The Lay of the Land
The over-arching “Mendocino County” appellation is home to a total of ten American Viticulutral Areas (AVAs)
One of them is named, simply, “Mendocino AVA” which largely nests together six smaller AVAs that you may be familiar with (Anderson Valley, Yorkville Highlands, McDowell Valley, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, and America’s smallest AVA, Cole Ranch).
In addition, “Mendocino County” appellation also encompasses “Dos Rios” AVA, “Covelo” AVA, and "Mendocino Ridge" AVA. Uniquely, while the latter’s land mass footprint covers a quarter million acres, the Mendocino Ridge AVA itself includes just the land 1,200 ft. and above in elevation, or about 87,000 acres of which less than 2,000 acres are vineyards.
At least two applications are pending for additional AVAs, which include “Sanel Valley” and “Ukiah Valley”. You will find more detailed decriptions at the bottom of this list.
Mendocino County Appellation
The Mendocino County appellation is part of the large North Coast AVA that spreads northward from San Francisco Bay. Traditionally, Mendocino wines were consumed locally. More recently, however, modern world-wide distribution has brought international recognition. Long famous for its redwood forests, today Mendocino County is a world leader in certified organically-grown grapes. There are 17,000 acres of vineyards in the County, with 25% of them growing certified organic grapes.
Within the Mendocino appellation lies the Anderson Valley AVA as well as a group of smaller AVAs including Cole Ranch, McDowell Valley, Potter Valley, Redwood Valley and Yorkville Highlands. Many small vineyards dot the hills and dales of the rugged region. These legacy vineyards from Mendocino’s immigrant past give the region its identity as a home to Zinfandel, Mediterranean red varieties, including Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Charbono and Grenache. Mendocino’s prolific Anderson Valley is home to some of America’s most sought-after Alsatian whites, prestige sparkling wines, and Pinot Noir.
Anderson Valley AVA
Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County now ranks with the top Pinot Noir regions in North America. While production is not huge, quality is soaring, as rising-star winemakers join home grown stalwarts in producing sleek, powerful Pinots.
Cutting laterally through the coastal range rather than lying between ridges, the west or “deep end” of the Anderson Valley is only a few miles from the cold Pacific Ocean, while the town of Boonville is some 20 miles to the east. Such unique geography results in a wide diurnal range, with daily high and low temperatures occasionally diverging 40 or 50 degrees. This enables Pinot Noir growers to keep acid development in line with sugar and flavor formation through long, warm Indian summers. It also makes for superb Gewurztraminer and Riesling, giving rise to the valley’s annual Alsatian festival. In eastern and ridge-top sites there is plenty of warmth to ripen Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Then there’s sparkling wine. With several methode champenoise sparkling houses, Anderson Valley is bubbly paradise. More information is available at Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association
Cole Ranch AVA
The Cole Ranch AVA has the distinction of being North America’s smallest appellation. This isolated viticultural area of less than one quarter square mile sits between the Russian River and Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Here sixty acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Riesling vines are found tucked into the high hills ranging from 1,400-1,600 feet in elevation. Today, the Sterling family, proprietors of the Esterlina Winery located at Philo, owns the entire vineyard acreage of the appellation.
The McDowell Valley AVA
The McDowell Valley AVA is a high-sloping bench land that sits up to 1,000 feet above sea level and which obtained appellation status in 1987. Overlooking the Russian River to the west, this charming valley in southeastern Mendocino County covers only 540 acres. The region is slightly cooler than surrounding areas, creating conditions that are ideal for select varietals. The McDowell Valley specializes in Rhone red varietals like Grenache and Syrah, plus Zinfandel, some coming from century-old vineyards. White Rhone varietals like Marsanne and Viognier complement the roster of big flavorful reds.
Potter Valley AVA
Located east of Mendocino's Redwood Valley, the upland Potter Valley AVA sits more than 200 feet higher than its surrounding areas. Great day-night temperature variations separate Potter Valley from other growing areas in Mendocino. Mid-day in this inland valley can be truly hot, but nighttime temperatures plummet. Under such conditions, varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir flourish, developing strong but refined character.
