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The proximity of the compact Los Carneros AVA to San Francisco—it's less than an hour's drive away—makes it a favorite of in-the-know day-trippers and lovers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This viticultural region, also known as the Carneros District or just the Carneros, stretches across the cool lower reaches of Sonoma and Napa counties. Carneros means "ram" in Spanish, and the slopes now
covered with vines were once thought to be suitable only as sheep-grazing pasture.
To understand how different Los Carneros is from the other California wine-producing regions, notice how close it is to the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay, at this point called San Pablo Bay. On a gray day, the flat marshes and low hills near the water look moody, more like a Scottish moor than a typical California shore. During summer and autumn, strong west winds blow in from the ocean every afternoon, tempering the hot days.
The soil here is shallow and not particularly fertile, which means that the vines struggle to produce fruit. Though this would seem to be a drawback, it's in fact a plus. Vines that grow slowly and yield less fruit tend to produce concentrated, high-acid grapes that are ideal for wine making. Growers in the mid-19th century recognized this and planted vast tracts. Because of the low yields, some of the land was returned to sheep pasture after phylloxera destroyed the vines in the 1890s. But the reputation of the grapes survived, and shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, vines once again spread across the hills.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive on these exposed, windy slopes, but these days, winemakers are also trying out Merlot and Syrah, which are also well suited to the thin soil, moderate temperatures, and low rainfall. (Carneros generally gets less precipitation than elsewhere in Napa and Sonoma.) Even such warm-climate grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen well in favored Carneros locations.
Stretching from the Sonoma County line to the Napa River in the town of Napa, the eastern half of the Carneros shares the wine-growing climate...