An appellation is an officially recognized geographically defined region for growing grapes. The practice originated in France as a way to ensure quality of wines produced in specific regions. The French system regulates the grape varieties that may be grown in a specific appellation, how vines may be planted, what yields are permitted and other aspects of wine making. The thought behind the appellation system embraces the notion of terroir: the impact of a region’s soil, climate, sun, water quality, and geography acting in concert to produce a wine of unique and irreproducible character. Appellations range in size: from very small single vineyards to vast expanses of land spanning hundreds of miles.
In the U.S. appellations are formally called American Viticultural Areas or AVAs. This system is less strict than the French (or other European) systems. Established by Congress in 1978, it was administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), until 2003 when it was assigned to the newly formed Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The AVA system assures consumers that the wine they are drinking originates from a specific winemaker and growing area. However, unlike the French system, the AVA system requires only 85% of the grapes used come from within that specified AVA (in most cases). This is different from the requirements pertaining to labeling wines as varietals. Such wines must contain a minimum of 75% of the grape variety indicated on the label (in most cases). The AVA system also does not limit the regions in the types of grapes grown, or regulate growing or winemaking practices.
Below are the major Californian AVAs with focus placed on the Central Coast.
Hames Valley: (AVA). Located at the southernmost part of the Salinas
Valley, Hames Valley lies at the foot of the Santa Lucia mountain
range. The 2,000-acre AVA was awarded sub-appellation status in 1994.
It has a warmer climate than average growing regions with consisting
primarily of shale and loam. Bordeaux varieties are dominant here.
These do better in this warmer part of the Monterey AVA than in its
northern end. Additionally, port varieties such as: Verdelho, Souzao,
Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional are grown in this region. AVA Map.
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Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara: (AVA). Located in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, this 23,941-acre appellation has about 500 acres under vine. The region received formal sub-appellation status on October 8, 2009. This second sub-appellation of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA rests against the foothills of the San Rafael mountains east of Highway 154 and North of Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez River. Its inland location, at the eastern most end of the Santa Ynez valley, results in very warm temperatures but somewhat varied microclimates, depending on elevation. In general, increasing elevation is accompanied by decreasing diurnal variation in temperatures as both daytime and nighttime temperatures are lower than those at lower elevations.
Because much of the AVA rests on large alluvial fans, the soils vary in composition and depth. This results in two major types of soils in the AVA which are related to topography. In the uplands, well-draining, shaly clay loams and silty clays dominate. Some high terraces may be typified by excessively draining sands to clay loams. Alluvial soils dominated by decomposed serpentine and chert are predominant at lower elevations and on bottoms of canyons.
The first vineyard to be planted in the area was McGinley (originally, Westerly) Vineyard, which was planted in 1996. Happy Canyon' rolling terrain, high slopes and varied soils are felt to be the best area in the Central Coast for growing Bordeaux varieties. With critical recognition validating this bet, the region's growers have emphasized Bordeaux varieties, though the main Rhône varieties are also well-represented. The flagship varieties of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara are: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah are abundant. There is also some Malbec, Petit Verdot and Sangiovese.
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Lime Kiln Valley: (AVA). Home only to Enz Vineyards, the Lime Kiln Valley AVA consists of 2,330 acres with about 100 acres of the 298-acre Enz ranch in the Cienega Valley under vine. Soils here are composed of primarily sand, gravel, loam, and (of course) limestone. This relatively hot and isolated area in the Cienega Valley received AVA status in 1982. The varieties grown include: Orange Muscat, Mourvédre, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
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Livermore Valley: (AVA). Named after English sailor Robert Livermore, who planted the first commercial vineyards in 1844, the Livermore Valley was one of the original AVAs established in 1982 by the BATF. To this day, two of the most historic vineyards in the state, Wente and Concannon, are still prominent fixtures in the California winescape. Like in so many other California appellations, viticulture in the Livermore Valley dates back to 1760s when Spanish Missionaries planted the first vineyards. However, today, the Livermore Valley is an intermingling of wine country and suburbia. Some 30 miles east of Oakland, the valley runs in an east-west direction spanning an area roughly 10 miles by 15 miles. Marine winds from San Francisco Bay sweep in and cool over 5,000 acres of vines on well-drained, gravely soils. Livermore Valley is famous for its white Bordeaux varieties: Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Additionally, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel are planted in the valley.
