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California Dreaming. Part One

Text and Photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

Is one week in paradise ever enough? No is the answer, but that's all the time I had to spend visiting the vineyards of northern California recently. Paradise? Well, with its seductive, rolling scenery, constant summer sunshine (with low humidity) and a gastronomic culture that's as good as anywhere in the world, it will surely do. My visit took in the three premier wine counties, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino, and my report is presented in three corresponding parts:

Part 1 - setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers

The Wine Country of California

There's a whole lot more to Californian wine than Napa and Sonoma. The Golden State boasts a hugely varied set of geological and climatic conditions. Those who've been lucky enough to holiday there will know that it takes only a few hours to drive from the scorching heat of the desert to the breeze-cooled coast, or from the chill of pine-clad mountains to the sun-dappled byways of the rural countryside. Agriculture exploits these local conditions too, from growing oranges and avocados, to apples and almonds. Though quality modern viticulture may have started in Napa and the north, vineyards now extend from close to the northern border with Oregon, all the way down to the southern border with Mexico.

map But whilst Sideways may have thrown the spotlight on Santa Barbara County, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it is northern California that remains the powerhouse of the premium wine industry. Just an hour north of San Francisco lie the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, where the biggest names of US wine can be found and which, along with Mendocino to the north, formed my itinerary on this trip.

Though winemaking here can be traced back to 18th century Spanish missionaries planting vineyards to supply communion wine, the wave of European settlers in the mid-19th century saw the beginnings of a commercial wine industry. The growing industry only just survived prohibition when many vineyards and producers were lost, and its output from the end of prohibition in 1936 to the 1960s was confined to cheaper jug wines. It was not until the 60s and 70s that a new generation of well-travelled and ambitious winemakers began to plant quality varieties and make much more serious wines. The impact that the famous 'Judgement of Paris' had on the industry - when a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap beat Bordeaux's first growths in a blind tasting - is perhaps overstated, but that event in 1976 is a reasonable point to mark a real ramping up of California's quality wine industry.

Paradise Found

As ever, not everything in Paradise is as perfect as it first seems. There are undoubtedly issues vexing the minds of wine producers up and down the State, from water shortages and the potential effect of climate change on vineyards, to labour shortages with the pool of Mexican farm workers not as plentiful as it once was.

There's also a little bit of a reputation problem amongst European drinkers at least, who lazily categorise California's wines as too big, too brash and too alcoholic. The 'hedonistic' fruit-bomb style of some wines propelled them onto the world stage, but it is a style that fell out of favour with many wine lovers. It is also a style that is harder and harder to find in California. Every winemaker I met was seeking subtlety and refinement in their wines, more carefully matching grape to site, and managing both their grape growing and their winemaking techniques to make a different, far less bombastic style of Californian wine. There is a new Californian wine, as witnessed again and again on my visit.

paul hobbs vineyard One other problem remains: availability. A look at the top selling branded wines in the UK would suggest the California has a grip of the UK market. Competing against Australia, Chile, France and the rest, the top 10 selling wines in the UK as of 2012 showed Gallo at #1 (75 million cases), Mondavi at #4 (9.8 million cases), Beringer at #6 (8 million cases), Sutter Home at #7 (7.8 million cases) and Blossom Hill at #10 (5 million cases). California boasts five of the top 10 biggest selling brands, with E&J Gallo alone selling more than all of the others combined.

But the wine lover looking to move beyond blush Zinfandel and sweetened-up cheap wines needs to work quite hard to find them. There are some California specialist suppliers around, such as Sir Peter Michael's Vineyard Cellars in Berkshire and Calistoga Wines in Edinburgh, as well as online and independent merchants across the country. But small production and local demand means many of the most interesting wines do not reach these shores.

For those lucky enough to visit California you will find each of the counties has a very well-developed wine route. There are abundant visitor facilities, and charming towns in the heart of wine country locations offer an excellent choice of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants. Strict zoning laws mean that winery restaurants are few and far between, and visitor numbers to wineries are strictly capped, so appointments are necessary at most wineries.

This report is not, and does not claim to be, a comprehensive study of the three counties. In my brief visits I could see only a handful of producers in each and enjoy a few other producers' bottles, including Williams Seylem and Robert Young, over dinners. But I did manage to see a diverse range of estates, from the biggest and best-known brands, to the tiniest artisans producing just a few thousand cases. Above: Paul Hobbs' vineyard, Sonoma.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County is big. Much bigger than Napa, with several hours needed to drive between its northern and southern wineries. Its wine industry is also much more spread out: whilst the vast majority of Napa's wineries can be reached just by driving up and down route 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail, Sonoma spreads across more coastal, mountain and valley locations.

Hanzell As with all of California, the last few decades have been about refining sub-zones within the county to focus on grape varieties that work best. For example, Russian River has become Pinot and Chardonnay central, whilst in the Alexander Valley Cabernet is king. These are just two of the better known American Viticulture Areas (or AVAs) within Sonoma County, but there are 15 of them in total, each with its own specializations from the sparkling wines of Carneros to the Zinfandels of Dry Creek.

Key to grape growing across many of the AVAs is the Petaluma Gap. The 'Gap' is a low-lying area that forms a break in the coastal mountain range, allowing the marine layer of cool, damp and often foggy air to snake its way in to the interior. It also brings afternoon and evening winds, helping further cool and freshen the vineyards. The influence of the Gap is generally acknowledged to be the reason why the cooler climate-loving varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can do so well in certain locations, like in Hanzell Vineyards pictured above.

The other moderating influence on the sunshine and heat of Sonoma - and California in general - is elevation. There can be dramatic differences in temperature between the valley floor and the hills and mountains of Sonoma County. Some vineyards sit over 2,000 feet in elevation, and that can change ripeness of fruit and the nature of acids and tannins.

From speaking to the various winemakers on my trip I have put together a very rough guide to Sonoma and northern California's vintage conditions over the past few years, though the size and diversity of these regions means this is a generalisation and there will be particular locations and estates that saw different results:

2012 - Near perfect vintage conditions. Generous yields and good quality
2011 - The summer that never was. Late, wet and cool. Yields down
2010 - Cool again, yields down. Needed a lot of work in the vineyard
2009 - Warm year which suited Cabernet and Zinfandel. Higher alcohols
2008 - Wild fire year, but hot in summer and autumn. A good vintage

Sonoma producers and wines

Hanzell Vineyards

Sonoma's most historic property is littered with 'firsts' for California. Mike McNeill now makes some beautiful and elegant wines.

4 wines tasted

Patz & Hall

Super négociants Patz & Hall cover Sonoma and other appellations with their huge portfolio of single vineyard wines.

13 wines tasted

Paul Hobbs

Restless self-made success story Paul Hobbs makes wines in California and in Chile, all to the same precise and exacting standards.

8 wines tasted


K-J is a huge player in Sonoma, but there's an elegance to the wines tasted here that is missing in some other brands.

7 wines tasted

Ramey Wine Cellars

Making a fine range of Sonoma and Napa wines, David Ramey is a deep- thinking négociant, rooted in the French classics.

9 wines tasted


Though this 100-year-old family business was sold in 2011, Ted Seghesio still makes the wine, with a nod to his Italian roots.

6 wines tasted

Part 1 -
setting the scene and Sonoma profiled
Part 2 - Napa vineyards, wines and producers
Part 3 - Mendocino vineyards, wines and producers