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In Good Taste

Discover the Best Wines of California

Discover the Best Wines of California

California on the Map

The fame of California wines didn’t ripen on a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma, as one might expect; instead, it arose a world apart at the Académie du Vin in Paris. During a prestigious 1976 wine competition, nine French judges blind-tested a cavalcade of first-rate Chardonnays followed by that of assorted reds. What resulted was shocking: Californian wines, which had previously been outcasts on the international stage, took first place across the board.

Judgement of Paris - California Wines Win Top Honors

The judges were aghast. Among them, a certain Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue du vin de France, alleged fraud and demanded a recasting of the votes. But it was too late. The so-called Judgement of Paris had popped the proverbial cork on California wines forever. And from that point on, these wines would be regarded as equals to their Old World counterparts.

Shortly after this scandal, the U.S. began exporting its wines to a number of countries for the first time. Perhaps to the chagrin of Ms. Kahn, France was among them. Today, California wine exports are a billion-dollar industry, reaching consumers in over 142 nations. Such sustained demand is driven by their rich diversity, which has everything to do with where they’re cultivated.

CRO Zach Feinberg juggles IGT Mini Bottles in a Vineyard

California’s Wine Regions & What They’re Known For

The Golden State’s topography and microclimate zones foster the growth of over 100 different types of grapes. To make sense of them all, California’s wine regions have been divided into distinct American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, based on climatic and soil conditions. For a tasting tour of California, the In Good Taste California Wine Mixer features beautiful examples of the terroir of each region. Each winery falls within an AVA, and each AVA falls within a larger California Wine Region, of which there are six:

Map of California Wine Growing Regions

North Coast AVA

Most famous among them is the North Coast, home of Napa and Sonoma counties. Napa Valley wineries are more touristic, but nearby Sonoma supports the most diverse grape growing subregion in the entire state there are 18 AVAs within the county alone! This diversity is made possible by the perfect climate combo of fresh ocean air from the west and warm, sunny interior valleys to the east.

As a result, Sonoma produces high-quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon (like this one from the Alexander Valley AVA), Zinfandel, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, to name a few of its varieties. Conversely, Napa, while also capable of producing several types of grapes, is really celebrated for one of them: Cab. Its Old World inspiration, Bordeaux, led winemakers to mimic this region by planting mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines early on. Today’s Napa Cabs are dense (meaning they have nuanced flavors), with fruit, floral and oak notes, and a medium-to-high tannin profile. At least in California, but perhaps elsewhere too, they’re unparalleled in quality.

Simply put, Napa and Sonoma wineries are world-famous for good reason.

These illustrious sub-regions represent one pole of the North Coast, Mendocino County, but the other limit of that AVA, marks the other. Abiding in North California, it records the coolest temperatures in the state and therefore excels with varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc. Within Mendocino County is the Anderson Valley, a foggy, fertile swath of land that flanks the snaking Navarro River. It’s known for some of the best sweet wines and may also entice sparkling lovers.

Central Coast AVA

Hugging the California coastline between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, the Central Coast AVA is geographically enormous and climatically diverse.

At its southernmost limit is Santa Barbara, home to seven smaller AVAs defined by canyons, hills, and valleys. Distinct microclimates exist in this area because of the way in which ocean air flows through its topographic features. This factor, in combination with thin soils, makes Santa Barbara County AVAs ideal for producing exceptional Pinot Noirs.

Due North of Santa Barb, about halfway to San Francisco, is the AVA of Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. It’s a bit more inland and therefore experiences the greatest diurnal temperature variations of California's Central Coast. In other words, there’s a huge delta between the average daily highs and nightly lows. To add to its peculiarity, Paso Robles’ soils are sandy because they’re derived from a mixture of bedrock and limestone.

Zinfandels were planted here when the region was first cultivated, and they continue to be the main event at Paso Robles wineries. These are powerful reds that really pack a punch with every gulp. That being said, Paso Robles’ other varieties, like this bold and silky cab, should not be underestimated. The unusual conditions of this region ensure that all its varieties have a unique character.

Coastal Vineyard Regions Benefit from fog and lower temps

San Francisco Bay AVA

It might be surprising to learn that the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, including parts of Silicon Valley and Oakland, is itself an AVA. Overlapping with the northern tip of the Central Coast region, the Bay Area is home to 142 wineries — apparently tech nerds enjoy imbibing just as much as we do. And while nearby Sonoma and Napa wineries usually eclipse this smaller AVA, the Bay Area boasts some excellent options too.

Sierra Foothills AVA

Sierra Foothills is the easternmost wine region in the state, and, as the name suggests, it’s set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Defined by steep, sloping vineyards, this AVA deals with much higher elevations than other parts of California wine country. To cope with the terrain, vintners terrace their vines. And, accordingly, Syrah and Zinfandel do exceptionally well. In terms of white wines, Chardonnay dominates the scene.

