Lesson 25 – California – North Coast
So now that you’ve had a few weeks to digest Lesson 24, it’s now time to delve into California. By far, California is the most important wine state in the U.S. 90% of the wine production for the entire country comes from this state. The reasons are many as we briefly touched on in the previous lesson. However, the main reason is that it’s just a great place to grow grapes. The European varietals do very well here. And it’s not just a couple here and there. It’s practically all of them. Granted some will do better in certain parts of the state than others, but the fact of the matter is that California has the right conditions to grow the grapes that we are used to for making wine.
One thing to realize that in California, it’s not necessarily the Latitude that determines what can or cannot be grown. The rest of the topography matter too. If there are mountains between the vineyard and the Pacific Ocean, then the climate will be less affected by the ocean. If not, then the Pacific will be a major influence. Also to make note of is that the Pacific is much cooler here than the Atlantic is at the same latitudes. The Gulf Stream provides a lot of warmth to the Atlantic whereas the part of the Pacific Current called the California Current provides a cooling affect. What this all means is that a vineyard outside L.A. could be much cooler than one in a more northern and inland part of the state.
Another thing to mention here is something called “degree days.” A. J. Winkler (viticulturist from U.C. Davis) developed a classification system for wine growing areas. There are five regions defined based upon the number of degree days each one has. A degree day is a day where the mean temperature for the day was above 50 degrees F. The amount above 50 is used to give it a value. So if the mean temperature for today was 70 degrees, then today’s value would be 20 degree days. This is expanded for the growing season to get the total. For the Northern Hemisphere this is 4/1 – 10/31. In the Southern Hemisphere it’s 10/1 – 4/30. The regions are broken down as follows:
- 2,500 degree days or less: Region I (similar to Champagne and Rhine regions)
- 2,501–3,000 degree days: Region II (similar to Bordeaux)
- 3,001–3,500 degree days: Region III (similar to Rhône)
- 3,501–4,000 degree days: Region IV (similar to southern Spain)
- Greater than 4,000 degree days: Region V (similar to North Africa)
Outside of California (and Oregon and Washington) the system is not used as much, hence why we haven’t talked about it. However, even within each of these regions there will be variations of climate that will mean that grapes that do better in one region may also do well within a different region as long as the climate is suitable.
While there are over 100 varietals grown here, there are seven main varietals to make note of:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot noir
- Sauvignon blanc
These are the familiar ones of previous lessons. However, every single varietal we have previously mentioned is grown here. Some more than others.
On to the regions. California has 4 main regions:
- North Coast – Includes most of North Coast, California, north of San Francisco Bay. The main areas to know are Napa Valley and Sonoma County and the smaller sub AVAs within them. Mendocino and Lake County are also part of this region.
- Central Coast – Includes most of the Central Coast of California and the area south and west of San Francisco Bay down to Santa Barbara County. The large Central Coast AVA covers the region. Notable wine regions in this area include Santa Clara Valley AVA, Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, San Lucas AVA, Paso Robles AVA, Santa Maria Valley AVA, Santa Ynez Valley and Livermore Valley AVA.
- South Coast – Includes portion of Southern California, namely the coastal regions south of Los Angeles down to the border with Mexico. Notable wine regions in this area include Temecula Valley AVA, Antelope Valley/Leona Valley AVA, San Pasqual Valley AVA and Ramona Valley AVA.
- Central Valley – Includes California’s Central Valley and the Sierra Foothills AVA. Notable wine regions in this area include the Lodi AVA.
Description: California Wine Regions Map
For this lesson we will concentrate on the first one.
There are 4 areas here to cover; Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Medocino, and Lake County. Make sure you get your thinking caps on because we are going to cover a lot of info here.
Mendocino and Lake County
We’ll start with the smallest of the areas first. The Mendocino AVA is the northernmost area for growing wine in California. Much of the area can be very hot, however, as mentioned above there are some areas that are considerable cooler. One in particular is the Anderson Valley AVA where Louis Roederer has taken root for some of the best sparkling wine outside of Champagne. The Anderson Valley is near the Pacific Ocean which accounts for the cooler climate. Other AVAs to remember are:
- Cole Ranch – basically a single winery AVA owned by the Cole family.
- McDowell Valley
- Potter Valley
- Redwood Valley
- Yorkville Highlands
Lake County to the east is the other area to make note of. It’s AVA, Clear Lake, surrounds the lake of the same name. This is the largest fresh water lake wholly in the state and greatly influences the climate. Generally cooler than the areas between it and Anderson Valley (the other AVAs mentioned above), grapes like Sauvignon Blanc tend to do well here.
Public Domain/Creative Commons Mendocino map not available. In fact, pretty much no good maps of the area available 🙁
I did find one of Lake County 🙂
Description: Lake County AVA Map
Wine has been made here for a long time; since 1812. And it also makes a lot of wine. For a very long time, wine from here has been viewed as only good enough for blending and bulk wine. Much like the Central Coast is thought of, except that the wine from here is considered to be better quality.
The county is situated along the Pacific Ocean. To the east is Napa Valley. This means it is generally cooler than Napa. There are 13 AVAs located here. With that many, you can imagine that there are a variety of climates and soils here. That also means many different varietals to grow. Here is a list of the AVAs:
- Alexander Valley – A very prolific area of the county. The main town here is Healdsburg in the northeastern part of the county. Look for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc from here.
- Bennett Valley – one of the county’s newest AVAs.
- Chalk Hill – Well known sub-AVA of the Russian River Valley AVA. No chalk here, however the white soil is from volcanic ash with high amounts of quartzite. Look for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from here.
