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A Beginner’s Guide to California Wine

California is the king of American wine making with over 84% of all the wine in the United States (US) being produced in the state. The next closest in production is Washington state with a mere 5% of US wine production. So, it is no wonder when one thinks of wine making in the US the state of California is the first place to come to mind.

Viniculture began in California in 1769 with the arrival of Franciscan Missionaries from Spain and the establishment of the first mission in San Diego. The missionaries planted grapes to produce wine for  religious services and daily life. As the number of missions grew in California so did the planting of these low quality field grapes across the area that became known as Mission grapes and were the dominant grape variety for wine production until the early 1800’s.

The gold rush of Northern California between 1848-1855 brought an influx of thirsty miners and other settlers. With an increase in population, the demand for wine exploded and the wine centers of today, Napa and Sonoma, started to emerge. The first commercial winery in California, Buena Vista Winery, was founded in Sonoma in 1857 by Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy and it remains one of the oldest wineries still in operation. By the 1900’s the California wine industry was booming in the US and beyond. Wine was exported all over the world including to Australia, Central America, England, and Asia. 

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As in many other states the growth of the California wine industry came to a screeching halt with the enactment of prohibition in 1919 that made the sale of alcohol illegal. The wine industry in California and across the US was devastated. Before 1920 there were 2,500 wineries in the US, many of them in California. By the end of prohibition, fewer than 100 survived. It took over half a century for California wine making to return to pre-prohibition volumes and by the 1960’s the number of wineries had still only grown to 271 statewide.

The modern era of winemaking in California was ushered in by an event famously known as “the Judgement of Paris” which took place on May 24, 1976. On this day, at a blind wine tasting, French and California wines were evaluated side-by-side by French judges; the results of the tasting would change the world’s view of California wine forever. Californian wines won both categories judged that day, shocking the wine world. Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon toppled their French counterparts from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Following this event California wine makers were confident they could compete with well established French wine makers, and the industry’s growth has been on an upward trend ever since.

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Two thirds of California is covered with vineyards across five major wine regions from north of San Francisco to south of Los Angeles. The North Coast is the oldest and probably best known region as it includes the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. To the east in the Sierra mountains is the Sierra Foothills region which contains just over 1% of the wine grape plantings in the state. To the south is the San Francisco Bay AVA which stretches down to Santa Cruz and overlaps with the Central Coast AVA region that includes Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. The fifth region is the South Coast situated below Los Angeles and inclusive of the up and coming Temecula Valley not far from San Diego.

No article on California wine is complete without mentioning the Central Valley, a huge expanse of fertile land between the coast range and the Sierra Foothills. It is not a recognized wine region but  nearly fifty-five percent of the state’s total wine acreage is planted here along with other agricultural crops. Most of the grapes are made into juice or raisins but a significant amount is used to make bulk or “jug” wine. Lodi is one region in the Central Valley producing quality wine, mostly from Zinfandel grapes with many of the vines planted before prohibition. 

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The climate in California is primarily Mediterranean and ideal for viticulture with warm dry summers that last from the growing season through harvest. The highest quality grapes tend to come from interior locations with elevation and cooling sea breezes that moderate the California heat, but each region’s wine makers have determined what grape varietals grow best in their geography, climate, and soil.

California is best known for and truly built its wine making reputation on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grape varietals. The second most planted red grapes are Merlot and Pinot Noir followed by Zinfandel. Popular white grape varietals include Sauvignon Blanc (often labeled Fume Blanc), Pinot Gris, Semillon, and Viognier. But as the California wine industry has grown, so has the diversity of grapes planted; California wines are now being produced from Spanish, Italian, and French Rhone varietals. Today California has over 4,300 wineries and a visit to a wine region is the best way to learn about California wines. Whether it is a vacation or a business trip there are vineyards within a short drive of just about every major city. This guide is a great resource for learning more about California wine regions. Once you decide where to go, book a local tour company to take you wine tasting in plush vans with knowledgeable guides and you can just sit back and enjoy the scenery. Here are a couple companies serving Napa and Santa Barbara areas.

Feature Image: Daniel Vogel on Unsplash

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