Arguably the most famous American wine region, most wine lovers who have not had the pleasure of Napa's hills and valleys may be surprised to find out how small Napa actually is. Napa has just under 40,000 acres under vine and it only produces about 5% of all wine made in California. Napa Valley reminds that sometimes it is quality, not quantity, that's important. At the time of this writing there are less than 500 wineries in Napa, though there are well over 1000 growers.
Napa features many of the more popular international varietals like: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, but the undisputed champion of grapedom what many wine lovers perceive as the king of all grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa features many of the most famous Cabernet regions on the planet, including Yountville, Stags Leap, Rutherford, Oakville, Calistoga, Mount Veder and Spring Mountain.
A little north of Napa is Sonoma, the second most famous region in California. Sonoma is known for a variety of climates, and its Russian River Valley is one of the coolest regions in California. Russian River is marked by maritime influence and fog is often present, resulting in consistent cloud cover. Russian River boasts some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California. Some of the other famous regions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma are: Green Valley and Carneros. Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, and Anderson Valley boast numerous opportunities for top flight Zinfandel, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Perhaps the most famous part of Sonoma is the Carneros region, which straddles the Sonoma and Napa County lines. Carneros is known mostly for still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though wine lovers should not have been surprised by the wave of investment from sparkling wine producers in the last twenty years, many from Champagne itself. Because Pinot and Chardonnay are Carneros' natural strengths, and because of the oft windy conditions that slow the ripening process, Carneros can produce wines that are ideal base wines for sparkling wine production.
The dry, still wines of Carneros consist mostly of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Syrah and Merlot are also becoming more popular. Carneros Pinot Noir is usually fruit forward, friendly, and ripe with medium to full body without the minerality of Russian River Valley Pinots. Chardonnay can vary from crisp and clean, to full and dry with apple, citrus, butter and hazelnuts.
South of San Francisco Bay
The area south of the bay has numerous regions, some put on the map because of the famous wineries. One such region is the Santa Cruz Mountains, home of Ridge Vineyards. While Ridge is famous for its Zinfandels, Ridge's superstar Cabernet blend called Montebello calls the Santa Cruz Mountains home. The Monterey AVA is also important here as it encompasses all of the Arroyo Seco, Carmel Valley, and Chalone AVAs. Chardonnay is generally the mainstay of all these appellations, though Arroyo Seco grows delicious Riesling. The Chalone AVA grows famous, world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. While it overlooks Arroyo Seco, the Chalone AVA enjoys different climate, more fog and calcerous soils.
Between Monterey and Santa Barbara are the appellations of California's Southern Central Coast, namely: Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley. Paso Robles has had particular success with Zinfandel and Rhone varietals like Grenache and Syrah. Edna Valley is a Chardonnay stalwart, with some producers also excelling with Rhone varietals. Santa Maria provides a cool climate that is ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even Syrah. Santa Maria is home to the famed Bien Nacido vineyard, which is seen on various labels. Santa Ynez offers great potential for high acid white grape production like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, but is already producing great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
About 75% of the wine produced in California is produced in the Central Valley. The biggest reason for this fact is E and J Gallo, in Modesto. The Central Valley is hot. Central Valley grows Sultana, Rubired, Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot Chardonnay, Grenache and Colombard among other things. The most famous AVAs in this region are: Lodi, Clarksburg, Amador and the Sierra Foothills. Lodi and Amador have long been famous for heady Zinfandels and are becoming more noted for Rhone varietals, particularly Syrah and Grenache. Clarksburg, on the other hand has gained high acclaim for its whites, especially Chenin Blanc.
"Enticing notes of ripe plums and berries weave through the aromas and silky flavors of our Woodbridge Merlot. Nuances of spices and toasty vanilla, from aging in small oak barrels, linger on the soft finish."
"A sensory overload of ripe fruits and savory garden herbs that overwhelms the nose. Summer plums and sweet cherries create a full entry and even bigger mouthfeel than lingers and languishes with the toasty vanilla from the American oak barrels. Remaining silky and smooth in texture, the wine finishes with sturdy tannins."
"A delicious blend of full-bodied Merlot and natural blackberry flavors, two tastes join forces for an unexpected favorite. Tantalizing!."
"Refined and subtle, Pinot Noir is a reminder that a red wine need not be highly extracted to be enjoyable. We play up the natural tendencies of the grape to display medium red color, light body, firm acidity, varietally appropriate aromas and flavors (red currant, raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, cola) and use a gentle hand with the French oak used in aging."
"Bright blackberry and cherry fruit balanced with toasty American oak."
"This Merlot opens with aromas of red currant, vanilla and baking spices. On the palate you'll find flavors of raspberry, blackberry and cola with round tannins softened by seven months of aging in French and American oak."
"Fruit aromas of blackcurrant and raspberry join with fragrant notes of nutmeg, thyme and lavender; big and luscious mouthfeel with rich tannins lead to a lasting finish. This refreshing, fruity Pinot Noir is wonderfully versatile on the table and can be served with a wide range of foods, including pork, chicken, lamb and wild salmon."
"Appealing aromas of black cherry, earth and a touch of vanilla. Plush tannins and balanced acidity support core flavors of ripe Bing cherry, bittersweet cocoa powder, and delicate hints of sage. Enjoy on its own or with salmon, Veal Parmesan or grilled lamb."
"Made from Syrah, Tempranillo, and Grenache, this wine is big, rich and complex. The aromas carry through to the palate; raspberry, blueberry pie, tobacco, maple syrup, soy sauce, crushed autumn leaves, and black pepper are all wrapped up in a nicely structured package. It has a meaty, earthy component, and bold chewy tannins. The finish is full and fleshy, long and silky."
"Intense wild berry and mocha flavors are accented by black cherry, currant, and anise notes. Well-structured yet subtle tannins create a luxuriously smooth mouthfeel followed by a complex, rich, and elegant finish."