Redwood Valley AVA
The climate of this upland valley is cooler than surrounding appellations due to a gap in the coastal ridge which allows cool Pacific air currents to penetrate. These conditions lead to a gradual ripening of fruit that makes Redwood Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Sirah refined and complex. The notable red soil of the area also provides character to the wines. The earliest vineyards in Mendocino County were planted here among the ancient redwoods by Italian immigrants. The area gained official appellation status in 1997. More information is available at A Taste of Redwood Valley
Yorkville Highlands AVA
The region was approved as an AVA in 1998 because of its distinctive soils and temperatures relative to neighboring Anderson Valley. Yorkville Highlands' rocky soils, with high-gravel content, differ from the loamy, clay soils common to neighboring appellations. These highly-porous soils allow for superior water drainage, forcing the roots of vines to dig deep for water. The result is low-vigor vines that yield concentrated fruit. The moderate temperatures of the AVA are suitable for Sauvignon Blanc, but also show great promise for Bordeaux reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. More information is available at Yorkville Highlands Growers and Vintners Association
The Covelo AVA is located about 45 miles north of Ukiah and encompasses Round Valley, Williams Valley, and the surrounding foothills. The bowl shaped basin of Round Valley is distinctly different from the long, narrow valleys more commonly found in Mendocino County. In addition, the soils are very deep loam. The high peaks surrounding the region effectively block any coastal influence, providing the Covelo AVA with a continental climate. The growing season here is shorter than other Mendocino growing areas such as Anderson Valley and the Yorkville Highlands, but the warmer daytime temperatures provide optimum opportunity for ripening.
Dos Rios AVA
Dos Rios is a lively community, located in the remote wilderness of northern Mendocino County. The area, located at the confluence of the Eel River and Middle Fork of the Eel River, is renowned for its white water rafting. The lone winery in the AVA, Vin de Tevis, has six acres under vine, almost exclusively planted to red varietals such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.
The Dos Rios appellation is the brainchild of Ralph Carter, a dedicated and passionate terroirist, who also penned the petition for the equally secluded Covelo AVA. A study of his work Carter’s work reveals that the climate and soil conditions of Dos Rios are remarkably different from other Mendocino County growing areas. Soils here are very rocky, slopes are steep and the climate is a unique combination of maritime and continental.
Mendocino Ridge AVA>
The Mendocino Ridge is the only non-contiguous AVA in America. Only elevations of 1200ft or higher are included. Everything lower than that falls into Mendocino County or Anderson Valley appellations. Adjacent to the Pacific, the lower areas of coastal Mendocino County are regularly blanketed with a cooling fog, except for the ridges. These non-contiguous peaks rise from clouds of fog, seemingly like islands, bringing uninterrupted sunshine to the scattering of tiny vineyards nestled among Redwood and Douglas fir trees. The region covers more than a quarter-million acres of mountainous land, but just 75 acres of the entire viticultural area are planted, with Zinfandel being the local specialty since the late 1800s when many of these ridge-top vineyards were first planted. The legacy of the early Italian mountain vignerons is honored today, as Mendocino Ridge is recognized for producing some of the very best, most distinctive Zins anywhere.
Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak AVA
Congrats to Mendocino newest AVA. The Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak appellation is a two-county (Sonoma and Mendocino) area of roughly4,750 acres of land with 230 acres planted to mostly hearty premium red wine-grape varietals. The appellation rises high above the town of Cloverdale, starting at 1,600ft in elevation and culminating with Pine Mountain peak at 3,000ft. Most of our vineyards are small plots of 10-30 acres carved out of the South-West facing hillsides. Most of our grapes go into premium red wine labels of surrounding wineries and are known for the intensity of both color and flavors, given our much longer growing season, thin and rugged mountain soils, and ideal exposures and micro-climates. In addition, Pine Mountain has a rich viticultural history dating back to the mid 1850s. See http://www.pinemountainava.org
Pending: Ukiah Valley
Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino, still retains the feeling of a small agrarian California town. The Russian River flows the length of the Ukiah Valley and has been its defining landmark for eons. The fertile flood plain of this storied waterway is flanked by miles of benchland. The two topographies create a superb growing region reminiscent of the Medoc.
Pending: Sanel Valley
This southern Mendocino growing area surrounds the town of Hopland on the Russian River, just before it moves south through a narrow canyon into Sonoma County. It is scarcely 6 miles long and at most 2 miles wide. Most Sanel Valley vineyards are on the Russian River plain. It's gravelly soils and well drained vineyards produce outstanding Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.