California Central Coast

Napa Valley, and Sonoma get all the attention in California. But, did you know that the Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) is the largest in the state? This massive coastal appellation stretches about 250 miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. The appellation was granted based on the shared cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean.  There are over 360 wineries covering more than 100,000 acres under vine. Many of these wineries rank among the smallest boutique wineries to the some of California’s biggest players.

Inside this large AVA, are a number of smaller, more specific areas. Each has its’ own special features, climate soil, and grape varieties. Some are well known, and others…not so much. I thought it would be fun to take a look at the areas that make up the Central Coast. I broke down the areas within the broader Central Coast AVA from north to south.

Concannon Winery - Livermore Valley
The San Francisco Bay AVA is a large appellation centered around the San Francisco Bay Area. The AVA was created in 1999 and encompasses over 1,500,000 acres. Urban sprawl affects most of the area, so the acreage under vine is pretty limited. The AVA includes four smaller designated areas: Livermore Valley AVA, Pacheco Pass AVA, San Ysidro District AVA, and Santa Clara Valley AVA.

The most famous of the smaller areas within the San Francisco AVA is the Livermore Valley AVA. Wine has been grown here since 1882, with the Cresta Blanca Winery. It was known for winning the Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris Exposition with its’ first vintage (a 1884 white wine). Wente Vineyards is the largest producer (about 300,000 cases) in the Livermore Valley. It was first established in the valley in 1883. The next largest producer, Concannon Vineyard, makes around 30,000 cases per year. The valley is also known for its’ original plantings of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc taken from Ch√Ęteau d'Yquem, in France.

The Santa Clara Valley AVA served an important role in the early history of California wine and was home to the pioneer winemakers Paul Masson (anyone remember the television advertisements with Orson Welles saying, “we will sell no wine before its’ time”?) and Charles Lefranc (Alamden Vineyards). The AVA boundary was defined in 1989. The AVA is home to two smaller areas,  

Pacheco Pass AVA (granted AVA status in 1984 following a petition by the Zanger family, and the only winery in the appellation, Zanger Vineyards) and San Ysidro District AVA (the coolest AVA within the Santa Clara Valley).

The small Santa Cruz Mountains AVA was established as one of the first mountain based AVAs in 1981. It includes the following sub-regions: Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, the Coastal Foothills, Ben Lomond Mountain AVA, and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley.

Hahn Estate - Santa Lucia Highlands
Probably best known for Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the Monterey AVA is located in Monterey County. It was established in 1984.  It runs roughly 100 miles from just north of the Monterey Bay, south to the border of Paso Robles. There are approximately 40,000 acres of planted wine grapes. The northern portion is a cool growing region, but one with a very long growing season. Due to the coastal influence, daytime temperatures are rarely above 75 °F in most parts of the region The exception is the southern part of the Monterey AVA where temperatures can reach 100 degrees. Wind can be a factor in many areas of the AVA. The soil is typically sandy and requires extensive irrigation, due to the low average rainfall. Over 40% of the grapes grown in the Monterey AVA are Chardonnay. In the northern area, Riesling and Pinot Noir are popular, while in the south, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are most often grown. Within the larger Monterey AVA, there are seven smaller areas: Arroyo Seco AVA, Carmel Valley AVA, Hames Valley AVA, San Antonio Valley AVA, San Bernabe AVA, San Lucas AVA, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA,

Arroyo Seco AVA has a cool climate, and is best suited for those grape varieties that benefit from the cool afternoon breeze. The area is known for its gravelly soil that absorbs heat during the day and radiates that heat in the evening. This helps keep the grapes from freezing at night. Chardonnay is the main grape here.

Carmel Valley AVA is the only wine area in Monterey that faces the ocean. Because of this the vineyards are mostly located at 1,000 feet above sea level or higher, where coastal fog and wind are less common.

Hames Valley AVA became an AVA in 1994. The soil in the valley is shale and loam, and the climate is hot versus other regions of Monterey.

The San Antonio Valley AVA was established in 2006. The area has one of the longest grape growing traditions in the United States when the mission of San Antonio de Padua was first established in 1771 with a small vineyard.

The San Bernabe AVA was created in 2004 as a result of a petition by Delicato Family Vineyards, whose 8,700 acre San Bernabe Vineyard is currently the world's largest continuous vineyard.

San Lucas AVA is rarely seen on bottles. The area was petitioned by the Almaden Vineyards, but since Almaden left the area, you just don’t see it.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is located in the Santa Lucia Mountains above the Salinas Valley. Over 2,300 acres of vineyards are planted in the AVA, some as high as 1,200 feet, with about 50% planted with Pinot Noir. The region enjoys cool morning fog and breezes from Monterey Bay followed by warm afternoons thanks to direct southern exposures to the sun

Chalone AVA is an in both the Monterey and San Benito counties, located in the Gabilan Mountains (just below my old hiking grounds at Pinnacle National Monument). The 8,640 acres region is named for the nearby Chalone peaks. The region is very arid, has limestone and decomposed granite soil, and is known for wines that can age well.

Calera - Mt. Harlan
Mt. Harlan AVA is located in San Benito County. It is located in the Gabilan Mountains. At elevations up to 2,200 feet, the soil is predominately limestone. The AVA was established as the result of a petition filed by Josh Jensen and the Calera Wine Company. If you haven’t read “The Heartbreak Grape”, you should. It is the story of this fine winery.

