The legal designations used for California wine regions are American Viticultural Areas or AVAs. The US Government began these AVA designations in 1978 to keep pace with similar wine appellation designations used in Europe for many years.
For the average wine lover, AVAs may not matter at all. If this describes you, feel free to skip over this section and go directly to our California wine country map that discusses California wine regions in more generic terms.
All AVAs are designated by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a US Treasury department, upon the request of a winery or other petitioner.
To be considered, the petitioner must present evidence that growing conditions such as climate, soil, elevation, and physical features are distinctive to that AVA.
As of 2008, California wine regions encompass nearly 200 AVAs. Many sub AVAs are designated within major AVAs.
An AVA is distinguished by geographic features, so in theory all wine produced by the grapes in that AVA should possess similar qualities. However, like many government regulations, there is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of this system.
Studies are underway to possibly change the US AVA system to make it more similar to the European model. Europe has the benefit of relying on decades of experience deciphering terroir (French for “soil”).
For a California wine maker to specify an AVA on its label, at least 85% of the grapes used to make that wine must be grown in the specified AVA. California AVAs do not specify the type of grapes to be grown there, or the process to be used to grow those grapes.
By comparison, a French designation (Appelation D’Origine Controlee – AOC or AC) identifies the grape varieties to be grown in a geographic area, the maximum production per acre, the minimum level of alcohol required for wines produced in the area, etc.
Here is a complete list of California wine regions or AVAs, at the time of this writing.
Central Coast AVA
The Central Coast AVA is the largest in the state stretching roughly 250 miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. It is home to approximately 360 wineries and covers more than 5M acres. Paso Robles AVA is the largest at over 600,000 acres.
All the AVAs listed below are actually contained within the Central Coast AVA, with the exception of and Santa Cruz Mountain and Ben Lomond Mountain AVA.
• Arroyo Grande Valley • Arroyo Seco • Ben Lomond Mountain • Carmel Valley • Chalone • Cienega Valley • Edna Valley • Hames Valley • Lime Kiln Valley • Livermore Valley • Monterey • Mt. Harlan • Pacheco Pass • Paicines • Paso Robles • San Antonio Valley • San Benito • San Bernabe • San Francisco Bay • San Lucas • San Ysidro District • Santa Clara Valley • Santa Cruz Mountains • Santa Lucia Highlands • Santa Maria Valley • Sta. Rita Hills
• Santa Ynez Valley • York Mountain
Central Valley Wine Growing Region
There is no large regional AVA designation that includes the entire Central Valley wine growing region. So within the Central Valley Wine Region are the following AVAs. Lodi AVA is the largest.
• Alta Mesa • Borden Ranch • Capay Valley • Clarksburg • Clements Hills • Cosumnes River • Diablo Grande • Dunnigan Hills • Jahant • Lodi • Madera • Merritt Island • Mokelumne River • River Junction • Salado Creek • Sloughhouse • Tracy Hills
Klamath Mountain Region
These AVAs are located in the southern Klamath Mountains Region of far northwestern California:
• Seiad Valley • Trinity Lakes • Willow Creek
North Coast AVA
All of these AVAs are included within the geographic boundaries of the six-county North Coast AVA. The Sonoma Coast AVA is the largest covering over 500,000 acres.
• Alexander Valley • Anderson Valley • Atlas Peak • Bennett Valley • Benmore Valley • Chalk Hill • Chiles Valley • Clear Lake • Cole Ranch • Covelo • Diamond Mountain District • Dos Rios • Dry Creek Valley • Green Valley of Russian River Valley • Guenoc Valley • High Valley • Howell Mountain • Knights Valley • Los Carneros • McDowell Valley • Mendocino • Mendocino Ridge • Mt. Veeder • Napa Valley • North Coast • Northern Sonoma • Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley
• Oakville • Potter Valley • Red Hills Lake County • Redwood Valley • Rockpile • Russian River Valley • Rutherford • Solano County Green Valley • Sonoma Coast • Sonoma Mountain • Sonoma Valley • Spring Mountain District • St. Helena • Stags Leap District • Suisun Valley • Wild Horse Valley • Yorkville Highlands • Yountville
Sierra Foothills AVA
All of these AVAs are contained entirely within the geographic boundaries of the Sierra Foothills AVA. El Dorado AVA, with over 400,000 acres, is significantly larger than any of the others.
• California Shenandoah Valley
• El Dorado
• Fair Play
• North Yuba
• Sierra Foothills
South Coast AVA
The South Coast AVA includes all grape growing regions in Southern California, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties. There are not a lot of grapes grown in this region, and the largest and most well known grape growing region within South Coast is Temecula Valley.
This large appellation also includes a number of smaller sub-appellations.
• Cucamonga Valley • Leona Valley (proposed) • Malibu-Newton Canyon • Ramona Valley • Saddle Rock-Malibu • San Pasqual Valley • South Coast
Thanks for wading through the legalities of California wine regions with us. And don’t forget, click below for a look at the California wine regions on a map.