Destination – California Wine Country: Way Beyond Napa

There are five (possibly 6) wine regions in California, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).  For anyone who is familiar with Napa, bear in mind that Napa is part of one region.  California has so much more to offer oenophiles.

In case you didn’t catch Part I,  where I talk about the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California, an AVA is a geographical area in California that is recognized for growing grapes with a terroir (climate, soil, elevation) that is clearly distinguishable from other areas.   California contains over one hundred.  Bring your comfortable walking shoes (and possibly, a driver).  Plan to stay a while… or come back – often. 

There are 5 wine regions in California, defined as follows (North to South):  

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes split into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and including some of my favorite wineries. This region includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

As you can see, there’s a lot of tasting to do if you’re serious about learning more about wine… and don’t get me started on those wine club pyramid schemes with the scattershot approach to ‘educating’ people about wine.  If you want to understand wine, you need to get out there and talk to the experts in the tasting rooms and the vineyards. Corral yourself a half-way experienced wine maker, and you’ll learn more in twenty minutes than a decade of getting sloshed on mediocre wine. Admit it, those parties are just a way to get to know people, and for a few people to make a few bucks. Nothing wrong with that; but the real deal is out here in the countryside.  

In Part One I did a light brush over the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California.  Each of these areas is worth a much deeper exploration, but this is a blog, designed to give people who don’t live here a some idea of what else California wineries have to offer in case they were thinking of making the trip. If you live in California, and are just now realizing there may be more on offer than Napa, all the better.  (I don’t hate Napa, seriously… there’s just SO MUCH more)  

This segment is dedicated to the Central Valley (where I presently live), and the Central Coast.  In other words, the middle of California.  If you want to put it into perspective, that means we’re south/southeast of the Bay Area, and north/northeast of Los Angeles. 

Central Valley

Despite being virtually invisible as far as wine connoisseurs are concerned, the Central Valley is massive, producing nearly three-quarters of the state’s grapes and 90% of the wine sold in the US.  This area includes Sacramento, Yolo, San Joaquin, Madera, Stanislaus, and Fresno counties.  This is where most table wine sold in the United States is grown, fermented, bottled, and shipped.  E&J Gallo is headquartered in Modesto, California.  Gallo owns most of the brands you pick up at the grocery store, drug store, or drive thru liquor store.  Yep.  Barefoot Wine.  Apothic. Boons Farm.  Carnivor. Columbia.  Copper Ridge.  You can check out the Gallo site for a full list of their portfolio of wineries. It’s seriously impressive. 

Just north of Modesto, in Manteca, California you will find Delicato Family Vineyard’s tasting room.  Odds are good if the wine you just bought for the holiday table wasn’t produced by Gallo, it was produced by Delicato.  You can find their list of brands here.    Gnarly Head.  Bota Box.  Noble Vines.  Twisted… and more.  

In addition to the wine power houses of Gallo and Delicato, the Central Valley includes Lodi , which according to a recent count, is home to a whopping 85 wineries.  A lot of grapes are grown up there, but they take special pride in their Zins.  Easy driving distance from Sacramento and the Bay Area, Lodi is an area coming into its own in the last few decades.  If you dream of owning a vineyard and making great wine, Lodi still has some good deals on land.   

Sadly underestimated are some Central Valley wineries that should be on any wine lover’s map.  Mark Lucchesi, from a multi-generational family of peach growers, took on wine making as a later in life career and has been making some absolutely phenomenal wines at Lucca Winery in Ripon, California. 

He sources his grapes from many areas, including Napa where his brother has been growing fruit in the family tradition, and it shows in the complexity and variety of his product.  The tasting room is homey and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. If you love fancy marble counters and lots of gift shop stuff… go elsewhere.  If you are looking for some terrific wine, a relaxed atmosphere, great values, and a labor of love, stop on by. 

Then head a few minutes down the road to downtown Modesto for a terrific meal.  My wife and I love the Divine Swine in the College area (about 3 minutes from downtown)… but Ralston’s Goat, Fuzio Universal Bistro, Concetta’s, Monsoon, and Harvest Moon have all made us very happy.  