Sierra Foothills is also one of the few California regions to support Sangiovese grapes, a variety of an ancient species first planted by Etruscans in the vineyards of Tuscany. Less than 1% of the entire state’s grapes are Sangiovese, but this Stealing Thunder California Rosé has secured the best of them.

South Coast AVA

Sunshine, heat, and a smooth Pacific breeze: these are the defining elements of the South Coast, an AVA that stretches from Orange County to the frontier of Mexico. This California wine region is lesser known than the North Coast, but, believe it or not, it produces some of the best red wines. Cabernet Franc, Montepulciano, and Merlot come to mind. For whites, Chardonnay thrives under the climatic combination of an ever present SoCal sun tempered by cool ocean winds.

Significant fluctuations in elevation throughout the South Coast AVA impact its soils. They can range from sandy to rocky, affecting the types of grapes that can be grown.

Central Valley

The Golden State’s largest wine region isn’t even officially recognized as a wine region — an AVA, that is. Central Valley California is a lush agricultural tract that spans the interior of the state. Almonds, avocados, figs: it’s so fertile that pretty much anything and everything grows in its soils, including grapes. So it’s no surprise that the Central Valley supplies a huge number of them to other parts of California wine country.

But this region is also host to many stellar vineyards in its own right. Lodi wineries, for example, are mostly family-owned and famously laid back. Over 85 of them welcome visitors for tastings daily. The region consistently wins awards for its high-power Zinfandels, and is a top producer of Cab, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.

California Terroir (climate, environment, and soil) Affects on Wine

California Wine Country Terroir and Climate

Terroir, which translates to “land” in French, is an Old World concept that ties wines intrinsically to the earth on which they were cultivated. More simply put, it’s “the way in which a wine reveals the place it came from,” as defined in one fiery 2008 LA Times op-ed, which, later on, labeled the concept as pretentious French “gobbledygook.” It’s safe to say that most wine connoisseurs would disagree with the author’s sentiment. Terroir is subtle, but understanding it can really enhance the wine drinking experience.

Its main considerations are found at the confluence of soil type and climate. Terroir can apply to an entire region but, depending on microclimate conditions, can also be as specific as a subsection of one vineyard.

In California, there are 14 types of wine soils that can impact terroir: they range from igneous-, metamorphic- and sedimentary-based to sand-, clay- and silt-based. In Mendocino County, for example, many vineyards have vastly differing soil profiles. Some even have multiple soil profiles within the same vineyard. Take bearwallow, a Mendocino County soil designation that’s present across roughly 1,200 acres of wine grape-bearing land. It has a soil profile primarily composed of sandstone fading to clay as depth increases. Boontling is also widely present in the region and has vine-supporting soil that’s defined by mixed alluvium.

635,000 Acres of Wine Grapes

An equally significant consideration of terroir is climate, which can be impacted by the most subtle distinctions in topography. In Mendocino County, fog and cool air are typical elements that create microclimates. In Paso Robles, extreme temperatures are definitive. Lack of rainfall is also an important dimension. As precipitation is so infrequent here, vintners have total control over the amount of water their vines receive: excess water can decrease a grape's sweetness; and the opposite relationship also holds true. In Santa Barbara, vastly differing topographic features impact the flow of ocean wind into the wine region. This is the determinate that outlines its terroir designations.

California is the 4th Top Producer of Wine in the World

California Wines: Production, Consumption, and Exports

According to the Wine Institute, vineyards in California produce over 80% of US wines. So the story of American wine exports is really centered on the Golden State. In 2019, 98.1 million gallons were shipped abroad, netting a revenue of over $1.36 billion for US wineries.

Domestically, the California wine industry’s impact goes far beyond the state itself. The Wine Institute indicates that its vast trade network sustains even more jobs outside of California (461,000) than within it (325,000). In terms of production, the reported wine grape-bearing acreage in the state has measured consistently above 460,000 over the past decade.

California Wine Exports

Winery Sustainability

Ensuring that vineyards are healthy and productive for many generations to come is the cornerstone of sustainability practices. Lucky for California wine country, the Golden State is a leader in the field.

Vintners can become Certified California Sustainable Wineries through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. This measures a winery’s sustainability practices across several dimensions, including the health of its soils, its relationship with local habitats, its water consumption, and more.

