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Central and Southern California Wine Regions

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | July 01, 2011

Extending southward from San Francisco are the wine areas that make up central and southern California. The regions of central and southern California are much more diverse than their northern counterparts and contain many sub-AVA designations. Climates of areas close to the ocean are cooler than those found further inland. In terms of the growth of wine regions, some of the central and southern California areas saw substantial growth following Prohibition while others did not. Finally, the central and southern California areas are home to some of the oldest wineries in California. Wineries located in the Sierra Foothills were founded in the 19th century and are still in operation today. Numerous AVAs can be found within the central and southern California regions. Large AVAs include Central Coast, Sierra Foothills and South Coast with each AVA containing various sub-AVAs. Smaller AVAs found in the central and southern California wine regions include Lodi, Sloughhouse, Alta Mesa, Cosumnes River, Borden Ranch, Jahant, Mokelumne River, Clements Hills, Clarksburg, Merritt Island, River Junction, Tracy Hills, Salado Creek, Diablo Grande, Madera, Leona Valley, Sierra Pelona Valley, Malibu-Newton Canyon, Saddle Rock-Malibu, and Cucamonga Valley.

The Central Coast AVA is a large AVA located within central California. Located primarily near the Pacific Ocean coastline, the Central Coast AVA has over 100,000 acres of developed vineyards. The Central Coast AVA was established in 1985 and is home to the San Francisco Bay AVA, the Monterey AVA as well as several other AVAs.

The San Francisco Bay AVA was originally a large wine region with vast vineyards having been planted. The outbreak of Phylloxera in 1873 dramatically changed the vineyards of the San Francisco Bay region forever. Many vineyards were never redeveloped after the Phylloxera crisis. Instead, vineyard land gave way to the growth and development of San Francisco. Vineyards that remain in this region are under the constant threat of disappearing as urban sprawl continues to consume land. Overall, the San Francisco Bay AVA today has a fraction of vineyards left from its former golden days. Some of the wineries located in this region import grapes from other regions to supplement production. The climate of the San Francisco Bay region is diverse in that certain areas have climates more suited for white wine production while other areas have climates suitable for red wine production. Important AVAs within the San Francisco Bay region include Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Clara Valley and Ben Lomond Mountain. Popular grape varieties for the San Francisco Bay region include Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Monterey AVA is an American Viticultural Area that starts just north of Monterey Bay and runs down the Salinas Valley. Growth came to the Monterey area after viniculture experts deemed the area acceptable for the production of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s. The viniculture experts determined this by observing local climate conditions and taking into account the amount of sunshine the region receives. However, what the viniculture experts failed to recognize were the strong cool winds that are common to the valley. These winds ultimately inhibited the ripening of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape leading to a vegetative taste in the wines produced. Recognizing this problem, other grape varieties are grown and today the Monterey AVA is known for its quality white wines. Monterey’s AVAs include Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, San Bernabe, San Lucas and Hames Valley. While Monterey may have a significant amount of vineyards, there are only a few producers based in Monterey. Most of the grapes grown in Monterey are sold to large producers located in different regions. Grape varieties grown in Monterey include Chardonnay and Riesling while some Pinot Noir and Syrah are also grown.

Additional Central Coast sub-AVAs can be found in San Luis Obispo county and Santa Barbara county. The AVAs of San Luis Obispo County are contained to a moderately sized Southern California region with a diverse climate. Due to the nature of the climate, vineyards can be found on fairly flat land where others are located high in the mountains. Unlike the Monterey region, most of the grapes grown in the AVAs of San Luis Obispo County are consumed by local wineries. These small wineries are very successful and attract many visitors. Important AVAs within the San Luis Obispo County include Paso Robles, York Mountain, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel. Recently the AVAs of San Luis Obispo County have shown a growing interest in Rhone grape varieties.

The AVAs of Santa Barbara County are situated on the southern border of San Luis Obispo County. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Santa Barbara County exploded with vineyard growth. Many of the ranches found within Santa Barbara County have given way to vineyards. The climate of Santa Barbara County is varied with cool breezes affecting the east-west valleys with inland areas being somewhat warmer. Due to the cooler climate, sun exposure is extremely important if grapes are to ripen adequately for quality winemaking. The AVAs of Santa Barbara County include Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria Valley. Due to the cooler climate and reliance of sunshine for ripening, certain grape varieties can only be grown in certain areas. Popular grape varieties include the Burgundian varieties as well as Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

In addition to the large AVAs discussed above, several smaller AVAs can be found throughout the Central Coast AVA. These AVAs include San Benito, Paicines, Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln Valley, Chalone, Carmel Valley, San Antonio Valley and Mount Harlan.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is interesting as this area contains some of the oldest wineries still in operation in California. Winemaking got its start in the Sierra Foothills area due to the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Vineyard sizes grew into the late 1860s, however in recent times the amount of vineyards in the Sierra Foothills region has decreased. Today roughly half of the total area cultivated in the 1860s is still in production. The vineyards themselves are planted at high elevations to take advantage of the heat moderation of the area. AVAs found within the Sierra Foothills area include El Dorado, Fair Play, North Yuba, California Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. Grape varieties vary but some of the popular varieties include Zinfandel, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The South Coast AVA is California's most southern wine area. This small AVA was flourishing toward the end of the 19th century until disaster struck. Many of the vineyards in this region were destroyed by a bacterium known as Pierce's disease. The spread of this disease still continues even in recent years. As such, most of the areas found within the South Coast AVA are small and marginal. AVAs found within the South Coast AVA include Temecula Valley, San Pasqual Valley and Ramona Valley. Additional AVAs can be found just outside of the South Coast AVA. These areas include Leona Valley, Sierra Pelona Valley, Malibu-Newton Canyon, Saddle Rock-Malibu and Cucamonga Valley. The popular grape varieties include Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Out of all the wine regions in California, the AVAs of the Central Valley region are responsible for the greatest amount of wine production in the state. Sixty percent of all wine produced in California comes from the Central Valley region. The climate of the Central Valley region is one where sunshine and heat predominate, which makes high quality grape production difficult. Due to this fact, some wines produced in the Central Valley areas are of lower quality. However, even with difficult climate conditions, some regions near Sacramento can produce quality wine. AVAs found within the Central Valley Region include Lodi, Sloughhouse, Alta Mesa, Cosumnes River, Borden Ranch, Jahant, Mokelumne River, Clements Hills, Clarksburg, Merritt Island, River Junction, Tracy Hills, Salado Creek, Diablo Grande and Madera. Grape varieties include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Zinfandel.

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