Central Coast

Aaaaand THIS is where it all comes together.

The NORTH CENTRAL COAST includes the Livermore Valley (south-east of the Bay Area), the Santa Cruz Mountains (just north of the Bay Area), Monterey (south of the bay area) and Carmel Valley… with a dotting of other AVAs in that general vicinity.

The Santa Cruz area is eclectic in many ways, and the wineries there are no exception. If you enjoy a side of soul searching and spirituality with whatever else you might want to do on a trip (biking, hiking, ecstatic dance, dining, yoga, and of course wine tasting), this might be a destination for you.

The Livermore Valley has a historic tradition starting from the early 1880’s. This region hosts a number of varietals but Chardonnay grapes have the oldest lineage, and in fact most of California Chardonnays can be traced genetically to this area. This area is also close to the Winchester Mansion, which is well worth the visit, and a great deal of shopping including a sizeable outlet mall.

Monterey, right on the coastline, wasn’t taken seriously in the wine industry until the 1950’s when Bay Area housing demand began chewing up the winery real estate in the Livermore and Santa Clara Valleys. Because of the cooler coastal terroir, this area is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. If you love wine, seafood, and deep sea fishing, this might be an area to explore.

The SOUTH CENTRAL COAST contains the area of San Luis Obispo County, the Paso Robles area, and Santa Barbara County.

I won’t lie. I have favorites. I’ve found the wines from the Edna Valley (north of Los Angeles) to be unpredictable because this is chock full of micro-climates. This makes it hard to predict how a particular bottle of wine is going to taste based on the location. However the ocean breezes in Edna Valley and the cool foggy hills of Arroyo Grande pretty much guarantee some decent Rhone blends, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noirs.

Santa Barbara County (also up the coast from Los Angeles) is a fabulous place to come eat, shop at boutiques, and enjoy a stroll along the coastline. Made famous by the 2004 movie, ‘Sideways’, it reminds me of the San Louis Obispo county wines with its many micro climates and unpredictable products.

If you’re looking for some serious wine making with quality grapes and interesting wines, my pick is the Paso Robles area. This is one of California’s oldest wine growing areas with plenty of hills and valleys for gorgeous vistas, photogenic ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, and tons of impressive wine tasting facilities. This is where you go for the wine tchotchkes and fancy tasting rooms. Check out EOS for the best views around. Because of these hills, the area is protected from the coastal winds and marine fog, making the grape harvest more consistent. Another factor is ‘dry farming’. Paso Robles, in the middle of a state that frequently suffers from drought, hosts a great many vineyards with established vines acclimated to very little water, in the French tradition. This creates denser flavor in the grapes, producing what is sometimes know as the “fruit forward” taste. Between the agricultural demands and the climate, Paso Robles wines are distinctive.

The wine tasting fees are often waived with the purchase of a bottle, and the bottles are reliably well-worth the price. The area remains a bit casual – which means friendly, not terribly expensive, and seriously focused on what they want to be known for… which is wine. Their annual Zin Fest on the square is an event not to be missed. There is a fabulous art cooperative and a number of terrific restaurants around the downtown (old town) square, and a store (We Olive) that specializes in flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars that is well worth the stop. While you can get a room at a Marriott Courtyard, my bet is on one of the local AirBnBs (etc) which tend to be more personal and interesting.

If you’re in this area to taste wine, I highly recommend J&J Wineries, J. Lohr (you will find them in the grocery store, but the tasting room offers a much broader and intriguing range), Chronic (developed and run by the sons of the owner of Peachy Canyon), Opolo, Cypher, Hug Cellars, and Starr Ranch. I can’t begin to cover all the amazing wineries there, so be prepared to discover a broad range of wine makers from Peachy Canyon on one end of the price range, to Turley and Justin on the other. The tasting rooms vary significantly, but the quality of the wines and passion of the wine makers is consistent.

California wines, so full of surprises that it would be impossible to cover them all. So pick an area, think of other activities that would make your trip memorable, and stay for a while.

What about you? Where have you been that you can’t forget? What wine club is your favorite, and why? Teach me something!

2 thoughts on “Destination – California Wine Country: Way Beyond Napa

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