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.
San Antonio Valley: (AVA). Approved by the TTB in July of 2006, the San Antonio Valley AVA is located in the southernmost part of Monterey County at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. This AVA is situated west of the San Bernabe, San Lucas and Hames Valley appellations. Nestled in a valley between lesser hills of the Santa Lucia Range to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, this AVA currently has some 800 acres of vineyards planted (at elevations ranging form 980 to 1300 feet) to more than 20 varieties. Viticulture here dates back to the 18th Century. At that time, it was centered around the San Antonio de Padua mission. This valley is significantly warmer than the Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco AVAs to the north. The region is subject to a small evening marine influence in the form of breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The main cooling effect comes from the morning from fog generated by Lake San Antonio. Notwithstanding those influences, the climate generally resembles that of Paso Robles, the adjacent AVA to the south This warm climate is suited to Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. AVA Map.
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San Benito County: (AVA). 300 miles north of Los Angeles and about 100 miles south of San Francisco, this AVA covers almost 1,300 square miles. It is framed by the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties to the north Merced and Fresno counties to the south and Monterey County to the west. The vineyards in this region range in elevation from just above sea level to over 5,000 feet. Although generally moderate (attributable to the ability of cool air from the Pacific Ocean cto enter through gaps in the Gabilan and the Santa Lucia mountains) the climate in this inland appellation is quite varied. Along with soil differences, there are enough diverse microclimates to warrant 4 sub-appellations: Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln Valley, Mt. Harlan and Paicines). The region grows: Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvedre, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel.
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San Bernabe: (AVA). Located in the southern portion of Monterey County, this AVA was recognized in 2004. In the process of its creation, 1,300 acres were removed from the San Lucas AVA and added to this new AVA to avoid breaking up the San Bernabe vineyard (the largest continuous vineyard in the world) which makes up most of this AVA. This vineyard belongs to the Indelicatio family who were instrumental in the creation of this AVA. Their current San Bernabe Vineyard consists of approximately 4,000 acres planted to vine. The AVA is characterized by multiple mesoclimates with annual temperatures comparable to some regions of Napa Valley. The temperatures in the large San Berenabe vineyard itself can vary by as much as 5 degrees (from north to south ends) owing largely to wind, fog and chilling sea air (cooled by the Monterey Canyon, an undersea feature in Monterey Bay the size of the Grand Canyon). These cold air currents are held in place over this AVA by warmer air coming from warmer inland areas such as Paso Robles creating temperature differentials as great as 50 degrees between day and night and resulting in a growing season, sometimes longer by several weeks than other California grape growing regions. This can result in different blocks of grapes maturing a month apart. With over 75 years of grape growing tradition, the vineyard produces Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Lagrein, Merlot, Negrette, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, White Riesling and Valdiguié. AVA Map.
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San Luis Obispo County: (AVA). Located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the county is home to several AVAs which have developed independently but share the geographic feature of east-west running valleys. Since 1990, total vine plantings have grown to now cover some 26,400 acres. There is a significant maritime influence of Pacific winds and coastal fogs on this region’s climate. Cooling marine air enters through the east-west running valleys and leads to a long growing season resulting in intense, complex flavors. This puts San Luis Obispo wines in the company of the world’s greatest. The region includes four AVAs: Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley, Paso Robles and York Mountain – all of which tout their own terroirs and microclimates. The York Mountain AVA lies in the northernmost part of the San Luis Obispo AVA and is home to just one winery. Paso Robles, protected from most of the coastal influence by the Santa Lucia Mountains, is San Luis Obispo’s warmest AVA. Wine growing is not new to San Luis Obispo as it was brought to the region by Spanish missionaries several centuries ago. The region’s wine growing industry was revitalized in the early 1970s, in Edna Valley with the total number of wineries currently approaching 90. However, Paso Robles has risen to greatest prominence. The most common varietals grown in the San Luis Obispo region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier and Zinfandel. This large AVA is also home to a number or Rhône Rangers growing Rhône varietals.
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San Lucas: (AVA). Located at the southern end of the Salinas Valley in Monterey, it is framed by the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range to the west and Chalone Hills to the east. Less than 8,000 acres are planted to under vine, particularly after some 1,300 of its acres were reassigned to the newly formed San Bernabe AVA, to the north in 2004. Vineyards in this relatively hot growing region sit at elevations between 500 and 1,200 feet. Ocean winds and fog are less influential here than they are in the other, cooler, Monterey AVAs. Still, the San Lucas AVA still experiences the state’s largest diurnal temperature variations. The staples of viticulture here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. AVA Map.
