Joshua takes readers on an introductory tour through California, starting with an interesting insight into California’s early founding and popularity before looking at its main wine-growing regions - examining climate, history and geography.
Post-1970, so widely held was the belief that the French commanded an intrinsic dominion over fine wine production, that the established hierarchy of quality wine appeared all but impenetrable. Though the Californian wine industry had itself been maturing for almost two centuries, a somewhat tempestuous sociopolitical climate, combined with an overt prejudice toward New World wine, had meant little acclaim for its product outside of the States. One might suppose that with time, the state of affairs in global wine production and consumption may well have corrected themselves.
However, it would be the actions of a single British wine merchant, albeit inadvertently, that would, with the very best of Californian wine, shatter the preconceptions of the global wine community, setting in motion unprecedented growth and propelling California to the very forefront of wine production. Californian travellers smuggled the Californian wines that Steven Spurrier had included in the 1976 ‘Judgment of Paris’ into France in suitcases. Amongst their opponents 1973 Roulot Meursault Charmes and 1970 Château Haut-Brion. Staring almost certain defeat square in the face and to the surprise, and in many cases dismay, of all present and observing, a Californian wine took first place in each category.
With vigneron and locals imbibed by a decisive victory, having crushed the very best of French wines on their home soil. A staggering period of growth was set in motion in California. Between 1980 and 1990 a mind-bending 600 wineries set up shop. Inward investment and tourism grew as ambitious prospectors planted vines across the State. As of today, were it an independent nation, California would be the fourth-largest producer of wine in the world. The Californian wine industry employs over 300,000 people, boasts 4200 bonded wineries, and contributes over $57bn in state economic impact.
To speak of Californian wine as though one single variety, style or wine can adequately represent the state in its entirety can be all too easy. Admittedly it’s a crime for which in the past I’ve been guilty. From the rolling hills in the Far North to California’s highest elevation sites in the South, exploring the state in more detail reveals a fascinating patchwork more diverse than one could ever imagine. A fitting start point for those eager to learn more about Californian wine is its impressively varied climate and landscape, known colloquially among wine lovers as terroir.
Comprising of 54 ‘smaller’ AVAs, the North Coast AVA spans 3,000,000 hectares across six counties, extending 120 miles in length and a little over 60 in width. Established in 1983, the AVA is now home to more than 800 wineries producing wine from more than 24 varieties. Amongst other revolutionaries, the late Charlie Barra pioneered its creation when he founded the North Coast Grape Growers Association, whose aim it was to give a voice to smaller growers. The association used its funds to purchase celebratory advertisements in national magazines, helping bolster the case of counties incorrectly presumed less prestigious in their bids for inclusion.
As is thought to be the case in Burgundy, but sparsely so elsewhere, the North Coast AVA is segmented not by political boundaries but instead by geographical and climatic factors associated with quality winemaking. Among the North Coast’s delineation are some of America’s most-lauded wine regions. Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Stags Leap, and more. It is therefore uncommon for wine labels to advertise the
North Coast AVA. Instead, producers opt to denote the sub-AVA more prominently. With heritage at the heart of everything they do, winemakers like Inglenook do justice to the region’s staple varieties.
Defining the climate and geography of an area this size is tricky. That being said, the cool fog and persistent breeze of the Pacific Ocean help distinguish the North Coast from hotter, drier inland areas. The regions mountainous terrain and proximity to the ocean temper the impact of the single constant bombarding all of the region’s vineyards. Warm California sunshine. Average summer temperatures are lower, and winters milder, than those experienced further inland. Between June and September, average temperatures in the inland Calaveras County are around 34.5°C compared to 32°C in Napa. This marginal difference to some extent defines the style of the region, where elegant Cabernet’s and luscious Pinot Noir experience long, balanced growing seasons.
If the North Coast is home to California’s aristocratic AVA, the Central Coast AVA is home to intrigue and underdogs. Stretching almost 100 miles further than its Northern neighbour, it is home to 40 individual AVA. Among several planted varieties, the most notable and revered are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Together they make up almost 70% of total production.
Though Spanish explorers found wild grapes growing in the region, Franciscan monks planted the first vines more than 200 years ago, using them primarily as sacramental wines. Over the years that followed, prospectors from across the globe settled in the valleys around Santa Barbara, helping acreage grow dramatically. However, prohibition decimated the region which failed to recover until the mid-60s. Following this revival, winemakers sought to explore unique opportunities to express the regions versatile and varied terroir, a motivation present to this day.
The Central Coast AVA is to some extent marked by its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. However, more so than in the North Coast, it encompasses inland AVA’s which are much warmer than those closer to the ocean. Among the cooler AVA are Sta Rita Hills and Santa Cruz Mountains. Those notably warmer is Paso Robles, Ballard Canyon, and Santa Ynez Valley. Winds funnelled into the vineyards by a series of valleys and mountain gaps influence the cooler AVA. Here Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can rival that of their Burgundian brethren, pay special attention to those crafted by Chanin Wine.
Being notably warmer, the inland AVA is geographically protected from the cooling effects of the ocean. Their warm, dry days are well-suited to ripening Rhone and Bordeaux varietals.
Though not perhaps occupying the same consumer bandwidth as either the North or Central Coast AVAs, a new generation of talented winemakers in Southern California is intent on redefining public perception. Significantly smaller in size than its northern neighbours, the Southern Californian wine district spreads from San Diego in the south to a little north of Los Angeles and boasts well over 25 varieties including Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Dolcetto, and Riesling.
