California is the classic wine land, once called “the natural home of the grape.” Its long, gentle, sunlit seasons nurture many of the world’s great wine grapes and its fabled vineyards and wineries combine tradition with modern science to produce wines for every taste, occasion and pocketbook.
The California wine industry traces its roots to the Franciscan missionaries who journeyed north from Mexico in the late 18th century. Charged with setting up a system of mission outposts through California, the determined group of padres hauled vitis vinifera grapevines with them as they established 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma Country.
Although the mission grapes made adequate wines for the padres’ purposes, they lacked the delicate flavor components necessary for successful commercial winemaking.
Enter a pioneering Frenchman by the name of Jean Louis Vignes. In the 1830s, he sent to France for a selection of vine cuttings from that country’s well-known wine regions. The French vines prospered in California, a success that opened the way for modern-day winemaking.
While Vignes is generally credited as California’s first successful commercial winemaker, Agoston Haraszthy must be recognized as the man who brought the idea to maturity. Often dubbed the “father of California wines,” the energetic Hungarian immigrant worked tirelessly to promote and encourage the growth of commercial winemaking in California, using the finest European grape vines.
In 1861, Haraszthy convinced the governor to send him to Europe to collect a large selection of vines for transplanting in California. He returned with 100,000 cuttings of 300 varieties.
California wines enjoyed a brief period of national and international recognition in the 1880s and 1890s, which was halted by the dreaded phylloxera and later, by Prohibition. Fortunately, both calamities were resolved, the former by developing disease resistant rootstocks, the later by repeal in 1933.
The wine industry made significant progress following Prohibition and today receives international acclaim for quality and style – a remarkable feat, considering the industry’s brief history.
California’s surprisingly diverse climate and growing conditions make classifying its wine regions as difficult as classifying a particular vintage. California has myriad microclimates up and down the state, all suited to growing a wide range of grape varieties.
One valley may have so many microclimates, with fine Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the north and equally good Chardonnay growing to the south and many other varieties flourishing in-between.
California’s north-south mountain ranges account for this climatic diversity. These coastal ranges block the direct influx of Pacific weather systems, allowing fog and cool temperatures through, only in certain gaps. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow best in cooler regions, usually located near inlets or gaps in the mountain ranges. In other areas, farther removed from the ocean’s tempering breezes and cool fog, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc bear some of their finest fruit.
AMERICAN VITICULTURAL AREAS (AVA)
* AVA is a delimited grape growing region distinguished by geographical features and a defined boundary.
* The specific boundaries of the viticultural area are based on features which can be found on U.S. Geographical Survey. Boundaries of a viticultural area may be a combination of natural features and a series of tangents from point to point, or may follow along a road or railway.
* The regulating body for the alcoholic beverage industry is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a branch of the Department of the Treasury.
* All an AVA really does is tell you where the grapes come from, it is not a guarantee of quality.
The United States “American Wine”
Contiguous States “Southeastern New England”
A particular state “California”
Counties in the same state “North Coast”
One county “Sonoma County”
One viticultural area “Sonoma Valley”
Winegrowing districts in California are usually designated by county or regional name. Since 1980, the Federal Government has made an effort to define a great number of these American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). California has more than 100 AVAs, major winemaking areas include:
* North Coast includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino (Anderson Valley) and Lake County (Clear Lake) north of San Francisco Bay
* North Central Coast includes the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey County (Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco)
* South Central Coast includes San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande) and Santa Barbara County (Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills)
* Central Valley and Sierra Foothills include Lodi-Woodbridge, Clarksburg and Sierra Foothills
* South Coast, below Los Angeles, includes Cucamonga Valley and Temecula
The areas are loosely defined based on climate and geology and primarily allow grapes from several wine areas to be blended and still qualify for AVA and “estate bottled”.
Nonetheless, the majority of California’s grapes are born in the Central Valley which is not encompassed by any of the larger AVAs.
Napa County is one of the most popular of the AVAs. It is located 60 miles north of San Francisco, bordered by Sonoma County on the west, Lake County on the north, Solano County to the east and San Francisco Bay on the south.
The mountains on either side of the valley hold the wine areas such as Howell Mountain, the Mayacamas Mountain and Stag’s Leap. Wineries in Carneros are also highly regarded.
Sonoma County offers a diverse climate and is the home to many distinct wine producing areas, including Alexander Valley in the north, Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and part of Los Carneros in the south and the cool, Oceanside area near Cazadero.
Mendocino and Lake Counties are the northernmost of California’s wine zones. These areas, especially Lake County, had evolved into a very active wine region around the turn of the 20th century. Prohibition put a quick end to that activity. This zone is made up of distinct areas such as the Anderson Valley which runs west toward the Pacific Ocean, the McDowell Valley east of Hopland, the Redwood Valley north of Ukiah and the area around Clear Lake.
San Francisco Bay Area was once the fine-wine area of California, but the Santa Clara Valley has made way for homes and high tech industry. Today, many wineries line the hills above San Jose. The Livermore Valley, located in the eastern reaches of the Bay Area, has a tradition of fine wine dating more than 100 years. Many other winemakers have chosen to pursue their vocations from Marin County, north of San Francisco, the coastal hills and Valley of San Mateo and the delta area of Contra Costa.
