Every time I drive on Highway 101, straight through California's Central Coast region, I pass by so many vineyards and wonder "Who the heck drinks this stuff?" You see, when I was a kid, the valley floor was (and still is) known as the "world's salad bowl." Row crops everywhere on the valley floor. I can even remember my father growing sugar beets, a crop that is pretty much extinct today. The foothills were peppered with grazing cattle, either cow-calf operations or growing beef cattle. There were dairies all over the place, from Greenfield into the Santa Clara Valley.
In the 1960s, things slowly began to change. A pair of large commercial vintners that had established their vineyards in the Santa Clara and Livermore Valleys were being pushed off their land by encroaching population growth in the south San Francisco Bay Area. Salinas Valley foothills near Greenfield and Soledad became home to two vineyards, but the valley floor remained row crops. After three years, those grapes became world-class Monterey Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers.
Wine grapes were not exactly a new thing in the region. Over 200 years ago, Franciscan friars planted wine grapes at the missions they'd established along the El Camino Real. On the valley floor, near present-day Soledad, those friars discovered that the Salinas Valley's afternoon heat and its cool evenings was perfect for wine grapes. For whatever reason, that knowledge died with those friars, and the Salinas Valley became thought of as the perfect place for row crop production, but not wine grapes, because of the hot days and windy afternoons. Even a climate study performed by a pair of University of California at Davis professors in the late 1930s went mostly unnoticed until Mirrasou and Paul Masson wineries decided they needed a place to relocate their vineyards, and looked to Professors Winkler and Amerine's study. Those professors observed that the Monterey County's wine grape-growing conditions were the same as the world-famous wine producing regions of Napa and Sonoma in Northern California, and Burgundy and Bordeaux in France.
As a teen in the 1970s I worked in the vineyard of well-known winery that was establishing its presence in the Salinas Valley, specifically the Santa Lucia Mountain foothills between Greenfield and Soledad. I worked alongside much more skilled farmworkers, training vines, removing suckers and pruning the immature plants to maximize yield when they were finally ready to produce. By 1975 there were over 28,000 acres in wine grape production. Back then my underage palate thought Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill was good stuff, and I gave no thought as to those grapes I tended five long days a week in the summer sun.
Monterey County got a bit of a jump in regard to establishing vineyards when compared to its neighbor to the south, San Luis Obispo County. Like Monterey County, SLO had been a grape-growing region for the Franciscan padres, producing sacramental wine. A commercial vineyard of zinfandel grapes had been established in the 1880s, but the grape growing industry took off in the 1970s, with the first modern winery established in 1979.
Being surrounded by all of these vineyards, I began to pay more attention to the wine, and tried to understand the nuances between those produced in the different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Sure, I understood that climate and different soil types were important to growers, but were they important to me, a drinker of wine? My epiphany happened when attending the (Highway) 46 West Harvest Block Party, which was held at the Tooth & Nail Winery. Being the unsophisticated wine drinker I am, I am unable to use the fancy terms that wine snobs use—I either like a wine or I don't, and the first whiff of a freshly-poured wine gives me one heck of a pleasant rush (usually!). But three times that evening I sampled wines that weren't so much about their taste but rather evoked a feeling or a memory.
Peachy Canyon's 2012 Incredible Red smelled so good, so summery, that I felt bad drinking it and not using it as a perfume. Not overly flowery, the wine was dry to my palate but danced in my sinuses in a most pleasant way. The scent reminded me of a mishmash of summer scents—trees in full leaf, ripening peaches and nectarines on the trees, clean air blowing off of the Monterey Bay, and a warmth from the sunshine. I was immediately transported back to my early 20s, when my understanding of wine was as simple as "red or white."
The second was an estate-grown red blend named "661" from Croad Vineyards. The first whiff revealed a subtile scent of scrub oak, and my first sip immediately brought me back to the scents of my youth, growing up in a canyon at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The wine itself was not overly fruity but very delicious, and I was sorry I was unable to enjoy a proper portion, being the designated driver and unable to spit out wine (unless it's really skunky!). I asked the attendant to describe where those grapes had been grown, and she told me that yes, there were scrub oaks surrounding and in that actual plot of grapes.
Finally, I sampled a Barbera from Donatoni Winery. It's a traditional Italian-style wine, and immediately I noticed a hint of bacon (yes, bacon). It reminded me of the homemade Italian wines that I'd been so fortunate to get a sip of when my parents visited Swiss-Italian friends who made their own wine. I asked the winemaker, Hank Donatoni, if I was indeed tasting actual bacon. He gave me a wry smile and said "It's different for everyone." (Yet this was one wine my daughter tasted that she actually spit and poured out!)
I wondered "What do these wines have in common and why did they evoke such a response in my brain?" The probable answer: They were all created with grapes grown in the foothills and gently sloping hillsides of the Santa Lucia Mountains, less than 50 miles from where I grew up, with the ambient temperature and soils and rocks the same as my childhood stomping grounds—hot in the summer, cooling down in the evenings, scrub oak trees everywhere and Monterey shale-type chalky rocks and soil.
AVAs were established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Tobacco Trade Bureau (TTB) of the United States Department of the Treasury. An AVA is a geographical area that can distinguish itself by not only geography but also climate, soil, elevation and physical features. Each AVA is an appellation—a legally-defined description of where the grapes were grown. For a wine to be able to claim its grapes were grown in a given appellation, 85 percent of the juice must have been grown in that AVA.
For now we will focus on those AVAs that are near and dear to my heart: those of the Central Coast, in Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Benito and San Luis Obispo Counties.
So, gentle reader, join me as I try my best to learn about AVAs and why they are important to wine drinkers. I will try my best to distill some potentially dry information into something tasty and practical.