Discover wineries in the Carneros region

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When the Carneros American Viticultural Area, or AVA, was approved in 1983, it was a chance to capture the region’s distinct coolness, its ability to grow chardonnay and pinot noir - initially, in many cases, for making sparkling wine.

Like so much of the North Coast, Carneros is affected by the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. In its case, the within-view San Pablo Bay brings fog, wind and cooler temperatures to the AVA. Covering 37,000 acres overall, about 6,000 of them planted to wine grapes, Carneros is also the only AVA to span both Napa and Sonoma counties.

This year, the Carneros Wine Alliance, a collection of the region’s wineries, celebrates its 30th anniversary, established two years after the official AVA designation to bring together wineries and grape growers in a collective mission to up the quality of that which is grown and made in Carneros.

Today, so much has evolved in Carneros and yet it remains the home of mostly longstanding producers, household wine names that have earned their reputations over decades — Etude, Saintsbury, Donum, Schug, Bouchaine and Cuvaison — as well as many distinguished vineyards regularly designated by wineries within the region and beyond.

Some of these marquee vineyard sites include Hyde Vineyard, a historic source of Old Wente clone chardonnay; Grace Benoist Ranch, a sprawling hillside estate farmed by Etude; Stanly Ranch, a pinot spot long associated with Saintsbury; and many of the Sangiacomo family’s sought-after vineyards, including Green Acres, the family’s first parcel in Sonoma, purchased in 1920, which Saintsbury sources for chardonnay, also Old Wente clone.

Here are the producers to look for and visit:

Bouchaine: Located near the southern border of Carneros, Bouchaine maintains a 100-acre estate vineyard in view of the Napa-Sonoma Marsh State Wildlife Area and is considered one of the oldest wineries in the appellation. The property traces its roots back to a Missouri settler named Boon Fly (like the restaurant nearby) and Italian winemakers but it was most associated with Beringer for a time, which used it for 30 years as a place to blend wines. The current owners have had it since 1981. Estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir star, made in a fresh, restrained style, as are a riesling and pinot gris. 1075 Buchli Station Road, Napa, bouchaine.com

Cuvaison Carneros: With two wineries within the Napa Valley (the other in Calistoga), the Carneros Napa Valley location is within sight of the producer’s enviable sprawl of estate vineyards, where chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah are grown, the site first established in 1969. Longtime winemaker Steven Rogstad culls greatness out of the grapes, with his wines known for expressing a purity of fruit flavor buoyed by crisp acidity and subtle spice. 1221 Duhig Road, Napa, cuvaison.com

The Donum Estate: There may be no one in the appellation who understands its unique viticultural challenges and rewards better than Anne Moller-Racke, who first came to Carneros in 1983 to manage the vineyards for Buena Vista Winery. In 2001 she took on the smaller, meticulously-minded Donum Estate, with 70 acres of prime vineyard in Carneros devoted to making age-worthy, small-lot, high-minded estate pinot noir and chardonnay. Open by appointment only, it’s worth the special effort to taste. 24500 Ramal Road, Sonoma, thedonumestate.com

Etude: Founded originally by respected Napa Valley winemaker Tony Soter, his successor Jon Priest continues to honor the ethos of the place, devoted to making estate-grown pinot noir and chardonnay that highlight the volcanic heritage of Grace Benoist Ranch, a sizable vineyard in the southwest section of Carneros near Durell. As if that weren’t enough, the winery also produces cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot blanc and pinot gris, in addition to a wide range of pinots from around the world. 1250 Cuttings Wharf Road, Napa, etudewines.com

Saintsbury: Founded in 1981 by David Graves and Richard Ward, Saintsbury remains a top producer of Carneros pinot noir, having made its mark back in 1983 with the first bottling of Garnet Carneros Pinot, a touch point helping to establish the area’s potential for great still wine. Its Home Ranch, Stanly Ranch, Toyon Farm and Brown Ranch wines remain highly sought after. 1500 Los Carneros Avenue, Napa, saintsbury.com

Schug Carneros Estate: A family-owned pioneer that first got off the ground in 1980, Schug farms and makes estate chardonnay and pinot noir in an old-world style, without over-the-top power or use of oak. Proprietor and winemaker Walter Schug, a German native, started out in wine-making at E & J Gallo before moving on to Joseph Phelps Vineyards, helping Phelps himself to build his since-famous winery. Schug is also credited with making the first syrah in the United States. In addition to pinot and chardonnay, the winery makes a sparkling Rouge de Noirs from pinot grapes. 602 Bonneau Road, Sonoma, schugwinery.com

Truchard Vineyards: Another longstanding, family-run operation, Truchard sells grapes to others as well as produces its own restrained and elegant wines, including a rare roussanne, a bright, crisp springtime white wine. Its devotion to the more offbeat continues with an estate-grown tempranillo and syrah. Tours and tastings are available by appointment. 3234 Old Sonoma Road, Napa, truchardwinery.com

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.

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