A Guide to the Best California Wine Regions

Wines from the best California wine regions

Although Napa Valley is certainly among the best California wine regions, the state is also home to other excellent regions, including Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

When I was in my early twenties, my grandmother lived just 30 miles away from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over the summer, I’d regularly drive down to visit her and we’d spend the weekend exploring some of Santa Cruz’s finest wineries together, from Ridge to Rhys. Through those experiences, I discovered that I preferred Chardonnay from the Santa Cruz Mountains to Chardonnay from Napa Valley; in fact, I currently have close to a dozen bottles of Rhys Chardonnay Alpine Vineyard in my cellar at the moment.

By exploring wineries all over California’s wine country as a young collector, I learned firsthand that Napa is by no means the only California wine region worth considering for a serious collection. While Napa is the source of some of the state’s most sought-after, valuable wines, spectacular wines are coming out of many other California wine regions as well, including Sonoma, Mendocino, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara. Our guide will help you gain a better understanding of the best California wine regions, giving you all of the information you need to make great choices for your cellar.

Napa Valley

Napa is California's best known wine region

Like many other collectors, my first introduction to California wine was Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. I learned early on why critics like Robert Parker love this area’s hedonistic, fruit-forward Cabernet and oaky Chardonnay. However, exploring the region more as an adult has shown me that Napa is so much more than just fruit bombs and buttery white wine.

Subregions and American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to Know: Look for wine from Howell Mountain, Los Carneros (shared with Sonoma), Oakville, Stags Leap District, Mount Veeder, Yountville, and Rutherford.

Climate: Napa’s climate varies greatly from terroir to terroir–overall, the region has a dry, Mediterranean-type climate and typically experiences warm summer days and cooler evenings. This results in an excellent balance between sugar concentration and acidity in Napa wine. In the northern part of the valley, temperatures tend to be warmer than they are in the south, yet the north also experiences more rainfall. Wines made in the north are more varied in quality from vintage to vintage depending on rainfall, while wines in the south are generally more consistent due to the even climate. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Noteworthy Producers: Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Eisele, Scarecrow, Schrader, and many others.

Collecting Tips: Historically, the United States’ most valuable, collectible wines come from California, and among these wines, Napa Valley’s Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular. If you’re looking for a reliable investment that will grow in value over the decades, seek out Cabernet Sauvignon from producers like Screaming Eagle, Schrader (especially the Old Sparky and Beckstoffer To Kalon labels), Abreu (specifically, Madrona Ranch and Thorevilos), Dominus, Opus One, Caymus, Colgin, and Kapcsándy (the Grand Vin and Roberta’s Reserve are most collectible). If you’re primarily looking for wines to drink, then you should also consider these estates’ second labels as well as other varieties such as Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Napa Valley wines are so diverse that you can easily find a style that speaks to you when you take the time to experiment with different producers. I recommend attending Napa Valley tasting events and dinners to learn more about the region’s superb wines.

Sonoma

Map of California wine region Sonoma

As a beginning collector, I gravitated toward big reds with concentrated fruit flavors. This started changing when I took a weeklong trip to Sonoma in my late twenties. I sampled quite a bit of Pinot Noir from the region and learned to appreciate the more subtle (though still fruit-forward) complexity of these wines. Today, I love to taste the differences and similarities among Pinot Noir from Sonoma, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Burgundy.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Look for wine from Los Carneros (shared with Napa), Russian River Valley, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek, and Sonoma Coast.

Climate: Like Napa, Sonoma has a diverse range of microclimates. Overall, Sonoma experiences cool evenings and even, temperate daytime conditions that allow the grapes to mature steadily and fully in the summer. The central valleys of Sonoma are warmer than the subregions on the outskirts of the county, however, this heat is tempered by the region’s oceanic fog, which keeps temperatures cool even in the peak summer months–Sonoma rarely gets warmer than 85 degrees Fahrenheit. You can usually rely on Sonoma wines to be consistent in quality from vintage to vintage due to the region’s predictable climate.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Primarily Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Noteworthy Producers: Peter Michael, Marcassin, Vérité, Aubert, and Cirq, and many others.

Collecting Tips: Vérité and Marcassin are the most valuable producers in Sonoma; these are wise choices if you are seeking wines purely for investment purposes. Aubert also crafts high-quality wines that gain in value on the secondary market depending on vintage quality. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for wines for early-term drinking, consider the region’s Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; while some Chardonnay, such as that made by Kalin Cellars, is designed to age beautifully for five or ten years, many Sonoma Chardonnays should be drunk young. Similarly, while you can find age-worthy Pinot Noir from Sonoma, it’s worth seeking out a few early-drinking vintages as well, as this region produces some of the best Pinot Noir in the country.

Mendocino

Map of California wine region Mendocino

When one of my colleagues attended a blind tasting party thrown by a group of wine enthusiasts and collectors last year, he was very impressed with a Riesling he tasted. The wine was elegant and very aromatic, so he guessed it was a Mosel Riesling. When the wine labels were revealed at the end of the tasting, he was surprised to find that the wine he’d fallen for came from California’s Mendocino County. He’s been buying wines from this region ever since.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Look for wine from the Anderson Valley AVA, which makes some of the highest-quality wines in the region.

