Ten Things You Never Knew About California Wine

1. Water: An Essential Ingredient 

Irrigation is an important part of successful wine making in most of California. On average a  vineyard uses 318 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of wine. The amount of irrigation and water needed varies by the region where the grapes are grown. For example, the North Coast region uses 243 gallons of water per wine gallon as there is more precipitation compared to 471 gallons per gallon of wine made in the dryer Central Coast.

2. City of Angels or City of Wine?

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Prior to the gold rush and the establishment of wineries in Northern California the city of Los Angeles was at the heart of the wine industry. In the early 19th century, settlers in the Los Angeles area planted vineyards along the banks of the Los Angeles River. By the 1870’s, there were so many grapevines in the city it was nicknamed the “City of Vines.” Unfortunately, Phylloxera, a parasite that kills vines, along with urbanization wiped out most of the grapevines by 1886 and wine production. 

3. Shake and Break

In 1906 San Francisco was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that left the city in ruins and hit the wine industry hard. At that time, the city served as the central location for wine storage prior to it being shipped across the sea or by rail to the rest of the country and the world. The quake resulted in nearly ten million gallons of wine flowing through the streets of San Francisco. This event resulted in bottles of wine being stored closer to the vineyards, creating what is now known as California wine country.

4. Battle of the Zinfandels 

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The Zinfandel grape was the most widely planted red grape in California until being passed by Cabernet Sauvignon in 1998. This was due in part to the wide popularity of white Zinfandel. Although made from the same grape, the only similarity between White and Red Zinfandel is the name. Red Zinfandel is a powerful, fruit forward wine with a jam-type flavor. White Zinfandel is a thin, pale pink slightly sweet wine.  

5. Immigrants are Essential

Chinese people played a prominent role in the development of the California wine industry. In the late 1800’s they helped to build wineries, plant vineyards, dig underground cellars, harvest the grapes, and assisted as winemakers. But the Chinese involvement in the California wine industry was severely curtailed after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in May of 1882 which encouraged the use of “white labor” by restricting immigration to the US. 

6. Buckets of Bubbly 

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California has a long history of making sparkling wine. It can trace its roots back to Sonoma in the 1880’s with the founding of Korbel Champagne Cellars. The Korbel brothers used the traditional method for Champagne production but used non-traditional grapes like Riesling, Chasselas, Muscatel, and Traminer. Today most California sparkling wine is made from the traditional grapes used in the French Champagne region: Chardonnay, Pinot noir and some Pinot Meunier. The ability to make quality sparkling wine in California has attracted famous Champagne houses such as Moet et Chandon, Louis Roederer, and Taittinger to open wineries in the state.

7. Celebrity Influence 

The 2004 movie “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti as a Merlot wine hating Pinot Noir loving novelist has been credited with causing the “Sideways Effect” on the California wine industry. In a 2009 case study, Steven Cuellar, an economics professor at Sonoma State University, found a measurable decline in merlot sales of about 2 percent from January 2005 through 2008. During that same period there was a 16 percent increase in the sale of Pinot Noir. 

8. A Global Winemaking Powerhouse

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In 2018 according to the National Association of American Wine Growers, California produced 684,864,000 gallons of wine. To put that into some context if California were a country it would be the world’s fourth largest producer of wine behind France, Italy, and Spain.

9. Branding is Everything

Fume Blanc is a wine style that was created by famous California winemaker Robert Mondavi in the 1960s. At the time, Sauvignon Blanc was unpopular and had a reputation for being poorly made and unbalanced. Mondavi knew he could make great wines from the grape but wanted it to sell and so marketed them with this new name. The wine he produced was oaky with well-rounded sweet melon flavors, it was an instant hit. Since Mondavi did not trademark the name many other winemakers began producing Fume Blanc wines.

10. Viticultural Areas

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In the United States wine appellations are designated in each state by geographic, geologic, and climatic features with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). These appellations are referred to as American Viticultural Areas or AVA and in 2020 there were 252 AVA’s in 33 states. With 141, California has more than half of the AVA’s in the US including the smallest, Cole Ranch in Mendocino County, with just 65 acres of vines. 

Feature Image: Kym Ellis on Unsplash

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