In Monterey County, after five plus decades of commercial winegrowing, certain areas and microclimates have been identified as being uniquely suited to raising specific grapes. The Federal government officially sanctions the effort to identify truly one-of-a-kind winegrowing districts through its system of “American Viticultural Areas” or “AVAs.” When appearing on a label, these legal place names impart to the consumer important information and guarantees about the wine’s origin. By law, to use one of these official site designations, 85% of that bottle’s grapes must have been grown within the AVA’s boundaries.

These American Viticultural Areas can be fairly large and broad representing a complete County in one AVA, or they can be very small in size and focus, such as our local “Chalone” AVA, encompassing only a few acres and vineyards. But for every winemaker, the very building blocks of their craft begin with where the grapes were grown.

Monterey County now encompasses eight smaller AVAs, in addition to the larger, overall “Monterey” appellation. Understanding the swift rise to international prominence of the Monterey wine industry lies in a careful examination of the special properties of these distinct growing districts. How each officially designated region defines itself through its soils, climate, topography, viticultural practices, and people provides the key to “what’s in the bottle.”

Monterey Wine County is home to over 150 unique vineyards that are within the AVAs of Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, San Lucas, Hames Valley, Chalone, Carmel Valley, San Antonio Valley and San Bernabe.

Arroyo Seco
Carmel Valley
Chalone
Hames Valley
Monterey
San Antonio Valley
San Bernabe
San Lucas
Santa Lucia Highlands
Arroyo Seco

Arroyo Seco AvaThe Arroyo Seco appellation, which literally means “dry riverbed,” begins in a steep, narrow gorge at the foot of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Moving east, the topography widens and eventually opens up to the warm, fertile soil of the Salinas Valley.

Due to this extreme variation in topography, the region has a variety of microclimates and soil types. Deep in the canyon, vineyards are shielded from characteristic afternoon winds and thus experience warmer temperatures. As the canyon opens to the valley floor, the afternoon Pacific Ocean breeze cools the grapes, tempering their growth and intensifying the fruit flavors.

The Arroyo Seco in Monterey County is still a relatively new area, by wine industry standards. With vineyards first planted in 1962, this region was quickly recognized for its distinct climatic and soil conditions and in 1983 was awarded its own AVA.

The soil also varies from the canyon to the valley floor. The valley is composed of palm-sized stones, affectionately termed “Greenfield Potatoes” by the locals. These relatively large river stones provide adequate drainage for the vines’ root systems, as well as retain warmth captured from the sun to prevent the vines from freezing during frigid nights. In contrast, the soil found in the canyon is less fertile, forcing the roots of the vines to dig deeper for water and nutrients.

This dramatic variation in terrain and weather within the Arroyo Seco AVA is reflected in the varietals planted: the eastern and central areas grow Chardonnay and Riesling, while Zinfandel, along with Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, are grown in the warmer canyon along the western end of the region.

AVA Approval: 1983
Acres Planted: 7,000
Climate: Moderate, partially sheltered from breezes.
Dominant Soils: Garey Sandy Loam, Oceano Loamy Sand, Lockwood Shaly Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 266ft/1,670ft
Carmel Valley

Carmel Valley AVAWith vineyards dating back to the 1800s, Carmel Valley is a rugged, rustic region west of Monterey and Pebble Beach. Carmel Valley received its designation as an AVA in 1983 and encompasses more than 19,000 acres, with 300 acres of wine grapes under cultivation. The vineyards are predominantly within Carmel Valley and Cacahgua Valley. Cachagua Valley’s unique mountainous setting sits high above the fog line along the coast and exposes the grapes to a warmer overall climate. Average summer temperatures can reach into the 100’s with cool evenings dropping into the low 30’s and 40’s. This dramatic swing in temperature extends the ripening time and growing season, allowing the grapes a slow maturation process for eventual complexity in the fruit and the wine.

The vineyards in the Carmel Valley AVA are planted mostly on mountainous terrain, with the highly prized San Andreas Fine Sandy Loam and the Arroyo Seco Gravelly Sandy Loam soils being predominant. This type of soil provides ideal drainage and allows for optimal airflow through the root system. It requires minimal amounts of supplemental irrigation by the grower and results in healthy, vibrant grapes.

The Carmel Valley’s terrain and climate is ideal for creating rich, full-bodied wines; the Bordeaux varietals are favorites here, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot comprising more than 70% of the grapes grown in the district. In addition, new vineyards in the Carmel Valley are utilizing the numerous microclimate within the AVA to plant Burgundian varietals.

AVA Approval: 1983
Acres Planted: 300
Climate: Extensive coastal influence. Hillside has moderate temperature swings.
Dominant Soils: San Andreas Fine Sandy Loam, Arroyo Seco Gravelly Sandy Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 203ft/2,762ft
Chalone

Chalone AVAThe Chalone region is nestled at 1,800 feet in elevation in the central part of the Gavilan Mountain Range – set against the dramatic backdrop of Pinnacles National Monument. This region has a long history of grape growing, dating back to 1919. Here are found the oldest producing vines in Monterey County. Chalone was awarded its own AVA designation in 1982. Because of its elevation in the mountain range, Chalone is truly unique among Monterey County’s appellations.

