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.
"91 Pts. WS. Plush, with loads of richness to the well-honed flavors of beeswax, baked pear and lemon tart. Minerally midpalate, presenting a fresh and zesty finish that finishes with pastry notes. Drink now through 2020."
"90 pts WA - The outstanding 2012 Merlot is composed of 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon aged 18 months in 40% new French oak. There are 5,350 cases. It exhibits a classic Merlot bouquet of coffee beans, white chocolate, mocha, black cherries and plums. This lush, heady, sexy, medium to full-bodied Merlot can be consumed over the next 7-8 years."
"It's a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The touch of Cabernet Franc enhances the berry flavors while keeping the tannins elegant and the mouthfeel balanced.This is an incredibly enjoyable Merlot delivering a classic California fruit forwardness with a sophisticated and well-layered character not found in wine at this price."
"Lively and vivacious, aromas suggest jasmine tea, lime, green pear and wet cement minerality. The palate blends the welcoming flavors of orange blossoms with cut-grass herbaciousness and chalky minerals."
"92 Points- Wine Enthusiast. Blended with 19% Petite Sirah and 3% Carignane, from vines averaging 50-plus-years of age, this is a bold and brambly wine, laced in elegance. Coffee, leather and a taste of caramel are seasoned in allspice and black pepper, as persistent, sinewy tannins provide weight and heft."
"Charming with bright berry flavors that are full-bodied. Brewed tea, spice and cider notes come together with chewy tannins on the finish. Drink now through 2012."
"Organically Grown! Rich cherry and currant aromas with hints of cola , berry, oak-spice, and vanilla. In the mouth, balance & softness are apparent, yet with ripe tannins, rich cherry & currant flavors are highlighted."
"Medium-bodied Chardonnay with pineapple, soft vanilla, and notes of creamy,toasted oak with a long, lingering finish."
"91Points Wine Enthusiast. This is a delightfully fresh yet creamy wine that delivers a spectrum of styles and flavors. Anise and tart apple notes accent the floral-driven experience, unfettered by oak, which plays but a supporting role."