Monterey County is legendary for its breathtaking views and incredible wildlife.  The way that weather, earth, and ocean combine together make it a dream come true for nature lovers or anyone who just wants to slip away into the area’s quixotic charms. There’s more to the county than one might think at first glance. Sure, the cool ocean breezes, evening fog, and moderate temperatures are all staples of the area, but to view the region as all following the same weather pattern would be far too simplistic. Diverse soil types, varying amounts of wind and fog, as well as generally increasing summertime highs from north to south, mean the appellation has the ability to produce a wide variety of wines. The Grand Blue Canyon, as Monterey Bay is know in wine circles, has a great influence over the viticulture of the region, which covers a great area, stretching from the edge of San Luis Obispo to the top of Paso Robles. In between, there is a great amount of variety, and those who grow grapes, have taken full advantage of it. There are currently 42 different varietals being grown within the nine different American Viticulture Area (AVAs) of Monterey County. Each AVA has it’s own unique set of growing conditions that contribute to the county’s Thermal Rainbow. In the north, it’s generally cooler and more heavily influenced by the bay. Down south, closer to Paso Robles, the temperatures are generally warmer, with the bay’s influence coming in the form of afternoon breezes. We’d like to share the “personality” of each AVA so anyone unfamiliar with the region can start to understand just what a one-of-a kind place Monterey County is and just how many different wines there are to try when you travel along the Thermal Rainbow.


The Chalone region is the smallest A.V.A  (American Viticulture Areas) in Monterey County, with about 300 acres of grapes planted.  Its location, 1,800 feet up in the mountains, means that ocean fog has less influence over the temperature. As a result, the vines experience great diurnal swings of 40 to 50 degrees during a day. These dramatic changes create greater flavor complexity in the region’s wine.  A very unique soil composition of decomposed granite and limestone, along with very little rainfall, create conditions which turn out berries that have a very high skin to juice ratio, and ultimately, more interesting wine.  The district produces a range of varietals, including Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah, but Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc are two grapes that can truly thrive. Graff Family Vineyards offers a fine example of Pinot Blanc and Michaud Vineyard does the same for Pinot Noir. 

The Monterey A.V.A

The Monterey AVA is the county’s largest growing region by far. Stretching from the Monterey Bay itself all the way down to the border of Paso Robles, there are over 40,000 acres of grapes planted. Because of the vast distance the AVA covers, there is a very wide variety of grapes grown throughout the region. Up north, closer to the Bay, the cool climate varietals Pinot Noir and Riesling are more abundant. Moving a bit farther south, vast amounts of Chardonnay as well as some Merlot start to crop up, and at the southern most end of the AVA Bordeaux varietals become the most commonly planted. The range of possible plantings in this AVA are a fine example of the numerous possibilities that exist within the entire appellation. Wrath has a notable Chardonnay from the region, while Estancia offers a distinctive Sauvignon Blanc

The Carmel Valley

Even though it’s located in the northern part of the county, because the valley sits at elevation, it sits well above the fog line, and has a warmer overall climate. During the summer, temperatures can reach into the 100’s but with the valley’s proximity to the coast the evenings are rather cool, dropping into the low 40’s at times. The heat of the day combined with the cool nighttime temperatures, results in shorter growing days for the grapes (when grape vines are too hot or too cold they essentially shut-down and rest). This results in a longer growing season where vines may not be harvested until well into November. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are considered the signature varietals of the AVA, and Galante Vineyards cultivates both on their estate. Read more about those wines here.

Santa Lucia Highlands

The Santa Lucia Highlands sit high above the fertile Salinas River Valley, where miles and miles of produce are farmed year after year.  Fruit grown at this elevated location can enjoy the full effect of fog, which keeps morning temperatures in the high 40’s to low 50’s. Soil also drains exceptionally well, and winds off the Pacific ensure afternoons are not much warmer than the mid-70’s.  Thus, cool weather loving varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir flourish in this area. Two fine examples of Pinot Noir from this renowned region come from Morgan’s Double L Vineyard as well as Estancia’s Pinnacle Ranch.

Arroyo Seco

This AVA has a range of topography; beginning with a narrow gorge at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountain range, it stretches out into the Sallinas Valley. In the canyon, near the mountains, vineyards are shielded from afternoon breezes, so they experience warmer overall temperatures. Soil in the gorge is also less fertile, meaning the vines’ roots have to dig deeper into the soil for water and nutrients. Out in the valley, there is no such protection from the wind, so grape vines planted here are tempered in their growth by the cooling drafts. The soil contains a great number of palm sized river rocks that provide good drainage for the vines as well as retain daytime heat so the grapes do not freeze during the chilly nights. The eastern and central areas produce a fair amount of Chardonnay, while Zinfandel, along with any array of French varietals, are grown throughout the canyon. However, Riesling is considered a signature varietal of the AVA by many in the biz. Jekel Winery along with Ventana Vineyards both to full advantage of this fact. Check out their Rieslings here and here.

San Bernabe

San Bernabe is the most centrally located AVA in the Monterey region, with about 5,000 acres cultivated with grapes. There are a wide variety of microclimates in the AVA, which allows growers to farm a number of different varietals. Additionally, the area has an unusual sandy soil composition. Predominately sandy soils drain extremely well. Thus, the vineyards can make use of irrigation to control the vigor of the vines. With red grapes, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sangiovese are all well suited to the area. For whites Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Malvasia are all grown but Chardonnay is very big in the region. Fog Head Winery makes a very nice example of the AVA’s most prominent grape. Read more about the Chardonnay here.

San Lucas  

At the southwester edge of the Salinas Valley, more than 8,000 acres are cultivated for grapes. The vines here are much less affected by ocean breezes, so they experience warmer overall temperatures during the day. The AVA is somewhat elevated, so it is not uncommon to see fog. These influences result in 40 degree temperature swings during the summer months. Varietals grown in the region include Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. However, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel both ripen very well. Lockwood Vineyard has a fine Cab from the AVA, while Scheid Vineyards has a memorable Zin. 

San Antonio Valley

The San Antonio Valley is Monterey County’s newest AVA. At the far southern end of the region, temperatures here are generally warmer than much of the appellation, but there is still a fog influence from nearby Lake San Antonio, as well as some effect from the Pacific’s breezes. Over 800 acres are cultivated for grapes in the San Antonio Valley, with over twenty different varietals being grown. Because of the heat, with summer highs reaching triple digits, there is an emphasis on bold red wine grapes. These include Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, which Chateau Julien and Line Shack take full advantage of to produce some fine examples of the varietals. 

Hames Valley

The Monterey appellation’s southern most AVA, the Hames Valley, has a very warm overall climate, but it also experiences the region’s most significant diurnal swings, with 50-degree temperature changes from day to night. Due to the heat, vineyard managers must pay careful attention to vine-direction and canopy management. With soils that drain well and only about 9-10 inches of rain a year, the vines stress, and thus, produce smaller berries, with high skin to juice ratios. This results in more intense flavors in the AVA’s wines. At Scheid Vineyards, they understand how favorable these conditions are for Petite Sirah, sourcing their fruit from this valley to make a very  nice wine. Read about it here.

By Jason Barlow