Climate: Mendocino is located along California’s north coast, making it one of the coolest and foggiest California wine regions. Because temperatures are cooler than in many California wine regions, this area is especially suited for producing high-quality Pinot Noir. However, as in most of California’s winemaking regions, the climate varies depending on the location of the vineyard. Some vineyards experience less fog and sunnier conditions, making them ideal for varieties like Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc.

Noteworthy Producers: Rhys, Copain, Littorai, Williams Selyem, and Arista, and many others.

Collecting Tips: If you’re in the Mendocino area, try at least one bottle of the region’s sparkling styles. In fact, in the 1980s the famed Champagne producer Louis Roederer purchased land in Mendocino specifically because the area was so well-suited for sparkling wine production. If you’re just getting started with Mendocino wine, I recommend trying Roederer Estate’s offerings. If you love an aromatic white wine, then also consider Alsatian-style Riesling from Anderson Valley. The region’s climate and soil composition foster aromatics in delicate white wines, making Mendocino the perfect choice for collectors looking to add more white wines to their collection.

Santa Cruz Mountains

California wine region Santa Cruz

Exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains often feels like hopping from one enormous island to another. As you drive through the winding mountain roads and rolling hillsides, you might not see a winery for miles. Suddenly, as you round a corner, you’ll stumble upon a massive estate that stretches out as far as the eye can see. It’s in this isolated environment that top estates like Rhys and Ridge experiment with their own unique blends.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Look for wine from Los Gatos, Corralitos, Ben Lomond Mountain, Skyline, and the Coastal Foothills.

Climate: This mountainous region is close to the Pacific Ocean, and the combination of oceanic winds and rocky terrain creates a diverse range of microclimates in the area, which are further emphasized by the region’s sprawl. Unlike other popular wine regions like Napa and Sonoma where it’s common to find vineyards nestled right up against their neighbors, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards are much more isolated. This is a benefit for collectors because it makes the difference in terroir from one vineyard to the next much more distinct, resulting in a fascinating tasting experience.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay as well as some Merlot and Zinfandel.

Noteworthy Producers: Rhys, Ridge, Mount Eden, Brand & Family, and Thomas Fogarty.

Collecting Tips: What attracts many collectors to the Santa Cruz Mountains is the region’s focus on traditional Old-World winemaking techniques. The wines here have plenty of minerality and can be quite tannic in their youth. It takes a few years for many of the top wines from this area to mature, which is relatively unusual for California–the majority of producers in the state craft wines that are easy to drink in their youth. However, your patience will pay off when you invest in wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Try holding bottles from Rhys and Ridge, in particular, for a minimum of five years before you drink or resell them.

Monterey

Location of California wine region Monterey

Some wine collectors write off Monterey wines because many are considered low in both value and quality. I know a collector who stopped buying Monterey wine altogether because she noticed that many winemakers were using Mega Purple concentrate (made from a bright-colored red grape called Rubired) to make their wine appear richer in color. However, when she went on a recent tasting tour in the area, she changed her mind about Monterey’s wines–the Pinot Noir she sampled from high-quality producers was complex in flavor and lighter in color, a far cry from the deep purple wines she had once seen all over the area. Today, as long as you know where to look, you can find many high-quality Monterey wines.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Carmel Valley, Arroyo Seco, and Chalone.

Climate: The cool, coastal climate of Monterey contributes to excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–in fact, in the late 1950s, researchers at UC Davis identified Monterey as an ideal winegrowing location for these varieties because of its unique climate. Prior to the 1950s, few winemakers had vineyards in Monterey because areas like Napa and Sonoma were more popular destinations; these warmer regions were better suited to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Now that California Pinot Noir is gaining in popularity on the market, more winemakers are buying vineyards in Monterey to take advantage of the chilly coastal winds.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate here, but the region also grows more than 40 other varieties.

Noteworthy Producers: Peter Michael, Kosta Browne, Testarossa, Carlisle, Alesia, and many others.

Collecting Tips: Wines from Monterey tend to be more acidic compared to offerings from Napa or Sonoma. If you want to go beyond fruit bombs and buttery Chardonnay, then consider investing more heavily in wines from Monterey. There are dozens of experimental wineries in this region that are creating new Rhône-style blends as well as fascinating single-varietal Albariño (a popular grape in Spain and Portugal) and Picpoul (a white grape from the Rhône). In other words, Monterey is a top destination for collectors who want to think outside of the box and sample something truly new and unique.

Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo

Map of California wine region San Luis Obispo

At a tasting event a few years ago, one of my friends discovered just how delicious and approachable Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon can be. He had his first glass of Falcone and was blown away by the wine’s beautifully ripe fruit, well-balanced acidity, and light herbaceousness. He asked for two more pours of the wine and joked that he could easily have polished off the entire bottle without growing tired of the flavor. As my friend discovered, high-quality Paso Robles wine is known for being complex, rich, and approachable in its youth.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Look for wine from the Adelaida District, Willow Creek, Estrella, and Creston.

