regions in the state:
Mendocino and Lake Counties: Lake County, dominated by Clear Lake, is Napa’s neighbor to the north, and Mendocino County is directly north of Sonoma. Tourists are scarcer here than in Napa or Sonoma, and that makes it all the nicer: You’ll be genuinely welcomed at the wineries. The cool Anderson Valley in Mendocino County is ideal for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling, and for the production of sparkling wine.
The Louis Roederer Champagne house started its sparkling wine operation here and has done extremely well in a short time — as have Scharffenberger and Handley, two other successful sparkling wine producers in Anderson Valley.
San Francisco Bay area: The San Francisco Bay area wine regions include Marin County to the north; Alameda County and Livermore Valley to the east; and Santa Clara Valley and San Mateo County to the south. In Livermore Valley, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon have always done well. In Santa Clara Valley, with the Santa Cruz Mountains on its western side, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are the three big grape varieties (and wines).
Santa Cruz Mountains: The rugged, wild beauty of this area (an hour’s drive south of San Francisco) has attracted quite a few winemakers, including some of the best in the state. The climate is cool on the ocean side, where Pinot Noir thrives. On the San Francisco Bay side, Cabernet Sauvignon is the important red variety. Chardonnay is a leading variety on both sides.
Monterey County: Monterey County has a beautiful coastline, the chic town of Carmel, some very cool (as in temperature) vineyard districts and some very warm areas, mountain wineries and Salinas Valley wineries, a few gigantic wine firms and lots of small ones.
The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA has garnered attention as a hot region for California Pinot Noir. Chardonnay is the leading varietal wine in Monterey County. The cooler parts of Monterey are also principal sources of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are the leading red varieties in the mountain areas.
Sierra Foothills: The Gold Rush of 1849 brought vineyards to the Sierra Foothills area to provide wine for the thirsty miners. One of the vines planted at that time was Zinfandel — still the region’s most famous wine. Many of the oldest grapevines in the United States, some over 100 years old — mainly Zinfandel — are here in the Sierra Foothills.
The Sierra Foothills is a sprawling wine region east of Sacramento, centered in Amador and El Dorado Counties, but spreading north and south of both. Two of its best-known viticultural areas are Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown.
San Luis Obispo County: San Luis Obispo County is an area of vastly diverse viticultural areas. These include, for example, the warm, hilly Paso Robles region (north of the town of San Luis Obispo) where Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon reign, and the cool, coastal Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande (south of the town), home of some very good Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Paso Robles is in the heart of California’s Central Coast, about equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Santa Barbara County: The most exciting viticultural areas in California — if not in the entire country — are in Santa Barbara County. The cool Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, and Los Alamos Valleys — which lie north of the city of Santa Barbara — run east to west, opening toward the Pacific Ocean and channeling in the ocean air. The cool climate is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Farther south, in the Santa Ynez Valley, Riesling also does well.
Pinot Noir has earned Santa Barbara much of its acclaim as a wine region. Santa Barbara's Pinot Noir wines burst with luscious strawberry fruit, laced with herbal tones. These wines are delicious in their first four or five years.