Californian wine does not begin and end with the Napa valley.
From Mendocino on the rugged coast far north of San Francisco,
down to Temecula, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, are
fertile vine growing areas growing every variety of grape and producing every style of wine including sparkling, sweet and fortified.
Though relatively unknown in Europe until the great Paul Masson
invasion of the 1970's, wines have been
made in California for centuries: since the missionaries planted Vitis vinifera
to make communion wine. Today's industry is highly sophisticated, ranging from
enormous operations on an industrial scale like E&J Gallo or Kendall-Jackson, to tiny, high quality
"boutique" wineries run by enthusiasts like Sean Thackrey with his distinctive "Orion" or Manfred Krankl's
impressive "Sine Qua Non" range.
Geography and climate
Many of the best sites in california have a microclimate - a set of very localised conditions - that distinguish them. For example, some
of the best sites sit in transverse (east/west) valleys that allow cool, foggy ocean air to moderate temperatures. By and large the
North and Central Coastal areas are where the vast majority of quality production is to be found. The Sierra foothills enjoys a cooler
climate than much of the hot Central Valley, and is another area for premium quality.
Growing grapes in California is not a problem - outside the deserts, the soil and climate all over the state will sustain viticulture - but
finding truly suitable sites for particular varieties has not always been a strong suit (see "American Viticultural Areas" below). Recently
California has suffered a devastating occurence of phylloxera
, the pest which all but wiped out European vineyards a century ago.
Ironically, it was the grafting of disease-resistant rootstock from the USA that saved the European industry back then, but it
seems that lesson wasn't learned: the US outbreak is blamed on authorities at California's most prominent viticultural centre who
recommended a particularly vigorous and productive rootstock, but one which had low resistance to phylloxera.
||Honourable mention must be made of California's very own grape variety, Zinfandel. The origins of "Zin" are shrouded in mystery, with
some evidence suggesting a relationship to the Italian Primitivo. Zin makes everything from pale pink "blush" wines that are
cheap, fruity and uncomplicated, to powerful, dark and tannic reds that are full of blueberry fruit and pepper.|
American Viticultural Areas
California has a variety of soil types and climatic conditions which at one time were rather indiscriminately planted with the in-vogue vine.
Today more and more attention is being paid to "terroir", the matching of vine to soil, to aspect, to micro-climate. Much like the model of
French Appellation Contrôlée
, the American wine regions are being mapped under a scheme of American Viticultural
(AVAs) begun in the late 1970s: classification of vineyard areas by geographical location (the French model takes this much
further into rules governing vines, harvesting and wine-making). These AVAs will appear on labels,
indicating the origin of the wine. Like France's Appellation Contrôlée, the AVA in itself is absolutely no guarantee of quality: it merely
guarantees that the grapes come from a certain place. Potentially, what it does do, is allow the consumer the chance to build up a frame
of references for wines of a specific region, much like getting to know the villages of Burgundy for example. An excellent run-down on AVA's can be found at The Wine Institute
Of course even without the bureaucrats to tell us so, the best wine-makers and most clued-up wine-lovers had long recognised those areas
with a particlular suitability for certain grape varieties: the Russian River Valley for Pinot Noir, the Alexander Valley for Cabernet, Santa Barbara
County for Syrah and the Dry Creek Valley for Zinfandel are amongst many locations where a natural affinity - a terroir
- has been identified.
|Whilst California produces vast lakes of "jug" wine and "fighting varietals" (those cabernets and
chardonnays that struggle in a crowded marketplace) without a doubt there are wines eminating from California and other areas
of the U.S.A. to challenge the very best in the world.
Some of these are now well established in international markets and carry
the same price premiums as top Bordeaux and Burgundy. Producers like Robert Mondavi
have been superb ambassadors for Californian wine.
Many of California's most desirable wines are very expensive, and are snapped up by mailing-list customers long before they hit the shelves.
But at more moderate price levels there are excellent wines being made by consciencous and quality-obsessed individuals.
These are moderately priced and are more widely available: Au Bon Climat, Swan
for Pinot Noir;
for Syrah; Marietta, Swan, Ridge
for Zinfandel; Mondavi, Ridge, Laurel Glen,
for Cabernet Sauvignon; Au Bon Climat, Sonoma-Cutrer, Chalone, Landmark, Peter Michael
for Chardonnay. There are of course many, many other exellent producers and wines. Keep an eye out for the wines of Bonny Doon
Ca' del Solo
, both labels of the maverick Randall Grahm whose name guarantees
something interesting in every bottle.
The New World and the Old
Go to index of regional profiles
||Another fascinating development has been the collaboration between US and "old world" wineries. The Champagne houses led the
way, with Moët, Krug, Mumm and others establishing sparkling wineries. Other old world
superstars followed, including top names of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
famous names with outposts in America are: Mouton-Rothschild and Pétrus of Bordeaux, Domaine Drouhin of Burgundy
and Torres of Spain.|