‘All the Gold in California ‘ sang the Gatlin bros in 1979, it was the time when American wines were seeing a renaissance and garnering global confidence with California leading the way just like it does today. With 90% of US wine production and 90% of US wine exports California is a goldmine contributing over $25 bn in retail sales in the US only, whilst capturing a 60% market share which include foreign and other domestic wines.
California – Back in time.
With 49 of 58 counties growing grapes, 231000 hectares of vineyards, 4100 wineries, wine is certainly a statewide industry for California. It all started in the 1700s when the Spanish missionaries began growing grapes and making wines for religious services in Southern California and slowly it stretched along the coast northwards till Sonoma. In the 1830’s first Sonoma and then Napa, two top regions of the US wine scene began making wines. 1857 saw the opening of Beuna Vista in Sonoma and 1861 Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in Napa. The historic Gold rush led to a 150% growth in vineyard area , it was a result of immigration which in turn got in wine expertise. America was drinking all the way to the 1900’s until prohibition struck and California lost 94% of its vineyards.
Resurrection began in 1933 post repeal and E&J Gallo, the world’s largest winery today set shop then. The next few decades the industry limped but moved up. Only in the 60’s that it gathered pace as stalwarts like Robert Mondavi showed confidence in the industry and opened a winery in Napa, the first major one to open post prohibition. He led by example and endeavored to name wines by grape varietals which became a new world norm and his oaked Sauvignon blanc which he called the Fume Blanc (smoked white) became synonymous for a Sauvignon.
Quality wine making had arrived in California and it showed in the momentous ‘Judgment of Paris’. The increased demand 1980s and 90s saw push for quality and of course the number of wineries grew at a rapid pace. In a bid to take control the US government demarcated 50 areas as American Viticultural Area (AVA) based on growing conditions, soil and history. Today there are around 230 AVA’s in the US and around 136 in California. The turn of the millennium saw mushrooming of wineries, from 1000 in late nineties to around 4100 as of today in California and it produces 250 million 9 liter cases of wine.
California – Geography
With a 1300 km coastline, California boasts of one of the longest coastlines of the world adjacent to a wine growing region. This proximity to the sea is what makes the region special. The cool oceanic breeze helps to cool the inland regions and this influence can well be seen over 25 kms inland, as result the nights are cool and the morning warm thus extending the ripening seasons and yielding good quality fruit. The warm inland air meeting the ocean breeze is also responsible for the fog which covers many of the regions including the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Broadly California is divided into 6 macro-growing regions and they are further broken up into AVAs. Below are the 6 regions with some popular AVA’s they comprise
North Coast (54 AVAs)
Mendocino County, Los Carneros, Napa Valley (18 AVAs), Sonoma County (18 AVAs)
Central Coast (41 AVAs)
Livermore Valley, Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara (of Sideways fame), San Francisco Bay
Southern California (11 AVAs)
Los Angeles, San Diego, Temecula, Malibu Coast
Inland Valleys (18 AVAs)
Lodi the most famous of the regions and is the fastest growing in the state. It is known for its Zinfandel.
Sierra Foothills (6 AVAs)
Situated inland the region was the epicenter of the Gold Rush. The El Dorado county is known for its Old Vine Zinfandel.
The northern most region, home to the ‘Lost Coast’. Manton Valley is one of the better known sub-areas.
Wine styles and grapes
California is endowed with 2800 different soil types and varied geography comprising mountains, valleys, deserts, and coasts, and this allows a myriad grape varieties and wine styles. California grows around 110 different grape varieties. In reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir lead the pack with Zinfandel being their signature red. In white the kind of whites, Chardonnay rules the roost followed by a surprise, Pinot Grigio and then the Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling and Moscato are gaining feet well too. If you were to stereotype Californian wines, they stand for big and bold reds, opulent and tropical whites and lush and perfumed roses.
California is the heart of America’s wine, so if you are anywhere in California you know you are close to wines. I was one of the 21 million tourists who visit Californian wine country each year, I ended up Happy High. As late Mr. Robert Mondavi declared, ‘Wine has been a part of civilized life for some seven thousand years. It is the only beverage that feeds the body, soul and spirit of man and at the same time stimulates the mind.’