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Northern California Wine Regions

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

The North coast areas of California are home to some of the most famous wine areas of the world. As the wine industry recovered after Repeal, many new vintners realized the benefits found in these northern regions. A new and educated consumer also realized the quality wine produced in Northern California. This has led to an explosion of wineries in Northern California. The fame of Northern California can be seen in that even someone who knows very little about wine will have heard of the Napa valley. Wine regions contained to Northern California can be found in the counties just north of San Francisco. These counties are Napa Valley, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Yolo.

Out of all the wine regions in the United States, the Napa Valley wine region is undoubtedly the most famous. Wines have been produced within the Napa Valley for over a century. The soil and climate conditions found within Napa are some of the best in the world. As such, wines produced at Napa rank as some of the most expensive one can buy. Napa’s best examples of wine are so prized that they have been known to raise over a thousand dollars at auctions. With the great successes the vintners have had at Napa, many influential and wealthy people have become involved with Napa wine production. Almost all land suitable for winemaking is now in production making real estate prices somewhat high. This in turn leads many individuals to believe that wines from Napa are overpriced. Napa is climatically varied county with Northern Napa being significantly hotter than southern Napa. American Viticultural Areas (AVA) found within the Napa Valley include: Rutherford, St. Helena, Oakville, Yountville, Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain & Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder & Spring Mountain and Los Carneros. Popular grape varieties grown in Napa include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel although Cabernet Sauvignon is the variety of choice.

Until recently Sonoma county was overshadowed in wine production by its neighbor, Napa Valley. With land resources becoming scarcer, Sonoma County vintners focused on improving the quality of their wines. The result of this improvement has led to the quality of wines being produced in Sonoma equaling their counterparts in Napa. Unlike Napa however, Sonoma County has an extremely diverse terroir with respect to climate and growing conditions. Many different types of microclimates, soil types and elevations exist with each affecting the growth of the vine in different ways. Generally the eastern slopes and valley floor are hotter than the costal regions. Adding another layer of complexity to the region is the fact that many of the AVAs in Sonoma overlap. Sonoma County still has areas that are open for vineyard development with special interest going to the lofty ridge tops of the Sonoma coast. Wineries of all different sizes and backgrounds operate in Sonoma County with simple boutique wineries being present as well as large family owned wineries. Like Napa, Sonoma has several important AVAs including: Alexander Valley & Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Green Valley & Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain and Sonoma Coast & Northern Sonoma. With respect to grape varieties, Chardonnay does well in the cooler coastal regions while Zinfandel is better suited for the hotter eastern slopes. Pinot Noir grown in the Russian River Valley can truly be exceptional as well.

Mendocino County is California’s most northerly wine area. Grapes grown here are of high quality and are reasonably priced. In the past, Mendocino was responsible for producing grapes for wineries based further south. With the explosion of California wine production, many larger wineries in Napa have branched out and developed their own vineyards in Mendocino County. Apart from the expansion of large Napa wineries, many new growers have established their own wineries in Mendocino. Also present are the wineries originally settled by Italian families with very old and highly regarded vineyards hidden away in the various AVAs. The climate of Mendocino is similar to Sonoma in that it is very versatile. Important AVAs of Mendocino county include: Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridges & Yorkville Highlands, Redwood valley & Potter Valley, Ukiah Valley and McDowell Valley. One item of special interest to Mendocino County is the pioneering work of organic viticulture. Organic viticulture was developed by the Fetzer family and has been pursued aggressively throughout Mendocino County. Over 25% of Mendocino County's vineyards are certified as organic. Popular wine varieties produced in Mendocino include Chardonnay and Viognier.

Lake County is of similar size when compared to Napa or Sonoma. From a grape-growing standpoint, Lake County has only one important AVA. This AVA is known as the Clear Lake AVA and is situated east of the Ukiah valley. Lake County is a warmer region with hot days. Temperatures are moderated by cool mountain air descending into Lake County during the evenings. Overall, Lake County is an area with no identity of its own. As such the vineyards of Lake County often sell fruit to larger wineries in different areas. Also, some growth has occurred concerning the development of new vineyards. Two popular wine varieties produced in Lake County are Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Additional AVAs can be found in northern California outside of the North Coast AVA. In the north west area of the State of California, two AVAs can be found within Yolo county. These AVAs are named Capay Valley AVA and Dunnigan Hills AVA. The AVAs of Capay Valley and Dunnigan Hills were formed in 2002 and 1993, respectively.

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