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Santa Barbara County: (AVA). Historically, the most prominent AVA in the Central Coast, it encompasses three smaller officially recognized AVAs, (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Ynez Valley) all touting distinct microclimates and terroirs. A fourth region located between the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys, is Los Alamos. This area does not yet have AVA status. Santa Barabara County’s east-west valleys (framed by the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains) and proximity to the ocean make for excellent wine growing conditions. Spanning 50 miles from Point Conception to Rincon is the longest east-west traverse of shoreline along the whole western seaboard of the two American continents. There are nearly 100 wineries and vineyards over 21,000 acres of vines. Viticulture in Santa Barbara began in the 18th century with Spanish missionaries planting vines for sacramental wine, but it was not until the 1960s, when UC Davis enologists designated the area as a premier wine growing region, that commercial viticulture began its rise to global prominence. Less than half of the grapes grown in the region are used locally. More than half of annually produced grapes are sold to wineries outside the County at some of the highest prices in California. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been the flagship varietals of the county but Rhône and Italian varietals make up a large portion of grapes grown in the county.
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Santa Cruz Mountains: (AVA). North of Monterey County, and west of San Jose, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation covers more than 350,000 acres across Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties between Monterey and Half Moon bays. Only about 1,500 acres of the AVA are actually under vine. Most of the appellation's vineyards are at elevations from 800 to 2,000 feet. The entire AVA benefits from the cooling effects of marine winds and fogs but the varying terrain gives varying microclimates. The vineyards at the foot of the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains face the Pacific Ocean and are generally the coolest. On the other end of the spectrum, the warmest climates tend to prevail in the low-lying, inland vineyards. These rugged mountains with thin soils produce formidable Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Other varieties growninclude: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Carignane, Dolcetto, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel. A sub-appellation, the 38,400 acre Ben Lomond Mountain AVA (located at the western end of the Santa Cruz Mountains), was established in 1988.
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Santa Lucia Highlands: (AVA). This north-south running AVA spans elevations from 40 to 1,200 feet of the southeastern-facing slopes of alluvial soils above the Salinas Valley in Monterey County. Currently, there are some 2,300 acres of vineyards in this AVA. Sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by the Santa Lucia Mountains, the region experiences cool morning fog and afternoon breezes from Monterey Bay resulting in one of California’s longest growing seasons. At elevations approaching 1,200 feet, the fog burns off much earlier than below and the vines on the AVA’s southeastern-facing slopes receive direct sunlight, more so at higher elevations. The wines produced in the Highlands are recognized for their intense fruit character and an elegant backbone with high acids and a mineral edge. Chardonnay (over half of the wines produced in this AVA) and Pinot Noir are the stars of this growing region. Interactive Map. AVA Map.
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Santa Maria Valley: (AVA). Bordered by the San Rafael Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, the Solomon Hills to the south and the city of Santa Maria to the west, this east-west oriented is the northernmost of the three AVAs within Santa Barbara County. The Santa Maria Bench - on the northwest side of the AVA, at the foot of the San Rafael Mountains - reaches elevations of 200-800 feet above the valley’s basin. Soils range from sand and gravel to clay and loam. The 7,500 acres of vine planted in this AVA enjoy Pacific fog and coastal winds - at times quite powerful - that help create an extended growing season. There is relatively low annual rainfall in this valley. There are several historic and prestigious vineyards here: Bien Nacido, Nielsen, Sierra Madre and Tepusquet. Many other, smaller vineyards produce high quality wines as well. The number of wineries in the Santa Maria Valley grows every year and in 2007 approaches 20. These few wineries, though, are among the best and most reputed producers in California. The grapes grown here are also sourced by producers outside the AVA and command some of the highest prices in North America. Traditionally, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have been the stars of this region. However, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvedre, Sangiovese and Syrah are being grown here.
