Wines of Worth – California’s AVAs







The Vancouver International Wine Festival kicks off next week, meaning it’s full on GO time for every wine professional in Vancouver and environs. Wine professionals travel from across Canada and in from around the world for the event, regarded as one of the top wine festivals in the world. 2013 is the festival’s 35th anniversary, and features 175 wineries from 15 countries pouring 1,850 wines at 55 events to a projected 25,000 guests. There are still tickets to some events available – in particular, to the International Festival Tasting Room. The heart of the festival, this year shows 763 wines on offer to the public running Thursday through Saturday evenings. More than 900 additional wines are served at special events, which include the Bacchanalia Gala Dinner + Auction, wine seminars, wine minglers, winery dinners, and lunches and brunches.

This year’s theme region is California, and since you’ll be seeing and tasting a large amount of California wines throughout the week I wanted to provide a road map to some highlights of the undeniably most Golden State. 1300km of coastline exposes western vineyards to Mother Nature’s air conditioning via fog and Pacific ocean breezes, cooling the hot California temperatures enough to accommodate cool-climate friendly grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In sites with little or no ocean influence, many winemakers are using higher altitude sites to keep grapes protected from summer temperatures. Soils are very diverse, due to California’s evolution through millennia of shifting and thrusting plate tectonics. This soil diversity is one of the reasons why California has so many different and distinct winegrape growing areas, or American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). There are over 100 officially designated AVA’s in California, and it can be confusing to wrap your head around them all as many large AVA’s envelop smaller ones and some even overlap. As a basic framework to set your compass to and help you navigate the bottles you’ll encounter next week, I’ve listed California’s main AVA’s, as well as the smaller areas that fall within them.


The coolest wine growing region in the state, and home to more than half of California’s wineries, including the most famous.

 Napa Valley

  • Produces 4% of all California wine
  • Includes 16 AVA’s and 600 wineries, the most concentrated in the States
  • Gained international attention by taking top honours at the Judgement of Paris in 1976
  • Grapes first planted in 1838
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is King
  • Home to Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Stags Leap, Yountville, Mt. Veeder, Atlas Peak.

Sonoma County

  • Though often thought of as little sibling to Napa, Sonoma was actually planted to grapes earlier – in 1812
  • Includes 13 AVA’s and 500 wineries
  • Home to Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley

Mendocino County

  • Hotbed for organic, biodynamic and sustainable viticulture
  • Contains 10 AVA’s and 100 wineries
  • First planted in 1850’s
  • Home to Anderson Valley, Mendocino, Redwood Valley

Los Carneros

  • Straddles Napa and Sonoma, granted AVA status in 1983
  • Recognized for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir


Centred, at least symbolically, by San Francisco, with the first grapes planted in the state here. Franciscan monks were the first to cultivate grapes in the late 1700’s.

San Luis Obispo County 

  • Home to Paso Robles, the states fasted growing wine region, and home to the fabled Rhone Rangers
  • Known for Syrah and Viognier, as well as Pinot Noir
  • Also home to Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande Valley

Paso Robles

  • First vineyards here in 1790’s
  • Over 180 wineries
  • 80% red grapes here

Santa Cruz Mountains 

  • Vineyards up to 800 metres, one of California’s first AVA’s

Monterey County

  • Contains 9 AVA’s and 16,000 hectares under vine
  • Home to Carmel Valley, San Antonia Valley, San Lucas, Santa Lucia Highlands

Livermore Valley

  • First planted in 1840’s, and first site in California to label Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc as single varieties.

Santa Barbara County

  • Though propelled into fame through the 2004 movie Sideways, the area has been growing grapes since 1782
  • Miles would be happy to know that nearly one quarter of all grapes grown here are Pinot Noir
  • Contains 4 AVA’s, and 175 wineries
  • Home to Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills



California’s largest wine region stretches for 480 km from the Sacramento Valley south to the San Joaquin Valley. This one region produces nearly 75% of all California wine grapes and includes many of California’s bulk, box and jug wine. That doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of premium and boutique winemaking however. A move towards quality has lead to a rebranding – watch for Inland Valleys to gradually replace the Central Valley.


  • Home to some of California’s top old vine Zinfandels

San Joaquin Valley

  • The largest winegrowing region in the state, and planted to vine for more than 100 years

Madera County

  • The heat contributes to this region’s renown for dessert and fortified wines



Marked by dramatic landscapes like nearby Yosemite National Park, these very old wine growing region is rooted in the gold rush and wild west.

Amador County 

  • First planted in the 1800’s, the area is known for old vine Zinfandel, Barbera, Surah, Sangiovese and Viognier


So.Cal is not all movie stars and beaches (though that does count for a lot). This is also a historic grape growing region, with great diversity in grapes and altitude.

San Diego County

  • Home to the state’s oldest grapes, at Mission San Diego de Alcala, in 1769
  • Home to a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard at 1300 metres – the highest vineyard elevation in California

Temecula Valley

  • Making wine since the late 1700’s
  • Now home to 30 wineries and known for Italian and Rhone grapes

For more information on California AVA’s, grapes and history, visit

Written By:

Treve Ring is a wine writer, editor, judge, consultant and certified sommelier, and has been with EAT Magazine for over a decade.\r\n\r\nIn addition to her work with EAT, she is a Wine Critic and National Judge for ...

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