All of California’s vineyards are held to extremely high standards. But for those keen on trying an eco-friendly practice that raises the bar even higher: “dry-farming” practice – meaning no additional water beyond natural rainfall is used – and facilities that were constructed in such a fashion that energy needs for wine storage rooms are minimal. The California Agricultural Water Stewardship has found that in addition to grapes, tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, winter squash, olives, garbanzos, apples, apricots and potatoes can be successfully dry-farmed. This method requires soil with enough structure to hold moisture in for months at a time, and can encourage roots to dig deeper, yielding a stronger and more resistant vine.

The biodynamic practice, in contrast to simply "organic," means that all chemicals are omitted from the wine-making process. Biodynamic is a holistic approach that uses only natural materials and composts a big win for the environment and the consumer.

Top Wine Varietals Produced in California

Crash Course: California Wines In a Nutshell

Since the Judgement of Paris, California has been ranked alongside the world’s most prestigious wine countries. And for good reason. An enthusiast could spend a lifetime exploring all the diversity that this state has to offer. But those really wanting to know the bones of California wines, so to speak, should understand the following:

  1. While hundreds of grape varieties are grown in California, there are essentially three staple whites and five staple reds. The whites are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. The reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

  2. While the state has an extremely diverse range of soils and topographies, California’s temperate Mediterranean climate, moderated by the Pacific Ocean, is the spine of its wine industry. It makes the whole thing possible.

  3. And while each wine region is different, California wines are, in general, “fruit forward,” as Sonoma vintner Clayton Fritz puts it, compared with their Old World counterparts. In general, California grapes are less hydrated and they aren’t harvested until maturity: the riper the grape, the fruitier the taste.

So that’s the need-to-know of Golden State wines. After discovering your California vin préféré, make sure to learn how to choose the best wine glass or what temperature each type of wine should be.

Rosé of Sangiovese


Sangiovese can be found in both the Chianti and Montalcino regions of Tuscany (it all sounds so romantic, right?) and is known for producing classic medium-bodied wines. Rosé wine is actually made from red grapes, and this is where the Rosé of Sangiovese comes to play. Crisp, fruit-forward, and easy-to-drink, it's everything you want in your bottle of Rosé and more.



Big, bold, and full of flavor—exactly what you’d expect an Italian wine to be! This classic Italian grape produces some of Italy’s most straightforward red wines and is often used as a blending grape. Not here, though. We let Montepulciano do the heavy lifting as a heavy red wine and shine on its own. If you enjoy the smell of leather bound books, nibbling on dried fruit, and complementary notes of bitter, dark chocolate and sweet plums, you will love this Italian wine. No need to pair it with any certain dish—Montepulciano tastes great with all the Italian classics.

Cabernet Sauvignon


If Pinot Noir is the light and juicy queen of reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is her bolder, heavier, meatier sister. Often referred to as just “cab,” it’s the wine of France’s Bordeaux and California’s Napa Valley. There’s nothing subtle about Cabernet Sauvignon—high in alcohol, full-bodied and robust, you can usually find this red served with a ribeye, New York Strip, or filet mignon (re: carnivores love cab). Classic cabs usually offer tasting notes of chocolate, coffee, and darker fruits like prunes and plums. The Unprecedented Cabernet Sauvignon is as classic as they come, and we highly recommend letting the bottle sit and mellow until your next red meat and potatoes dinner!

Pinot Grigio

La Pluma

If you’re looking for more zest in your life, a bottle of Pinot Grigio can provide that. We included a classic Pinot Grigio in the La Pluma collection because we’re all about light and easy here, which is exactly what this grape from Italy is. It has that dry sense of humor that seems so effortless with a punchy acidity to keep you on your toes, all while offering notes of lemon, limes, green apples, and honeysuckle. Long story short; when it’s been a heavy day and your soul is seeking light things only, you’ll be happy to have this bottle on hand.

Pinot Noir


We couldn’t create the In Good Taste Unprecedented collection without the Golden Retriever of wines: Pinot Noir. Pinot is likable, it’s easy, and its natural state of being is simply charming. It’s an incredibly easy red wine to love, which is why so many people do. The grape itself is from the Burgundy region of France, but has made its way to California, Oregon, Australia, Italy, Argentina, and Germany since. Our Pinot Noir has no surprise twists—it’s a classic light red with just the right amount of sweetness to keep you coming back for another glass (or two).

Coteaux Bourguignons


The Burgundy region of France is home to their best Pinot Noirs, but we took the grapes into our own hands to create something extra special with our Coteaux Bourguignons. It’s a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, which results in a French red that’s light in body but full in flavor. The ripest blueberries and freshest herbs can be easily detected in this French burgundy blend. May we suggest pairing it with some creamy brie and freshly baked bread? It’s a oui-ning combo.



