Where there were some 25 vineries about 40 years ago, there are today more than 400. The California viticultural areas not only were successful in establishing their position internationally, but they have also become a focal point of a region which has grown to be one of the most important for travel in the state. Visitors no longer only come for wine tastings and culinary tours but find a number of other attractions here now as well. The California Wine Country is located in the northern part of the state, north of San Pablo Bay and about an hour from San Francisco. It mostly stretches across Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, but wine is being produced in other regions of California as well.
Out of about 200 designated American Viticultural Areas, in short AVA, 97 are located in California. They produce first-class wine here by now and with an annual output of more than 28 million hectoliters, the US are ranked fourth among wine-producing countries worldwide. Some 88% of the American production is made in California, where viticulture has been established as early as in the middle of the 19th century.
The first vinery of Napa Valley was established in 1861 in St. Helena. There alone, several hundred vineries grow vines on cultivable acreage of more than 170 kmē. The valley has soil with many sediments of volcanic origins. It slowly rises to the north from sea level to an elevation of about 110 metres. It is surrounded by the Mayacamas Mountains in the West and the Vaca Mountains in the East and it has several climatic zones. In a blind tasting in Paris in 1976 with American and French wines, the Americans had claimed victory which brought a boom to Napa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir are the main grape varieties cultivated here. The city of Napa with its 74,000 people is the region’s center. The second-largest city of Napa Valley is American Canyon with a population of 16,000, which bills itself as the “Gateway to Napa Valley” because of its location at the northern end of the valley. The small town of Yountville with almost 3000 inhabitants in the south of the valley was home to the first vineyard in the region and has today turned into one of the tourist centers with numerous accommodations and very good restaurants. With Lincoln Theatre the most important theater stage of Napa Valley is located in Yountville. The small city of Calistoga (population 5,000), also at the southern end of the valley, claims to be the place where wellness spas were invented when a hotel was built at the hot springs in 1862 and offered thermal treatments. Calistoga tries hard to maintain its small-town atmosphere and has for example never allowed fast food restaurants to set up shop in the city.
Bordering Napa Valley in the West is Sonoma Valley where even more wine is being made. There, they have more than 240 kmē of acreage used for vines, there are about 250 vineries in 13 different AVAs. As early as 1812, grapes were cultivated on the grounds of the Franciscan mission San Francisco in Sonoma and single sprouts of this cultivation were transfered to other areas to start a vineyard. This tradition was continued when the Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy bought a vineyard, went back to Europe to learn about the art of viticulture and returned with thousands of plants. Sonoma Valley is located between the Mayacamas Mountains and the Sonoma Mountains and is bordered in the South by San Pablo Bay.
The city of Sonoma in the South with about 10,000 inhabitants is built around Sonoma Plaza, a central square like it is found in Mexico, where the Mission San Francisco, the city’s town hall, a historic theatre, several hotels and about 30 restaurants can be found. The square is a major tourist attraction of the Valley and is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Sonoma does not only have historic significance for viticulture, it also served as the capital of the proclaimed Republic for 26 days in 1846, before California became a US state. Near the city is the Infineon Raceway, which annually hosts a race of the NASCAR series. Also in the vicinity are some small towns with hot springs. Among these are El Verano, Aqua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs, which all became known as spa towns in the middle of the 20th century.
The town of Glen Ellen has only a population of about 1000, but despite its small size, it is an important location for vineries and vineyards and also a popular destination for tourists. Those are often drawn to Jack London State Historic Park, which encompasses the famous author’s former home, where he lived from 1909 to 1916, as well as the tombs of Jack London and his wife Charmian. A little further north is the town of Kenwood, which has a few restaurants and accommodations. The northern end of Sonoma Valley is marked by the city of Santa Rosa with a population of 154,000.
Northwest of Santa Rosa is Mendocino County, the third region that belongs to the Wine Country. There are ten different AVAs within that region which mostly grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Many producers in Napa Valley partly use grapes from Mendocino County for their wines. Many vintners here focus on producing organic wines. The mountains of the Mendocino Range separate the area in two principal climatic zones, of which the western one is influenced by the Pacific Ocean and the eastern one has a warmer climate. In the western part, where the AVAs of Anderson Valley and Mendocino Ridge are, sparkling wine is being produced successfully since a few years ago.
Altogether, the California Wine Country has become so popular with tourists and day trippers that tourism has become the second-most important revenue source of the region behind winemaking. There are a number of offerings for visitors, who will also find many great restaurants here. By number of overnight stays, the Wine Country has become California’s second-largest tourist destination behind Disneyland. Wine tours with vans are offered throughout Napa and Sonoma Valley, which always include visiting vineries with wine tastings.