The San Benito AVA is located in San Benito County. San Benito has a moderate climate with cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean arriving through gaps between the Gabilan Mountains and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The region was once the principal source of grapes for Almaden Vineyards. There are three subregions within the AVA (but are rarely seen): Cienega Valley AVA, Lime Kiln Valley AVA and Paicines AVA

Cienega Valley AVA was once a major source of wine grapes for Almaden Vineyards. Approximately 1,100 feet above sea level, the soil is a mix of granite sandstone and limestone (depending which side of the valley you are on). Within the Cienega Valley AVA is the smaller Lime Kiln Valley AVA (there is only one vineyard in this AVA, and it is owned by the Enz Family. The vineyard contains some of the oldest Mourvedre plantings in the state, dating back to 1922).

The Paicines AVA is warmer than other nearby regions in San Benito. The appellation is home to the Vista Verde Vineyard, a 500 acres vineyard once owned by Almaden Vineyards.

Paso Robles AVA is the largest area within the Central Coast, at over 600,000 acres. It has approximately 26,000 acres under vine. Rather than recapping here, you can check out my previous blog on Paso Robles.

The York Mountain AVA is located on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, west of Paso Robles AVA. Most vineyards in the region are planted at an elevation of about 1,500 feet . Just 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean, York Mountain is cooler and wetter than Paso Robles. York Mountain gained AVA status in 1984 as a result of a successful petition by the owners of the York Mountain Winery, which first opened as a commercial winery in 1882 (now owned by Epoch Vineyards)

Edna Valley AVA is south of the city of San Luis Obispo and north of the town of Arroyo Grande. The valley is surrounded on three sides by mountains, which trap the fog, and create some issues with fungal diseases. The volcanic mountains contributed to the black humus and clay-rich soils. Edna Valley has one of California’s longest growing seasons. The AVA is most well known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent Syrah, but I have found some great dry Reisling and Gewurtztraminer at Claiborne & Churchill. Grapes were originally planted in the AVA by Spanish missionaries in the early 19th century.

Arroyo Grande Valley AVA is a16 mile long appellation (42,880 acres) It benefits from it east-northeast orientation which allows the breeze from the Pacific Ocean to moderate the climate of the area. This is one of the coolest growing regions in California, and has gained a reputation for the old vine Zinfandel dating back to 1880, at Saucelito Canyon Winery.

Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley is approximately 7,500 acres. Grape growing in this region dates back to the Mexican Colonial period of the 1830s. In the late 1960's commercial vineyards were planted to supply wineries around the state. The Santa Maria Valley is a natural funnel-shaped valley opening west to the Pacific Ocean. The elevation of the area ranges from approximately 200 feet to 3,200 feet at Tepusquet Peak. The soils within the area range from a sandy loam to clay. Since the valley opens to the ocean, there is no stopping the sea fog. This creates a cool growing environment. The valley features a long growing season and very little rainfall. The Santa Maria Valley AVA is home to many well-regarded vineyards, including: Au Bon Climat, Byron, Cambria, Foxen, Riverbench, Rancho Sisquoc, and Lucas & Lewellen.

Grassini Vineyards - Happy Canyon
The Santa Ynez Valley AVA is located in Santa Barbara County. It contains the greatest concentration of wineries in Santa Barbara County. The valley is formed by the Purisima Hills and San Rafael Mountains to the north and the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south. There are two subregions within the AVA: Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA is the newest appellation in the Central Coast and is located on the very east end of  Santa Ynez Valley. This new area is known for its’ warmer micro-climate and its’ minerally soil. My favorite California Sauvignon Blanc comes from vineyards in this area: Dragonette Cellars Happy Canyon.

The Sta. Rita Hills AVA was created in 2001 when it was officially known as Santa Rita Hills AVA. The name was changed after a successful protest by Vina Santa Rita (a Chilean wine producer that was concerned about the AVA name diluting its’ international brand). The name change took effect in 2006, with a year-long grace period, for producers in the AVA to change their wine labels. The wine region is exposed to fog and coastal breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The hills run east to west, which allows cool ocean breezes to enter the valley. When combined with the rocky nature of the area, the Sta. Rita Hills is best-suited for the growing Pinot Noir, which tend to do well in cool climates with rocky soil. The region is known for its’ Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah varietal wines

Fiddlestix Vineyard - Sta. Rita Hills
For those of us living in Southern California, this is our wine region. Sure we have Temecula, but for distinctive wine tasting regions, the Central Coast is the place to go. Variety reigns supreme, and the styles, terroir, and climate are all across the board. As of this writing, I am in the process of organizing a wine tasting group up to the Monterey area, and look forward to reporting back to you on the adventures along the Central Coast of California.

What are your favorites?


  1. The Wine Wrangler is a Paso Robles original, now serving the entire Central Coast. The Wine Wrangler will pick you up for a wonderful day touring the most diverse wine regions in California!

  2. Nicely written piece, and a great overview of the Central Coast as a whole. The only thing I'd love to add about the Santa Ynez Valley is the diversity of soils, climates, and aspects in such a small area, allowing the region to grow a plethora of varieties really well, including Spanish, Italian and Rhone varieties . . .


    1. Larry...glad to have your input, and you are absolutely correct.

  3. I was very impressed with all your posts. It all has added insight for me. Hopefully your blog more successful. temecula wine tasting tours