California as a wine producing region has grown in size and importance considerably over the past couple of centuries, and today is the proud producer of more than ninety percent of the United States' wines. Indeed, if California was a country, it would be the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, with a vast range of vineyards covering almost half a million acres. The secret to California's success as a wine region has a lot to do with the high quality of its soils, and the fact that it has an extensive Pacific coastline which perfectly tempers the blazing sunshine it experiences all year round. The winds coming off the ocean cool the vines, and the natural valleys and mountainsides which make up most of the state's wine regions make for ideal areas in which to cultivate a variety of high quality grapes. The sparkling wines of Champagne have been revered by wine drinkers for hundreds of years, and even today they maintain their reputation for excellence of flavor and character, and are consistently associated with quality, decadence, and a cause for celebration. Their unique characteristics are partly due to the careful blending of a small number of selected grape varietals, most commonly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These grapes, blended in fairly equal quantities, give the wines of Champagne their wonderful flavors and aromas, with the Pinot Noir offering length and backbone, and the Chardonnay varietal giving its acidity and dry, biscuity nature. It isn't unusual to sometimes see Champagne labeled as 'blanc de blanc', meaning it is made using only Chardonnay varietal grapes, or 'blanc de noir', which is made solely with Pinot Noir. The Central Coast is a vast region, stretching south from Monterey to the quintessential California beach town of Santa Barbara on the Pacific Ocean.
Monterey County is at the northern end of the Central Coast region. It is distinguished by the Salinas Valley. Made famous by the writings of native son John Steinbeck, the Salinas Valley is a thriving agricultural region, recognized for extensive vineyard plantings of the most popular varieties, both red and white. At the northern end, the valley is cooled by the maritime influences of the Pacific Ocean. It becomes downright hot by the time you reach the southern end in Paso Robles. Here, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and red Rhone varietals do well in hillside vineyards which cool down at night.
As the California landscape curves southward again towards the Pacific Ocean, the vineyards become positively nippy by Paso Robles standards. Foggy mornings and nights are perfect for Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Santa Maria Valley in San Luis Obispo County. There are also plantings of Riesling and Gew'rztraminer. Some believe the unspoiled Santa Ynez Valley, in northeast Santa Barbara County, is the next great California wine region. Santa Ynez experiences the typical am/pm cooling influences of the Pacific, but can be quite warm and Rhone valley-like during the day. The region holds great promise for Rhone varietals, as well as the classic Burgundian ones.