Because of this elevation, vineyards are out of reach of the Salinas Valley fog and thus frequently experience a more dramatic shift from high daytime temperatures to the cold nighttime air that allow the grapes to achieve full varietal character . The heart of Chalone remains in the unique limestone and granite soils found only in this AVA. They naturally limit the grape yields, and the limited rainfall that concentrate the fruit and contribute to the rich full bouquet found in the wines of the district. The unique, local soil composition also has an influence on the grapes. Decomposed granite and limestone soil are found only in this AVA and provide the root system with adequate drainage. This maintains healthy vines and contributes to the rich full bouquet found in the wines of the district.

This extreme climate and unique soil composition has been home to almost 300 cultivated acres of vines since being awarded its AVA designation. These vineyards produce a variety of quality grapes including: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah.

AVA Approval: 1982
Acres Planted: 300
Climate: Warm, high elevation reduces coastal influence.
Dominant Soils: Vista Coarse Sandy Loam, McCoy-Gilroy Complex
Min/Max Elevations: 1,201ft/2,323ft
Hames Valley

Hames Valley AVALocated in the southernmost tip of Monterey County, Hames Valley has its own unique climate. Hames Valley sits at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, with rolling hills dotted with oak trees. Although the region does experience a cooling effect from the Pacific Ocean, its geographic location shelters the vines from the afternoon winds coming down the Salinas Valley corridor. This gives Hames Valley a warmer climate compared to regions to the north.

The Hames Valley AVA enjoys the largest diurnal temperature change of all of the Monterey AVAs. Due to the warm days, grapegrowers in the region have a fine attention to vineyard row direction, trellis design, and canopy management in order to alleviate direct exposure of fruit to the sunlight.

Hames Valley has enjoyed the status of its own AVA since 1994. This region has 10,000 acres suitable for grape growing, with 2,000 acres currently planted. The shale-loam soil found in Hames Valley, combined with its warmer weather, produces grapes with intense, bold flavors. This is an ideal setting for growing signature Rhone varietals.

AVA Approval: 1994
Acres Planted: 2,200
Climate: Very warm, minor coastal influence.
Dominant Soils: Lockwood Shaly Loam, Chamise Shaly Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 472ft/1,289ft
Monterey

Monterey AVA The largest of all the area’s official American Viticultural Areas, the Monterey AVA runs almost the entire length of the county, from north of Monterey Bay to the southern border with Paso Robles. Covering such a large area, the Monterey AVA is diverse in both climatic make-up and the types of grapes grown. The single most important factor for every vineyard in the appellation is its location in relation to the chilly waters of Monterey Bay. Vines in the northern areas experience decidedly cooler weather, ocean breezes and fog. Further south, the appellation opens into the fertile Salinas Valley. Framed by the Gabilan and Santa Lucia ranges, the weather patterns warm as you move down the Valley - the southern end of the Monterey AVA basks in the sun with daytime temperatures approaching 100 degrees at times – while still being mildly tempered by the afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean.

Fransican missionaries first planted wine grapes here near their mission outposts in the 1790s but he modern era of winegrowing took root in the early 1960s. Granted AVA status in 1984, the Monterey appellation now boasts over 40,000 acres of vinifera wine grapes under cultivation.

The types of varieties grown throughout the AVA reflect this climatic diversity. In the north, closer to the Bay, cool climate grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir do well. Further south, with the warmer temperatures, you‘ll find grapes that flourish in such an environment: Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Rhone-styles like Syrah and Petite Sirah, and even some Zinfandel. Chardonnay is still king, though, throughout this district, accounting for more than 50% of the vines currently in production.

AVA Approval: 1984
Acres Planted: 40,000
Climate: Cool to hot, based upon location within the 100 mile stretch of land
Dominant Soils: Lockwood Shaly Loam, Chualar Loam, Placentia Sandy Loam, Rincon Clay Loam, Garey Sandy Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 0ft/2,320ft
San Antonio Valley

San Antonio Valley AVASurrounded by the Santa Lucia range, the San Antonio Valley appellation is located in a bowl-shaped valley in the southern most area of the county. Although temperatures here are warmer on average than the other AVAs in Monterey, San Antonio Valley is still influenced by occasional morning fog from nearby Lake San Antonio and cool evening breezes from the Pacific Ocean.

San Antonio Valley is Monterey County’s newest American Viticultural Area, receiving its designation in 2006. But San Antonio Valley’s grape growing history reaches back to 1772 when the original padres at San Antonio de Padua Mission realized this locale was ideal for making their sacramental wine. The mission remains to this day, a lasting reminder of the district’s earliest viticulture.