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Lodi: (AVA). The Lodi AVA, in the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley, covers over 500,000 acres about 100 miles east of San Francisco. Stretching, north to south, from the Sacramento River Delta to the Sierra Foothills, this appellation has some 90,000 acres under vine on generally deep, loam and sand soils peppered with large stones. The climate is said to resemble the Mediterranean region with warm days contrasted by cool evenings due to a cool winds moving in from the Sacramento River Delta. In fact, this unique climatic feature makes the Lodi AVA the coolest in the whole San Joaquin Valley. The history of viticulture in the Lodi AVA dates back to the gold rush of the 1850s. Zinfandel and Tokay were the staples of viticulture then and Lodi is said to have some of the oldest and Zinfandel Vines. Over the decades, Zinfandel has persisted but Tokay was replaced by Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Merlot, Petite Syrah, and Syrah.
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Los Alamos Valley: Although not yet an officially recognized AVA, the Los Alamos Valley straddles Highway 101 around the town of Los Alamos ('The Cottonwoods' in Spanish) from north of Lompoc (in the west) to just past Cat Canyon where the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley AVAs meet at Foxen Canyon Road (to the east). Its northern boundary is defined by the Solomon Hills and in the south by the Purisima Hills (a boundary it shares with the Sta. Rita Hills AVA). This valley lies essentially in an east-west orientation between the two established appellations. Its intermediate geographic location makes for an intermediate climate. The temperatures here are on average 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in the Santa Maria Valley and 10 degrees cooler than in the Santa Ynez Valley. Although subject to a strong marine influence, the Los Alamos Valley does not necessarily get hotter from west to east end. Parts of Cat Canyon, in the valley's eastern end, can experience very cold temperatures. White Hawk vineyard has seen snow and frost in the past (as have parts of Ballrd canyon) although that is a once-in-50-years occurrence. The total acreage of the Los Alamos Valley and acreage under vine is not readily available, it is greater than that of any other established AVAs in Santa Barbara County (Santa Maria Valley's 7,500 acres being the largest). The soils in the Los Alamos Valley are generally well-draining (some vineyards are located on top of ancient sand dunes). The valley is home to small and large vineyards alike. The more notable local names with vineyards or wineries in the valley are: Babcock Vineyards, Bedford Thompson Winery and Vineyard, Chimere, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, Melville, Mosby Winery, Sanford Winery & Vineyards, White Hawk and White Horse. In addition, large concerns like Beringer & Meridian, Kendall Jackson and Sutter Home have substantial holdings in the valley. While a broad spectrum varieties is being grown here, the inside buzz is that this area may be the next hottest source of great Syrah.
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Madera County: (AVA). Madera County is in California's Central Valley. While our focus is on the central coast, we acknowledge that winemakers in the North Coast and Central Coast will source fruit from outside their appellations. The valley experiences a hot growing region, winters are very cold, allowing the vines to enter dormancy. Over 38,000 acres are planted to wine grapes used, for the most part, in 'jug wines'. Nonetheless, reputable dessert wines and Ports are made from grapes grown in Madera.
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Monterey: (AVA). A huge AVA located on the eastern side of Monterey County includes the entire Salinas Valley, and part of Carmel Valley. The Salinas Valley is one of the country’s most important agricultural assets. The valley’s mouth opens onto Monterey Bay and allows cooling fog to rolls in between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges. While the fog cools the valley early in the morning, a cool winds sweeps through in the middle of the day. As a result, temperatures rarely exceed 75 F. Only the southernmost microclimates, in the hillsides, get warmer. There is minimal annual rainfall in this region. That, combined with sandy soils, makes it potentially arid but the Salinas River provides ample irrigation. The region has one of the world’s longest growing seasons, which allows for wines from grapes grown in the Monterey AVA to have great balance. AVA Map.
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Monterey County: (AVA). A large wine growing region located in California’s Central Coast which was developed in the early 1960s and quickly gained prominence shortly thereafter. Touting cool climate wine growing regions, it spans 40,000 vineyard acres along an 80-mile long valley at the county’s eastern edge. This AVA includes seven distinct sub-regions: Arroyo Seco, Carmel Valley, Chalone, Hames Valley, the large Monterey AVA encompassing the Salinas Valley, San Bernabe (awarded AVA status in 2004), San Lucas and the Santa Lucia Highlands. AVA Map.
