Top Five Under Appreciated Wine Regions

Northern California winemaker is nearly always talked about in terms of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. That’s just the way its. Visitors to "wine country" head to either of these two areas and if they hear about other wine regions besides these, they’ve probably done their research.

So, in the interest of helping with that research, I’d like to suggest…


Mendocino County

In my mind among the top three Pinot Noir growing regions in America (Oregon and Russian River Valley are the other two) and America’s premier Gewurztraminer region. Located about two and a half hours north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, Anderson Valley is a narrow little valley quite close to the coast, making it among the coolest growing regions in California.  It is perfect for early maturing varietals that need a long, cool growing season.

What makes it particularly attractive however is its raw, rural beauty. We are talking about "out of the way". It’s nothing like Highway 29 in Napa or even the much calmer Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley. It is sheltered, rural, nearly pristine. The drive from Highway 101 across Highway 128 into the Valley is one of my favorite in California.

The Wineries That Make Great Anderson Valley Wines
Adrian Fog
Handley Cellars
Lazy Creek

Napa Valley

The Atlas Peak appellation overlooks the bottom of Napa Valley and in fact is inside the Napa Valley appellation. It’s best known for being the source of average to mediocre Sangiovese. But that happens when you have a large winery of the same name as the appellation. Yet there are a number of other vineyards and wineries in Atlas Peak that are making tremendous Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandels. In fact some of Napa’s most famous wineries look to the Atlas Peak appellation for cabernet grapes.

The grapes start growing at about 1200 feet on Atlas Peak. The soils tend to be terribly shallow, the climate quite cold, yet the growing area is above the fog line. It truly is winemaking on the edge when it comes to Napa Valley. The best way to check this area out is to drive up Soda Canyon Road off of the Silverado trail. It twists, it winds and the landscape changes dramatically as you go higher and higher up.

Wineries that Make Great Atlas Peak Wines
Astrale e Terra

Sonoma County

Green Valley is a small sub-appellation tucked inside the huge and diverse Russian River Valley appellation. It is alongside Anderson Valley the coolest California appellation and the home to remarkable Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay and a decent amount of Zinfandel planted in its warmer pockets. The appellation doesn’t get spoken or written about much because of the fame of the Russian River Valley that surrounds it. Yet it is a distinct region define by the cool fog that regularly blankets the area during the summer growing season.

What I like so much about Green Valley is that it a perfect example of what the "appellation system" should do: identify and define specific pieces of terroir that are small enough and distinct enough to have some meaning. It too is quite rural, studded with hills and rises, hidden valleys and stands of redwood trees that thrive in the fog.

Wineries that Make Great Green Valley Wines
Iron Horse
Marimar Torres


Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Mountain stares down at anyone who tours the Sonoma Valley, yet very few people go up the mountain. There is no reason to if you are looking to taste wine. But up there are a number of vineyards of great acclaim. The wines from this appellation tend to be Cabernet and Zinfandel. I can count on the Cabernets to offer great finesse when in the right hands.

However, for those of you who are adventurous I advise you next time you are in the Sonoma Valley area to seek out Enterprise Road off of Bennett Valley Road. Take slowly, the circular drive that is Enterprise road will take you up the mountain, exposing you to a number of vineyards, great views and some of the most stunning country road driving north of San Francisco. It is a hidden treat.

Wineries that Make Great Sonoma Mountain Wines
Laurel Glen
Benziger Family

Bennett Valley
Sonoma County

One of California’s newest appellations is Bennett Valley which sits in the Shadow of Sonoma Mountain between the city of Santa Rosa and the town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. For many years there was really on one reason for a wine lover to find Bennett Valley and there still is only one reason to head out there if you are looking to taste wine: Matanzas Creek Winery.

However, more and more vineyards are being planted in Bennett Valley led by Kendall-Jackson which purchased Matanzas Creek a few years ago. Prior to that and since then they have planted more vineyards in the foothills that surround Bennett Valley. It is a warmer than the nearby Sonoma Mountain appellation and suited for a number of varietals. Of course Matanzas creek gained great fame for its Merlot and Chardonnay grown here. Bennett Valley Road, which winds its way from Santa Rosa to Glen Ellen is another beautiful, narrow country road that is a find! Vineyards line the road, ponds and old barns are in sight and of course the final destination, Glen Ellen (my home town) is a great place to have lunch then head out for more wine tasting.

Wineries that Make Great Bennett Valley Wine
Matanzas Creek Winery
Sable Ridge
Kendall-Jackson properties

Posted In: Terroir


5 Responses

  1. Jack - May 25, 2005

    Wineries that Make Great Green Valley Wines: DuMOL
    Bennett Valley over, say, Sonoma Coast? Hmmm.
    But, I thought the topic was Top Five Under Appreciated Wine REGIONS (emphasis added) rather than sub-appellations(!).
    Alsace, SW France, the Marche, Loire Valley and Priorat.

  2. tom - May 25, 2005

    Hi Jack,
    I really don’t like the Sonoma Coast appellation. It really has no meaning. It is huge. You can buy grapes in the Carneros district and call it Sonoma Coast. However, the Sonoma Coast seems to be well supported. Lots of great wines coming out of the western reaches of Sonoma County that carry this appellation.

  3. Lenn - May 26, 2005

    Of COURSE this is Cali-centric…damn you Tom. I need to get you some Long Island wines.

  4. Alec - May 26, 2005

    I think the Sonoma Coast app is more about (a) the fog, and (b) the soil type continuity [mostly Franciscan Complex from Mendo to just south of Bodega, a swath of Wilson Grove formation from there to just above Petaluma, and old river deposits along the Carneros region].
    That fog and coastal maritime effect truly trumps everything else, making the soils more of a secondary influence. But that’s just my opinion.

  5. Bob - May 31, 2005

    To your top under-reported regions I would include southern Oregon.
    Southern Oregon has the California climate to ripen syrah, Cabernet and many other varietals. In fact, many northen Willamette Pinot producers have decided to hedge their bets on southern Oregon syrah and merlot, because their own climate is not reliable.
    The Emperor has no clothes. Invest millions in northern, Yamhill county Pinot Noir, and get hazed by the critics, who decry weather and other reasons for why Pinot Noir is not reliable in Oregon, as it is in, say, the Santa Lucia highlands of California’s Monterey County (the best New World home for Pinot Noir, as far as I’m concerned).
    Must be a painful re-trenching for some of the California investors who thought Oregon Pinot Noir was the Next Big Thang. Carl Doumani (Stag’s Leap/Benton-Lane) and Gary Andrus (Pine Ridge/Archery Summit), eat your hearts out.
    Hence, big doings in southern Oregon. It’s now a vineyardist’s paradise, but just wait until the southern Oregon wineries take their bow on the world stage.
    We’ll have a treat in store. We’ll have fabulous Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, and a whole lot of Iberian varietals we’ve never heard about before.
    I salivate at the prospect.
    —Bob in St. Helena

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