Currently, over 800 acres of vinifera grapes and more than 20 varietals are under cultivation in San Antonio Valley. With an elevation ranging from 580 to 2800 feet, this region experiences warm, dry conditions. The soils found here are primarily gravelly loam and clay. Taken together, these elements provide an excellent setting for growing full-bodied Rhone and Bordeaux varietals from Cabernet Sauvingon and Petite Sirah to Syrah and Marsanne.

AVA Approval: 2006
Acres Planted: 800
Climate: Hot, minor coastal influence.
Dominant Soils: Arbuckle Gravelly Loam, Nacimiento Silty Clay Loam, Lockwood Shaly Loam, Chamise Shaly Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 587ft/2,789ft
San Bernabe

San Bernabe AVASan Bernabe is the most centrally located AVA within Monterey County. Although this region received its AVA designation in 2004, its history dates back to 1776 when Father Pedro Font named the area after St. Barnabas. In 1842, Petronillo Rios, a cattle rancher, was the first to produce a bottle wine from locally grown grapes.

Since then, of the 25,000 acres designated in this AVA, over 5,000 acres have been cultivated, producing wines reflective of their terroir. In San Bernabe, multiple microclimates can be found, with temperatures varying 5 degrees Fahrenheit from one end of a vineyard to the other. In some cases, this results in certain grape blocks ripening up to one month before others within the same vineyard. The average annual temperature closely resembles that of vineyards in Napa Valley. However, due to the variance of warm days and cool evenings, the growing season can be up to four weeks longer. Various forms of irrigation are needed due to the limited amount of rainfall received during the year.

The vineyards are grown on an unusual composition of Aeolian soil – a type of sand dune composition not usually found in grape growing environments. Sandy soils provide little water retention and thus allow for excellent drainage. This, combined with modern irrigation techniques, provides the grapegrower with tools to adjust the vigor and quality of the fruit, producing, rich full-bodied wines with complex and mature aromas. The San Bernabe appellation grows more than 20 varietals including Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

AVA Approval: 2004
Acres Planted: 5,000
Climate: Moderate, partially sheltered from breezes.
Dominant Soils: Garey Sandy Loam, Oceano Loamy Sand, Lockwood Shaly Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 266ft/1,670ft
San Lucas

San Lucas AVALocated on the southwestern edge of Salinas Valley, the San Lucas AVA is comprised of sweeping alluvial fans and terraces. Since the mid 1800’s, this land at the southern end of Monterey County served as an open range for cattle grazing. It wasn’t until 1970 that the first vines were planted. Today, more than 8,000 acres are cultivated for grapegrowing.

Unlike other AVAs in Monterey County, San Lucas is much less affected by breezes off Monterey Bay. This results in a warmer overall climate during the daytime. With elevations ranging from 325 to 1250 feet, San Lucas is susceptible to morning fog. Temperatures often fluctuate as much as 40 degrees during the summer from day to night. This temperature swing is one of the contributing factors to the longer growing season here, giving the fruit time develop a full body and flavor.

The soil is composed of diatomaceous shale and various sizes of sand stone. This allows for proper air circulation around the root system and offers less resistance to growing roots when compared to harder clay-like soils. Wines produced from San Lucas grapes possess brilliant color to match their rich flavor. Varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

AVA Approval: 1987
Acres Planted: 8,000
Climate: Moderate to warm, some coastal influence.
Dominant Soils: Lockwood Shaly Loam, Snelling-Greenfield Complex
Min/Max Elevations: 325ft/1,250ft
Santa Lucia Highlands

Santa Lucia Highlands AVAThe earliest vinifera plantings, in what was to become the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, took place in the 1790s, with the arrival of the first Spanish missionaries and conquistadors. The modern era, however, could be said to begin in the early 1970s, with initial plantings by Rich and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow, Phil Johnson at La Estancia, and Nicky Hahn at Smith & Hook.

Approved in 1991 as a unique AVA, the vineyards here are planted high up on the southeast facing terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. The vines’ elevated locations take full advantage of the morning sunshine before the afternoon maritime breezes cool the vineyards. The true Region I type climate, comparable to Burgundy, results in an especially long growing season, which allows the grapes to fully develop and attain maximum varietal potential. As you would expect, the cool weather-loving Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir flourish here; Rhone grape types such as Syrah emulate their French northern districts brethren, thriving in the SLH’s slightly warmer, more wind-protected canyons and slopes.

Today, over 4,700 wine grape acres are currently under cultivation in the Highlands, with Pinot Noir being the district’s go-to poster wine. The winegrowers of the Santa Lucia Highlands are innovators – almost every single vineyard is a living laboratory, with new clones, trellising systems, and farming regimens being continuously explored.

AVA Approval: 1991
Acres Planted: 5,000
Climate: Cool, steady temperature climate.
Dominant Soils: Chualar Loam, Arroyo Seco Gravelly Sandy Loam
Min/Max Elevations: 98ft/2,349ft