Climate: Although San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles are located in California’s Southern Central Coast, the area receives relatively little coastal wind because many of the region’s valleys are protected by hillsides. However, this is not true across the board. In the Adelaida District, the terrain is rocky and many vineyards are located on the Santa Lucia slopes, meaning that the grapes are exposed to more coastal winds than those grown in the warmer, more protected Highlands District. When you shop for wine from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, take some time to find out if the subregion listed on the bottle is well-suited for that particular variety–Merlot tends to grow better in the warmer subregions, whereas the Rhône-style blends thrive in cooler, rainier areas (like the Adelaida District).

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Rhône-style blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Merlot.

Noteworthy Producers: Saxum, Booker, L’Aventure, Tablas Creek, Justin, and many others.

Collecting Tips: Most collectors begin with Paso Robles’ Zinfandel, as the region is famous for producing high-quality bottlings of this variety. However, Paso Robles is more than just Zinfandel; the Rhône-style blends, in particular, are becoming more popular on the market, and while there isn’t a strong secondary market for these wines yet, they’re worth buying and drinking. As Rhône-style blends from California wine regions become more popular, you’ll want to know which producers from the area you prefer, because these wines have been growing in price and quality and should continue to do so over the next few decades.

Santa Barbara

California wine region Santa Barbara

When I first started collecting wine, Santa Barbara was a well-kept secret among those in the know. The region has long been home to excellent producers, but tended to be overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma. This isn’t the case anymore; more collectors and serious wine enthusiasts are flocking to Santa Barbara than ever before, and the region has garnered a reputation as one of the best in the state.

Subregions and AVAs to Know: Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria, and the Santa Rita Hills.

Climate: Santa Barbara is perhaps best known for its cool climate and chilly oceanic winds. The region is mostly dry throughout the year, and as a result, the grapes here tend to ripen very slowly. Winemakers rarely cope with the effects of frost, excessive rainfall, or mildew, meaning that wines from Santa Barbara tend to be consistent in quality from year to year. However, as with all California wine regions, the microclimate can vary significantly among vineyards. Vineyards located close to the ocean often produce the best Pinot Noir and Riesling, whereas vineyards that are more protected from the winds more often make high-quality Syrah.

Popular Wine Styles and Varieties: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Noteworthy Producers: Sine Qua Non, Andremily, Sea Smoke, Jonata, Brewer-Clifton, and many others.

Collecting Tips: If you love Napa Valley wines but you find the bottle prices a bit inflated, then Santa Barbara may be the perfect California wine region for you to explore. The wines made here are often similar in quality and style to the more valuable Napa vintages, yet average bottle prices are generally far below those of Napa (the exception being Sine Qua Non and other cult wine producers that have gained a niche following over the decades). If you’re unsure where to start, consider the region’s Syrah–in warm vineyards, the wine is rich in concentrated fruit, while in cooler areas the wine is more peppery and Old World in style. The region’s Chardonnay is excellent as well, and is often described as crisp and brightly acidic.

Other Noteworthy California Wine Regions

In addition to the regions listed above, California has many other fantastic winegrowing areas. The state is home to thousands of wineries, so to narrow your choices down, we’ve created a list of additional key regions you may wish to visit or research when you shop for wine online:

  • Lake County: You’ll find Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in this region at a great value; however, you’ll typically find more easy drinking wine here than investment-worthy bottles to lay down.
  • Livermore Valley: This area is known primarily for Chardonnay. The oldest wineries in the area are Wente Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard, both of which are worth trying if you want to learn more about California’s rich winemaking history.
  • The Central Valley: Most of the wine made here is table wine and the region produces three-quarters of the state’s grapes. You won’t find many age-worthy wines made here, but some small, family-run estates do produce high-quality bottles.
  • The Sierra Foothills: This area features a combination of styles from different regions of the Old World. You’ll find Rhône-style Syrah and Viognier as well as Italian varieties like Barbera and Sangiovese. Exploring this region can help you learn more about how these different grape varieties made their way to California for the first time.
  • Southern California: This area is not currently known for its wine, but change is in the air. Small growers are buying vineyards around the inland valleys, producing wines that thrive in warm climates. It may still be too early to invest in these wines for profit, but it’s worth trying a few bottles from experimental growers that focus on small batches and high production quality.

It’s probably clear by now that California is a diverse state that is absolutely full of incredible wineries and lesser-known wine regions. Tasting and buying from up-and-coming regions like these helps you stay on the cutting edge of emerging wine trends while enjoying some delicious wines in the process.

Choosing from the Best California Wine Regions for Your Collection

There is no definitive, objective list of the best California wine regions. The “best” regions for you will be those that suit your palate, fit the goals you have for your collection, and even complement your mood on a particular day. For this reason, don’t limit yourself to just one or two wine regions. I know a number of collectors who only invest in wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma because of the status of these regions, and as a result, they miss out on some truly excellent wines that could diversify and enhance their cellars. Tasting wines from multiple wine regions throughout the state makes it easier to pinpoint the terroirs, producers, and wine styles that speak most strongly to you. Building a wine collection is all about exploration and passion for the craft of winemaking; there’s no better way to do this than to sample wines from all over this diverse state.

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