Perhaps most familiar with wine lovers are the Cucamonga and Temecula Valley AVAs where the weather in places mirrors that of the Rhône Valley, certain parts of Tuscany, and southern Italy.
Established as early as the 1700s, this region has been growing grapes longer than nearly any other county in the state. However, following prohibition, it wasn’t until the 1960s, and late 1970s in the case of Cucamonga, that grape growing ‘returned’ to Southern California. Interestingly, when prohibition began in 1920, the Cucamonga Valley produced more wine grapes than Napa County and Sonoma County combined, demonstrating the rich, complex and varied history of Californian wine as we know it.
Both the Cucamonga and the Temecula Valley are hot by any fair analysis, perhaps considerably more so than either the North or Central Coasts AVAs. Summer temperatures in Cucamonga often exceed 38 °C and so there may have previously been a tendency to produce explicitly full-bodied, rich, and often jammy wines. However, in recent years the region’s sense of community has attracted talented winemakers, including rising stars from UC Davis, who have helped boost the knowledge base and overall quality of winemaking.
Significant cooling factors help extend the growing season of grapes in both AVAs. A low-pressure area, formed as the sun warms the inland valleys draws in colder, heavier air, from the Pacific. The mountain range allows this air to pass through gaps and low spots. This cool air moderate’s daytime temperatures and helps encourage a healthy diurnal temperature range, a critical factor in growing high-quality grapes. Additionally, cold air from surrounding mountains collects between the high peaks and during the night ‘drains off’, joining cold air and compounding the cooling effect.
The vineyards themselves are also a touch higher on average than cooler regions of California, ranging between 1200-1,600 feet. One San Diego vineyard grows their Cabernet Sauvignon at 1,300m above sea level, the highest elevation in California.
Covering 2,600,000 acres, the Sierra Foothills AVA is among the largest of all California’s AVA. Despite a vast expanse, only 5,700 acres spread among 100 small, boutique wineries are planted to vines. Here Zinfandel is shamelessly dominant, in total 2,300 acres are planted across 9 square km. The winemakers of the Sierra Foothills produce big, ripe, triumphant wines primarily from Zinfandel and with a scattering of Italian varieties such as Barbera, a little Viognier and some Petite Sirah.
When exploring California in more detail, two common milestones emerge which appear responsible not only for the states past hardships but also for its past, and present, prosperity. These are Prohibition and the Gold Rush. It was, in fact, in 1848 in the Sierra Foothills where the Californian Gold Rush began in when John Marshall discovered gold in Coloma.
The influx of settlers, many of them from southern Europe, encouraged entrepreneurial folk to quickly establish vineyards, hoping to supply the thirsty prospectors with wine. The region’s economic boom slumped significantly following the end of the Gold Rush, and its future seemed to be sealed with the onset of Prohibition. Following this crash, large swathes of the region’s plantings were abandoned, much to the satisfaction of explorers who in the 1970s discovered plantings of old vines producing low yield, high-quality Zinfandel.
In comparison to the AVA close to the Pacific; the Sierra Foothills boasts a Mediterranean climate without maritime influence. The result is warmer, drier weather in summer and cooler, wetter weather in winter. Alpine winds from the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains support healthy diurnal temperature variations. Though the wines are undoubtedly bold and ripe, these cool nights allow for a long, slow growing season. The result is the development of complexity and an aroma and sensory profile that does not come without structure and acidity.
From San Joaquin Valley in the south to Sacramento Valley in the north, the Inland Valleys is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Here fruit trees, almond and pistachio groves, rice paddies and alfalfa fields flourish. As do many thousands of hectares of vineyards. 61,000ha in the San Joaquin Valley, 6700 in Sacramento, 13,400 in Madera County and over 46,000 in Lodi. Independent of its neighbours, Lodi is home to over 100 different grape varieties.
Though not explicitly associated with high-quality wine, over the past decade winemakers dedicated to the soils and vines have brought creative winemaking and cutting-edge technology to the region, catapulting Lodi into the spotlight. Lodi is also home to a driving force of regional winemaking, E. & J. Gallo, who has spearheaded a great deal of local investment.
Putting the size of the Inland Valley into perspective, the 450 mile stretch from north to south is equivalent to the entire length of England. From its border with Scotland to Lands’ End. As such both the soil and climate are diverse. With that being said Lodi, and most of the Inland Valleys, has a Mediterranean climate similar to that along the Mediterranean Sea, with warm days and cool nights. Cool ‘delta breezes’ provide the region with consistent, natural air conditioning throughout the season. The majority of the Valleys rainfall comes during the winter months. Meaning a relatively dry growing season requiring winegrowers to carefully manage irrigation.
California’s leading varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc thrive here. There are also over 100 more varieties in production, including Albariño, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, and Sangiovese to name a few.
Far North California
Last, but certainly not least, several wineries reside at the extremities of California’s northern border. The landscape here is marked by rocky coastlines, snow-capped peaks, and giant redwoods. Far from the hustle and bustle of Napa, things in the north are notably quieter and more rural. You’ll find a handful of wineries, amongst them Alpen Cellars, Briceland Vineyards and Fieldbrook Winery, making wines of great interest. Among their plantings Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Zinfandel.
The climate and geography of California are as diverse as any region anywhere else in the winegrowing world. Here a vast array of producers throughout a startling number of AVAs produce world-class wine and lead the charge in forging new paths for grapes not commonly associated with California. California deserves your attention, those wishing to study it in more detail will quickly find themselves lost in its intrigue, desperate to grapple with the expansive and enthralling array of people, vineyards and talent.