There is no doubt that California is the epicenter of the American wine industry. Currently, the state represents ninety percent of the wines made in the United States. And over the past half-century, the state has become one of the world leaders in wine production. There is no doubt that California is the epicenter of the American wine industry. Currently, the state represents ninety percent of the wines made in the United States. And over the past half-century, the state has become one of the world leaders in sustainable vineyard farming practices, state-of-the-art winemaking techniques, and an overall focus on making delicious premium wines.
The rich history of winemaking dates back to the 1770s, when Franciscan padres began planting grapes in Mexico. While moving northward to build Spanish missions from San Diego (1769) to Sonoma (1823), the padres primarily planted the dark-skinned Mission grape, a vinifera species with Old World origins. In the 1930s, Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes established the first large-scale vineyard next to the Los Angeles River. But it wasn’t until a decade after California became an official state in 1847, that Hungarian-born Agoston Haraszthy established the first premium commercial winery, Buena Vista, near Sonoma in 1857.
Known for its Mediterranean climate and diverse mixtures of rocky, gravely, sandy and clay-based soils, immigrants from Europe and other countries around the globe began planting grapes in special areas throughout the state between the Gold Rush boom in the 1850s and the start of Prohibition in 1920. This new spirit of enthusiasm, lead to the expansion of a wide range of grape varieties planted throughout the state.
In the first three decades following repeal, most of the grapes were used in mixed blends referred to as table wines, jug wines, or simply “diego whites” and “diego reds.” But that started to change in the late 1960s, when a new emphasis was put on crafting high-class wines made with “fighting varietals” like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. As the years passed, exciting new varieties like Pinot Gris, Viognier, Malbec, Syrah and Grenache have been planted as well. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the number of vineyards surpassed what was planted before Prohibition.
Today, premium grapes are planted throughout the state, with the largest concentration of production coming from Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, San Joaquin, and San Luis Obispo counties. In addition to making white, red and pink still wines; California is also the nation’s leader in the production of sparkling wines, dessert wines, and fortified wines.
Grape Expectations: California Wine
Whites: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino, Albarino, Verdehlo, Tocai Friulano, Fiano, Malvasia Bianca, Arneis, French Colombard, Trousseau Gris, Sauvignon Vert, Gruner Veltliner, Kerner, Sylvaner.
Red Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Primitivo, Petite Sirah, Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Cinsault, Tannat, Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebiollo, Dolcetto, Montepulciano, Sagrantino, Lagrein, Charbono, Tempranillo, Graciano, Pinotage, Touriga Nacionale, Valdigue, Alicante Bouschet.
Taste Sensations: California Wine
White Wines: With nearly 100,000 acres planted in the state, the taste profile of Chardonnay comes in many different forms. From Coastal areas, flavors often include apple, pear, citrus, mineral, tangy acidity, and complex aromas. From warmer areas, more stone fruit and tropical flavors. Depending on the brand, the leaner or unoaked versions tend to be more fresh, floral and acidic; while the richer styles have more of a winemaker’s touch with more notes of vanilla, butter, toast, spices and oaky characteristics. For Sauvignon Blanc, the aromas and flavor profiles often feature notes of ripe melon, green apple, grapefruit, lemon, lime, fig, passionfruit, kiwi, and fresh herbs; racy acidity; and crisp and dry finish. Alsatian varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat are generally more aromatic and fruity. While Mediterranean varieties like Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc are tangy and crisp.
Red Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of red grapes grown in California. With 80,000 acres planted, the finished wines are generally full-bodied with deep flavors of ripe berries, cherry, cassis, currant, chocolate and spice; silky or chewy tannins; and layers of toasty oak. Second in line is Merlot, which tends to be smoother with more concentrated flavors of plum, cherry, cocoa, and soft tannins. But over the last two decades, the largest expansion of growth has been centered on Pinot Noir, with the best versions being made with fruit grown in the coastal regions of the state. Many feature notes of cherry, raspberry, strawberry, pomegranate, cranberry, cola, herbs, cinnamon and spice; vibrant acidity; and a long finish. Syrah, Grenache and Rhone-style blends are more focused on enticing aromas and flavors of dark fruits, seasoned meats, and spices. And with a history dating back to the 1850s, Zinfandel is often called the state’s “sweetheart” variety. In addition to ripe, jammy, and bold flavors of red and black fruits, many of the older vine selections of Zinfandel feature pronounced layers of spice, including black pepper and clove.
Food Pairings: California Wine
With a vast assortment of fresh herbs, produce, vegetables, fruits, fine cheeses, fish, poultry, pork, beef and lamb—California is one of the best culinary areas on the globe. With white wines, think appetizers, fresh salads, crab, oyster, sushi, grilled white fish, poultry, pork with fresh fruit chutney, Mexican, Indian and Thai cuisine, and soft to medium fine cheeses. For reds, think grilled vegetables, wild mushrooms, salmon, roasted chicken, pork, duck, gourmet pizzas, sausage, burgers, ribs, steak, lamb, pasta, hearty stews, and rich cheeses.