A lion’s share of the best Californian Pinots come from these eight AVAs, says Karen MacNeil...

Where to find the best Californian Pinot Noir

The Anderson Valley

Slicing like a fjord inland from the cold sea, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County is one of the chilliest grape-growing regions in California (this is where the House of Roederer established Roederer Estate after an eight-year hunt for a climate that would provide perfect acidity for sparkling wines). The Pinot Noir producers that are based here tend to be very small.

Sonoma Coast

Though it is a large, sprawling appellation (1,940km2), the Sonoma Coast is one of the least-planted areas. The best wines virtually always come from the coolest small slice that locals call the True Sonoma Coast. The vineyards here, often in sight of the Pacific, seem perpetually laced with fog.

best Californian Pinot Noir,Ridge Vineyard,

Sonoma Coast

Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley is really three distinctly different places, with the warmer ‘Middle Reach’ growing Cabernet and Zinfandel. Only the coolest pockets work for Pinot Noir. Joseph Swann, Rochioli and Williams Selyem were pivotal early producers here, as was the sparkling wine house Iron Horse.


About 64km north of San Francisco, Carneros spans the southern ends of both Napa and Sonoma, along the San Pablo Bay. The softly loping windswept hills here were once the exclusive domain of sheep (‘carneros’ is Spanish for ‘ram’). Louis M Martini pioneered Pinot Noir here in the 1940s; but it wasn’t until the 1980s (with wineries like Saintsbury, Acacia and Carneros Creek) that things got rolling.

Santa Lucia Highlands

One impressive southeast-facing bank of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Santa Lucia Highlands is known for some of California’s boldest, flashiest and most powerful Pinots (the style favoured by several producers here including Roar and Pisoni Vineyards). This is a warm, dry part of California with less direct coastal exposure than most of the other AVAs.

Arroyo Grande

At 174km2, Arroyo Grande is one of the smallest AVAs in the central part of the Central Coast. Blanketed by fog for most of the day, the region was also initially chosen as home base for a sparkling wine, in this case Maison Deutz. The producers here tend to be top-notch but small in number. Laetitia is a brand to know.

bets Californian Pinot Noir, laetitia vineyards

Laetitia Vineyards

Santa Maria Valley

About 275km north of Los Angeles, the Santa Maria Valley was an early hotbed of indie winemaking talent, including Jim Clendenen who started Au Bon Climat in 1982. Dozens of now-famous southern Central Coast winemakers learned their craft by working under Clendenen, a renegade who himself had apprenticed in Burgundy. Santa Maria boasts two of the most famous vineyards in California – Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills.

Sta Rita Hills

If there was a Vosne-Romanée of California, the Sta Rita Hills (slightly closer to Los Angeles than Santa Maria) would be it. The sheer number of gorgeously rich, texturally long wines from this small place is astounding. Sta Rita Hills is extremely cool, perched as it is close to the coast and fully exposed to the Pacific.

Karen MacNeil is the author of The Wine Bible. 

Updated 27/09/2016: This feature was commissioned and written independently of the Wine Institute of California and first appeared in the California supplement of Decanter magazine’s September 2016 issue.