A little sweet. A little tart. A little salty? You truly get it all with this white Italian wine. If you're into that biting acidity, Verdicchio will probably be high on your list of most-loved wines from our Andiamo collection. Citrus fruits like mandarin, lemon, and grapefruit are at the forefront, but what really sets this Italian wine apart is its distinct notes of almond. While our Verdicchio can start out tasting a bit tart, the more you sip, the smoother it becomes. In fact, we suggest approaching it as an aperitif (Italian for an alcoholic drink sipped before a meal to stimulate the appetite) to experience its full effect.


Côtes du Rhône White


This was one of our first French wines to join the Passport collection and one sip will explain why. Some background on the Rhône Valley in France: While this region is known for its dark, juicy reds, a very small amount of special white wines are made in the Rhône Valley. Our Côtes du Rhône is packed with French-perfected, floral flavor and Old-World charm. Its natural tang paired with the weighty Marsanne grape and aromatic Roussanne grape results in a crisp, savory sip that’ll transport you to a sunbathing chair by the Rhône itself.


Bordeaux Rouge


When you picture medieval folk sitting around a feast with goblets of wine, chances are they were drinking Bordeaux. This wine has been made in France since forever and is arguably the most classic French wine out there. Bordeaux is known for its full body, smoky notes, and rich, oaky taste. If you love cabs, chances are you will adore Bordeaux. For our Passport wines, we had to include this classic French red for you to sip and enjoy to your heart’s content. Best savored over a rich meal like lamb ragu, ratatouille, or BBQ.


Ventoux Rosé


You probably know that the Tour de France is held on Ventoux Mountain in France, but did you know that the same area is known for its high-altitude rosé? This is the kind of quintessential French rosé that you don’t need to spin your wheels over—it’s simply delicious, crisp, and perfect for warm weather. Despite its delicate, pale pink color, each sip is lush with flavor, from tropical passionfruit and zesty citrus to refreshing melon. This has the potential to be your new summer go-to, so we’d suggest stocking up.



Wild Child

Say “¡Hola!” to Spain’s main grape: Tempranillo. This red grape put Rioja wine on the map and is un vino tinto classico. It’s best compared to a classic cab, but with a bit more unique magic that’s hard to put your finger on, which is why it’s a part of our Wild Child line. This medium- to full-bodied wine with its relatively higher tannins usually offers complex notes of cherry, fig, cedar, tobacco, and dill. This is the type of red wine you want to buy and pour for a Latin-infused meal; think carne asada, tacos al carbon, or just perfectly cooked steak fajita meat.


La Pluma

We knew the only red in the La Pluma collection had to be exceptionally good and exceptionally light. That’s why including a Grenache was a no-brainer. If smooth, fruit-forward, light-bodied reds appeal to your tastebuds, this could be your new favorite. The grape itself is tricky; depending on the climate of where its grown, Grenache wines could be light, dense, or somewhere in the middle. La Pluma’s version has all the airiness and flavor notes we wanted in our Grenache, which is how we know you’ll love it. Get the most of this red by pairing it with roasted meats, spice-heavy vegetables, and Mexican-inspired dishes with lots of cumin.




This grape goes by different names in most European countries, but what remains the same is its fruity floral nature. Delicate in every way and extremely quaffable, this wine is as dainty as they come.



We really try not to play favorites at In Good Taste, but there is just something about an Italian Barbera that hits different in the best way. Barberas are the perfect wine for pizza night; they're low in alcohol, and medium-bodied but taste super light, and their berry and plum flavors pair incredibly well with savory tomato sauce and cheese! Another fun thing about Barberas? They actually taste great when chilled, which is not something we're in the habit of suggesting for our red wines. Our Italian Barbera lies somewhere between the body of a cab and a pinot and is the ideal choice for a "ladies who lunch" kind of afternoon.


Wild Child

We couldn't not have a weird white in the mix, right?! The Vermentino grape is native along the coast of Italy on the island of Sardinia (yeah, like the fish). Because of its origin, this grape offers a salty, crisp flavor that's incredibly easy to drink and enjoy. We say it's "weird" only because it's not widely known by name, but chances are you've probably had it before if you've ever ordered white wine in an Italian restaurant. If you love peaches and lemons and get a kick out of anything that reminds you of the sea, our Vermentino is the perfect Italian white to experience on a sunny day outside.



For the Chardonnay lovers who are looking to dig a bit deeper in the world of bold whites, a Viognier (pronounced vee-own-yay) could be your next big adventure. Viogniers tend to have more range; while they can be creamy with hints of vanilla like their Chardonnay counterpart, they also offer lighter, fruitier flavors like tangerine, mango, and honeysuckle. It’s still a more full-bodied white wine, but unlike Chardonnay, it’s softer on acidity and more perfumed. Spend an afternoon with a glass of Viognier amongst the flowers and it’ll all make sense.


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