BERGER: The differences among coast vineyards

Dividing up California's various wine country regions could well be done in many different ways, most of them geographic.

The two major divisions are inland and coastal. The former are all those similar regions that run north to south in the middle of the state, the "central valley," where cooling marine influences are at an absolute minimum.

As a result, the warm-to-hot temperatures during the growing season do not allow for grapes to remain on the vine long enough to be turned into great wine.

Coastal vineyards, a self-explanatory area, are better suited for the making of the more delicate whites and the nuanced reds that are considered by wine lovers to be worth paying a premium to get.

But it's not as simple as saying that all coastal wines are better than all inland wines. California's Mediterranean climate can be hot and humid — or lacking in humidity — anywhere in the state. All of which makes for a fascinating crazy quilt of coastal wines that usually are based on the regions from which they come.

Colder regions, such as Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, all coastal areas, are equally suited to make excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (as well as other varieties), but the wines differ based on the unique conditions found in each area.

I have been a judge at wine competitions for more than 30 years, and over that time I've been asked to evaluate the wines of California's central coast. Two decades ago, at such a judging, a handful of judges looked at wines from a small number of regions, notably Santa Barbara's rolling hills (such as Santa Ynez Valley) and southern San Luis Obispo areas (such as Edna Valley), the then-small Paso Robles area, and little else.

At the time, the term "central coast" was defined as just a few regions not even halfway up the coast.

Times change. As wine has become more and more popular, as winery tourism has grown, and as wine technology has improved the breed, more and more vineyards have been planted in coastal regions. This has led to consumers being offered a greater number of choices.

Last week, I was one of 18 judges to evaluate 568 entries submitted to the Central Coast Wine Competition, which is affiliated with five regional county fairs.

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