North Central Coast runs from the Santa Cruz Mountains in the north to Greenfield in the south. The greatest concentration of wineries is in the area between Santa Cruz and Gilroy.
Several growing regions exist within the North Central Coast. In the north are wineries in the wooded Santa Cruz Mountains, while to the east you find the eccentric and interesting winemakers of the Hecker Pass. Finally, on the eastern edge of the region are wineries in the mountains of San Benito County.
South Central Coast is made up of several counties, some of which are newcomers to wine production, others of which have been making wine since the early 1900s. In the north is San Luis Obispo, while in the south are Santa Barbara and Ventura. The Santa Ynez Valley has some great production as well.
Southern California’s wineries are fewer in number but represent the rebirth of the first bonafide wine producing region in California. Today, the valley around Temecula and the rural hills of San Diego produce wine.
Central Valley runs more than half the length of the state and produces the majority volume of wine from California. The diversity of winery types here is tremendous – from the largest winery in the world at Modesto to small, premium wine producers of Madera and the Sacramento Delta region.
Sierra Foothills are more famous for their “gold” days than for their history as wine producers. This is the famous “mother lode” area that, in the 1800s, drew thousands looking for their fortunes in the streams and hills of Placerville and Sonoma in the south.
US WINE LABELING LAWS
All wine labels in the United States, whether the wine is produced in the US or imported, require:
A brand name
Type of wine (varietal/table/sparkling white/fruit wine, etc.)
Alcoholic content or table wine may be used in lieu of giving an exact percentage. If the percentage is stated, the TTB allows for a variation of plus or minus 1.5%.
Name and address of bottler/importer
Place of origin
Volume – net contents (metric)
Government warnings – Health and Sulfite
Other optional items that may appear, include:
Appellation of origin
Additional information about the wine or winery.
Reserve – no regulations.
Further, if a vintage is named on the label, grapes must be 95% from stated vintage.
If an American Viticultural Area or AVA appears on the label, grapes must be 85% from that area.
An Appellation/County on a label requires that 75% of the grapes must come from that appellation according to Federal Law. Individual states may make their own regulations. In California, if the state appellation is the one that is used, then 100% of the grapes must come from California.
If varietal is used, must be at least 75% of named grape.
A specific Vineyard Designation requires that 95% of the wine must be from that vineyard.
* Proprietary Wines – wines with exclusive names like Opus One, Dominus, Blue Nun.
* Generic Wines – blended wines usually named after places, but not from there, like Hearty Burgundy, Rhine Wine, Chablis.
* Varietal Wines – named after the grape from which it is produced like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio.
CALIFORNIA GRAPE VARIETIES
Chardonnay (White) – Chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the U.S., and there is more Chardonnay planted in California than any other variety. Chardonnay grapes thrive in cool coastal climates, but can also work in warmer climates that turn cooler at night.
Riesling (White) – Riesling grapes are very finicky about where they’re planted. The grapes perform better in cooler climates and, depending on winemaking techniques, can vary dramatically from very dry to slightly or even very sweet. Riesling wines from California tend to be soft and full, with delicate fruit and floral flavors.
Pinot Gris/Grigio (White) – Although Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio is considered a white wine, it is thought to be a mutant clone of the red Pinot Noir grape. Pinot Gris (gris is French for gray) grapes can range from blue-silver to hints of pink and yellow and generally prefer the cool, coastal areas of the state.
Pinot Noir (Red) – A sometimes fussy grape, Pinot Noir needs a cool climate and careful handling to make fine wine. The name is derived from the French words for “pine” and “black,” alluding to the variety’s tightly clustered, deep purple, pinecone-shaped bunches of fruit.
Cabernet Sauvignon (Red) is the second most popular wine grape variety grown in California after Chardonnay. The grapes have particularly thick skins, resulting in dark purple wines that are full bodied, intensely flavored and long lasting.
Merlot (Red) – For a long time, Merlot grapes were known for their ability to blend well with Cabernet Sauvignon, but the grape has also carved out its own niche as a popular single variety. Merlot grapes have a redder hue than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and thinner skin; the grapes also have fewer tannins which can make the wines soft and smooth.
Syrah (Red) – Though sometimes referred to as Shiraz, it is fairly new to California and is grown in both warmer and cooler climates with different results. It is rapidly gaining popularity.
Petite Sirah (Red) – Despite the similarities in name, Petite Sirah and Syrah are two very different grapes. Petite Sirah likely earned its name in California around the 1880s when some vines, likely a variety of Syrah, had smaller, more petite grapes. Despite its name, the flavor of Petite Sirah is often deep, rich and spicy, and the wines are usually full-bodied. This is because the skin-to-juice ratio is high in the small grapes and the majority of a wine’s flavors and color comes from the skin.
Zinfandel (Red) – California’s warmer climates provide the ideal growing location for these intensely-flavored red grapes. Some of the state’s most sought-after Zinfandels are produced on old, knotty vines which produce rich, deep flavors.