- Dry Creek Valley – North of the Russian River Valley along the Dry Creek tributary of the Russian River. Varietals mainly grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Green Valley of Russian River Valley – formally known as Sonoma County Green Valley AVA. A sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley AVA. One of the coolest parts (as in temperature) of the Russian River Valley.
- Knights Valley – south of Alexander Valley and bordering Napa. Cabernet Sauvignon is its best known varietal.
- Los Carneros – Sometimes called just Carneros. This AVA is in both the Sonoma County and Napa Valley AVAs. It also has San Pablo Bay to the south to influence its climate. With it being a cooler climate, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do well here. Also several European sparkling wine producers have set up shop here.
- Northern Sonoma – A larger AVA that encompasses most of the county. It contains Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Green Valley, Knights Valley, Russian River, and Rockpile.
- Rockpile – Another newer AVA within the Dry Creek AVA.
- Russian River Valley – Another well known AVA here. In the central part of the county north of Santa Rosa. Fog is a major factor here in keeping a cool climate. It is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Sonoma Coast – Along the coast of the county and down to San Pablo Bay.
- Sonoma Valley – In the southern part of the county. It contains Sonoma Mountain, Los Carneros, and Bennett Valley.
- Sonoma Mountain – A small AVA that has the town of Glen Ellen in it. Many microclimates which allow the planting of many varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Semillon , Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.
Description: Sonoma County AVA Map
It is important to remember all of these AVAs. Obviously some are a bit more well known than others. The quality of wines coming from Sonoma is on the rise and rivals that of Napa Valley in many cases. Wines from here can be a good alternative for the higher priced ones of Napa.
The King of Cali when it comes to wine. Everyone wants to drink Napa wine. It’s some of the most prized from the state and also some of the most expensive. But why? Napa is blessed with some excellent conditions to grow and produce wine. From the soil to the climate, the right conditions are here for almost every major varietal. Most of the southern part of the valley is cooler due to the San Pablo Bay. As you go North the influence of the bay is less. Remember the degree days above? Here they range from Region I to Region III from South to North. Soils range from the very fertile in the south and bottom of the valley to less fertile well-drained and less fertile as you go up the sides of the valley.
Wine grapes were first planted here in 1838 by George Yount. He initially used them for his own wine. Several years later he was producing over 200 gallons of wine. By then other people were coming to the valley to make wine too. After about 40 years 18,000 acres were under vine. That’s more than half of what is planted today. Just like the rest of California, Napa also suffered the same issues of phylloxera and Prohibition.
The modern history of Napa starts with the Robert Mondavi winery. In 1965 Robert Mondavi broke away from Charles Krug estate run by his family. He created a large-scale winery in 1966 becoming the first major winery built in Napa since Prohibition. The next big thing to happen in Napa was the Judgement of Paris. Subject of the excellent movie Bottleshock, Chateau Montelena led the pack of California wines to defeat the French wines in a blind tasting. This greatly improved the reputation of California wines in general, and Napa Valley specifically.
There are 15 AVAs within the Napa Valley AVA. Below is a list of them with some highlights of each:
- Atlas Peak AVA – more than 25% of the entire California Sangiovese crop is planted here.
- Calistoga AVA Newest AVA approved by TTB ( Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) effective 1/7/10
- Chiles Valley AVA – Mostly Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc here. In the Vaca Mountains in the northeastern part of Napa.
- Diamond Mountain District AVA – Cabernet Sauvignon does particularly well here along with Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. Located in the Mayacamas Range in the northeastern part of Napa.
- Howell Mountain AVA – Vineyards are 1400-2200 feet in elevation here with Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay doing the best.
- Los Carneros AVA – The same as Sonoma County Los Carneros. This AVA straddles both counties.
- Mt. Veeder AVA – On the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas range. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon do the best here.
- Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley AVA – In the southern part of Napa Valley, the cooler and moderate climate allow Pinot Noir and Riesling to do particularly well here.
- Oakville AVA – Centered around the town of Oakville, this AVA does very well with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Rutherford AVA – One of the most prestigious sub-appellations, look for Cabernet Sauvignon from here.
- Spring Mountain District AVA – In the Mayacamas mountains near the town of St. Helena. 90% of the wine here is red with most of that being Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
- St. Helena AVA – Centered around the town of St. Helena in the valley between the Vaca and Mayacamas mountains. Home to the Charles Krug winery.
- Stags Leap District AVA – Cabernet Sauvignon is king here. The Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon won in the 1976 Judgement of Paris.
- Wild Horse Valley AVA – Another AVA that straddles two counties; Napa and Solano County. Pinot Noir does well here.
- Yountville AVA – Centered around the town of Yountville named after its founder George Yount. Cabernet Sauvignon from here rivals those from its neighbors Rutherford and Oakville.
Description: Napa Valley AVA Map
OK, so that’s going to wrap it up for this week. This alone is a lot to keep track of. Hopefully the next lesson will focus on the rest of California. It’s beginning to look like my goal of completing everything for the Introductory Sommelier Exam might not be made. It will be close as I have basically decided to take the test in Irving, TX (as opposed to Irvine as the website says – that’s in Cali, guys) in August.
With it sometimes being two weeks between lessons due to day job obligations, personal obligations, and trying to stick with the 1337 Wine TV schedule, the lessons have to take a back seat. 1337 Wine TV is the driving force of the website as far as getting viewers. Sommelier School is the focus more behind the scenes personally for me. I appreciate your patience with all of this. The second half of Cali will be next! Thanks for watching/reading this week’s lesson! I will see all of you next time!
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training