Mount Harlan: (AVA). At elevations of 1,800 to 2,200 feet, the Mt. Harlan AVA is a rugged 7,400-acre area in the Gabilan Mountains. A sub-appellation of San Benito County, the AVA is the fruit of hard labor on the part of Josh Jensen, whose Calera Wine Company is the only winery in the AVA. Located on Mt. Harlan, in the northern end of the Gabilan Mountains, Jensen's vineyards (100 acres) are scattered in closely grouped blocks at 2,200 feet above sea level. At high altitudes, the limestone soils of the steep slopes along with a dry and cool climate (Region-I, owing to cool marine winds directly from Monterey Bay) result in a long growing season that emulates the terroir of Burgundy. Specializing in Pinot Noir, Calera also produces Chardonnay and Viognier.
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Napa (Napa Valley): (AVA) A leading wine growing region in Northern California. Part of the larger North Coast AVA, it sits between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains. 30 miles long and five miles wide, it has 43,000 acres of some of the world’s most expensive agricultural land planted to vines. Cool winds and fog from San Pablo Bay benefit this region, where daily temperatures differ by as much as 15 degrees between north and south. Within this spectrum are many unique microclimates with their own AVA designations. These include: Atlas Peak, Carneros, Chiles Valley, Diamond Mountain District, Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain District, St. Helena, Stags Leap, Wild Horse Valley, Yountville.
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North Coast: (AVA) A vast appellation encompassing all the counties north of San Francisco: Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Solano. This region covers over 3,000,000 acres. The AVAs of the area share a climate influenced by cool air and fog from the Pacific Ocean resulting in cool temperatures and high annual rainfall. There region grows premium grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. These tend to be produced in high volume, and as such elude vineyard designation.
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Paicines: (AVA). Located within the San Benito County AVA, this 4,500-acre region bounded to the west by the Gabilan Mountains and the San Benito River and the Panoche Valley to the east. Despite lower elevations (from 500 to 1,200 feet above sea level) the area is cooled by the cool marine air passing over the Monterey Valley and through gaps in the the Gabilan Mountains on its way to the San Joaquin Valley. This Climate Region II AVA is warmer than the Cienega Valley and Lime Kiln and Mount Harlan AVAs - its western neighbors. The various soil types share the general trait of being well-draining. Home to five vineyards and two wineries, this AVA grows Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc.
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Paso Robles: (AVA). The largest AVA in San Luis Obispo County, it has 26,000 acres planted to wine grapes, mostly in the eastern portion of the AVA. The entire appellation, founded in 1983, covers 614,000 acres. The northern boundary follows the county boundaries where San Luis Obispo and Monterey County meet. The eastern boundary follows the Diablo and Temblor mountain ranges which meet near Shandon and Cholame, and separate Paso Robles from the California's central San Joaquin Valley. The southern boundary can be said to loosely parallel Highway 58 east from Santa Margarita to somewhere near San Juan Creek. The Santa Lucia mountain range blocks the marine fog which cools the other AVAs in San Luis Obispo’s southern portion and forms the appellation's western boundary. There is a distinct difference in climate between the eastern and western portions of the AVA. The western end experiences temperatures in excess of 90 degrees F in the daytime and cool ocean breezes in the evenings while the eastern portion is much warmer and more arid. The rainy season typically occurs from November to April, whic reduces the possibility of damaged crops. By available reports, when data was being collected by U.C Davis investigators to determine Paso's Climate Region, the thermometer was located at the airport, which is about 10 degrees hotter than the western end of the AVA. There have been 45 different soil types identified in Paso Robles, they all share the general traits of being nutrient-rich, moderately deep, slightly alkaline and calcareous with shale underlying sandy loam, limestone, clay, gravel and chalky elements. These soils can vary from row to row and it is difficult to identify trends or patterns at this time. Greater clarity may be gained after the 11 different sub-appellation petitions currently on the table are resolved. Paso Robles is rapidly gaining attention, internationally, and making their name as a leader in California viticulture. It is famous for its distinctive wines, such as structured Cabernet Sauvignon and juicy Zinfandel. Paso Robles is also home to a number of Rhône Rangers whose strength Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Viognier. The wines grown in the eastern portion of the AVA are usually full bodied, rich in fruit and display soft tannins and lower acidity than those from the more sparsely planted western portion. As a result, western Paso Robles wines are felt to be more age worthy, while those from the eastern end are more approachable while young. The huge AVA (map) is undergoing much change and petitions have been submitted to the TTB seeking the formation of 11 sub-regions (map).
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