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Santa Ynez Valley: (AVA). This long east-west valley lies between by the Purisima Hills to the north at its western end and the San Raphael Mountains to the northeast in the eastern end and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south. Considerably warmer than the Santa Maria Valley to the north, it includes the Santa Rita Hills appellation at its west end. Wrapping around the eastern end of the rolling hills of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, the western end of the Santa Ynez AVA is influenced by the effects of the Pacific and is considerably cooler than its eastern portion. Following the Santa Ynez River eastward, the elevation rises approximately 800 feet and the vineyards, in north-south running canyons, experience higher temperature fluctuations in the context of an overall warmer climate. There are approximately 2,200 acres under vine in the Santa Ynez Valley, about half of the acreage of the pre-Prohibition era. The cooler western section of the AVA (Sta. Rita Hills) is planted mostly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, whereas the eastern, warmer, section (Happy Canyon) is dominated by Bordeaux varieties and supported by a mixture of Rhône varities. In between the two ends, anything goes. While Rhône varieties are coming to prominence here, Bordeaux, Italian and Iberian varieties are still cultivated. Depending on location, these varieties show varying success and a broad stylistic spectrum.
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Sta. Rita Hills, (Santa Rita Hills): (AVA). Located at the western end
of the Santa Ynez Valley between Buellton to the east and Lompoc to the
west, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA lies between the east-west running La
Purisima Hills to the North and the east-west running Santa Rosa Hills
to the south with the east-west running Santa Rita Hills in the middle.
The Sta. Rita Hills received AVA status in 2001 owing much to the
efforts of Bryan Babcock, Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria as well as
members of the Santa Rita Hills Wine Growers Alliance from Clos Pepe,
Seasmoke and Melville. Due to a contention by an influential Chilean
winery (Vina Santa Rita) that the appellation name impinged on
international trademarks, the name of the appellation was altered to
read: “Sta. Rita Hills” in 2006. With about 2,300 acres of vineyards
(of the AVA's total 40,000 acres), Sta. Rita Hills is one of the
smallest appellations in the state. Cooled by marine winds and coastal
fog, the climate of this appellation is ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot
noir and the Sta. Rita Hills are regarded as one of the premier
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir growing regions. Part of the cooling marine
effect, powerful winds also keep yields down in the more exposed
vineyards by blowing the flowers off the vines. Nevertheless, the
cooling effect dissipates the farther eastward one travels in the AVA
and summer temperatures may reach 100°F in the eastern end. Some also
assert that the area between the La Purisima and the Santa Rita Hills
(along Highway 246) is, paradoxically, cooler than the southern portion
(along Santa Rosa Road) of the AVA - which is closer to the ocean. The
soils in the Sta. Rita Hills also change from east to west. The
well-draining, sandy soils with gravel and shale in the west end are
replaced by more loamy, clay-rich soils in the east, particularly in
the southeastern corner of the AVA. This impacts the farming
methodology and the character of the fruit and resulting wines. In
addition to Burgundian wines, stunning wines are also made from Italian
and Rhône varieties grown here. Map.
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Sonoma: (AVA). One of the six wine producing counties of the North Coast AVA. Covering an area more than twice that of the neighboring Napa County, Sonoma County has more than 58,000 acres of vines with 517,000 acres within the Sonoma Coast AVA. The county is 47 miles long and 52 mile wide and bounded by Mendocino County to the North, Marin County to the South, Napa County to the east and the Pacific coastline to the west. The climate in the region is moderate and diverse with marine influences. Moisture drops farther away form the coastline. Counter intuitively, the northern portion of the AVA is warmer than the south. Home to 254 wineries, the county has a rich winemaking history dating back to the mission days the early 19th century. All varieties of grapes are grown in the county in its 12 AVAs: Alexander valley, Bennett Valley, Carneros, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley, Northern Sonoma, Rockpile, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County Green Valley, Sonoma Mountain.
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York Mountain: (AVA). York Mountain is tucked against the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains where it straddles Highway 46 on the western border of the Paso Robles AVA in San Luis Obispo County. This general area is commonly referred to as the Templeton Gap. One of the smallest AVAs in California, it covers some 9,300 acres at elevations of 1,500 feet. Just 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the York Mountain AVA is cooler (Climate Region I) than the adjacent Paso Robles AVA. The Santa Lucia Mountains block most of the ocean moisture and precipitation from reaching the majority of the Paso Robles AVA. However, the location of the York Mountain AVA allows it to catch some of that moisture and cooling marine breezes before they dissipate farther to the east. York Mountain gained AVA status in 1983 through the efforts of then-owners of York Mountain Winery – the only winery in the AVA and one that bears the distinction of being the oldest winery in continuous operation in California. The initial vineyards were planted by Andrew York in 1882 to Alicante Bouschet, Mission and Zinfandel grapes for bottling by the winery which was then called Ascension Winery. There are now five or six separate vineyards in this small AVA growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
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