California’s Wine Regions: A Beginner’s Guide

by Mama Loves A Drink

California is the most famous wine production area in the United States and the biggest in the terms of volume.

It covers over 4,300 wineries and together they account for over 84% of the whole USA wine production, making the golden state the biggest wine producer in the country by far, followed by Washington State, the second biggest producers in the USA, at 5%.

Blessed with a rich terroir and a large variety of soils, California produces incredibly diverse wines from international grape varieties as well as the indigenous Zinfandel.

California has several wine regions: this is a quick overview of the most important.

California Wine regions. A beautiful winery view in California at sunset

California wine growing regions

California has several wine growing regions that can be categorised in 3 macro areas:

Northern California – in turn divided into the areas of Mendocino, Lake, Napa and Sonoma

Central California – with the areas of SAn Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Central Valley and the Sierra Foothills

Southern California – a more recent addition to the Californian wine landscape with the areas of Malibu, Temecula Valley, and San Diego County.

The wine regions of Northern California

Norther California is a large area with a varied terrain and equally divers wine production.

This is the area with the biggest producer of wine in the state and it is also the one that catapulted California wines into the highest echelons of wine production, thanks especially to the wines from the areas of Napa and Sonoma, now world-renowned.

This area has a designated AVA (American Viticultural Area), subdivided in many much smaller ones.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is the best known of all wine-producing areas in California and the US: this, thanks to some outstanding wines but also the wonderful tourism opportunities Napa Valley offers and not just to wine lovers.

The picture perfect wineries of this area and Napa’s outstanding wine quality have made the area a real playground for the rich who come here to experience its refined atmospheres and, budget permitting, participate in the over the top auction for the local cult wines.

Napa produces only 4% of California wine but has some highly sought after AVA including Rutherford, the historical core of Napa Valley, land of cabernet sauvignon and home to some of California’s top wineries, St Helena, home to many historic wineries, Oakville, Yountville, Stags Leap District, Howell Mountain, famous for its cabernets and zinfandels, Mount Vedeer and Carneros, which planted mostly with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Valley is the region between Napa and the coast and was, for the longest time, a sort of poor cousin to Napa Valley, who simply overshadowed Sonoma’s wine.

howver, sonoma has seena resurgence and now has excellent wine that rival those of Napa and have themselves arisen to work notiriety.

Sonoma is the most diverse of the Norther Caifornia regions and prpduces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux and Zinfandel.

Worth knowing, within Sonoma, are the regions of Alexander and Knights valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River, Green Valley and Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley, Coast and Mountain and Northern Sonoma.


Mendocino is the most Northerly among California wine regions and is characterised by a foggy, humid and distinctly cool weather.

For a long time, this area didn’t have its own wineries but rather would sell grapes to larger producers in the south however, it eventually developed its own landscapes of wineries and now has some large, excellent ones producing Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

The best known area here is Anderson, known for it sparking wines especially, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lake country

Less famous than the other regions in this area, Lake County is mostly known for its good yet affordable Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Central California

Central California is home to California’s largest commercial vineyards that stretch along the area of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and the sierra Foothills.

Roof top views over a picturesque town in Central California

This are can be divided into two distinct parts, the Northers side, which includes Livermore Valley, Monterey Country and the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Southern part with San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Paso Roble.

The land here is varied and so are the varieties of grapes available which include Cabernet Sauvignon, Shyraz, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Viognier.

Southern California

Southern California has had mixed fortunes when it comes to wine production.

Beautiful vineyards and rolling hills in Southern California

The area has wonderful wineries in the 19th century that got destroyed by the bacterial Pierce disease, which wiped the vineyard, in more recent years, the area re is picking up whine production and now has some nice wines coming especially from the area of Temecula, Malibu and the San Diego area.

Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the dominant grapes: unlike other areas, specializing in wither high-quality wines or commercial production, this area caters mostly for the large local population of the area.

You may also like to read our introduction to Italy’s wine regions

Mama Loves A Drink advocates quality over quantity. Always drink responsibly!

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