The Californian Wine Region | America’s #1

Harry Lambourne
7th September 2023

For many, Californian wine is the face of American wine. It was the first to establish itself with a global reputation and famously made some over-confident French winemakers and worldwide wine experts look a bit silly in the Judgement of Paris of 1976.

Here, some of the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux was pitted against California in a blind-tasting that was sure to guarantee the old world’s place as king of the hill. Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan and Californian wine was the winner on the day. The events were actually turned into a film. Alan Rickman stars in ‘Bottle Shock’ which takes more than a few liberties with the facts.

Regardless, this was a big day for Californian wine. It showed that they should be respected and would be the start of an unstoppable rise to fame. Now, Californian wine is enjoyed and respected across the world.

We’ll take you through the history of this great wine region, as well as the key appellations and grape varieties that call it home.

The History of The Californian Wine Region

Originally, it was settled by Spanish explorers and Franciscan monks who emigrated to California from Mexico in the south. Small missions and monasteries were surrounded by even smaller vineyards. It is from here that the modern Californian wine industry was born.

You can find every kind of producer here. There are around 3500 working wineries in California today and they range from small wineries making a few barrels to absolute behemoths, such as the Gallo Family Winery which are the largest wine producer in the world.

The monasteries looked to plant vines because they needed them. Wine was an integral part of Catholic mass. Obviously, this was not the only use for these early Californian wines. The settlers partook for fun as well.

This could’ve been so different though. Historian Thomas Pinney noted that they originally planned to ship wines up from Mexico. However, they ran into logistical issues which meant that the settlers simply opted for a do it themselves approach, (MacNeil 674).

This was how the Californian world remained for quite some time. It wasn’t until the 19th century when settlers began planting their own vineyards, separate from those of the church. By the 1830s, commercial wineries were opening up across modern day Los Angeles. Within a decade, vineyards had been established in Napa and Sonoma.

Things only went from strength to strength and the 1849 gold rush, of the kind Steinbeck wrote, caused a jump in both population and a demand for wine. They were rising, just as Europe began to be devastated by phylloxera and many thought that this rise was now unstoppable. However, those pests are determined.

Phylloxera made their way to California by the 1880s and by 1890s the insects had devastated much of the Californian wine industry. Rather surprisingly, they reappeared in the 1990s. A mutated version reared their head and cost the Californian wine industry $3 billion, (MacNeil 676).

Phylloxera
Punch Cartoon from 1890 depicting Phylloxera

It didn’t take long for the Californian wine industry to rebuild itself at the turn of the 20th century. Yet, as so often is the case, more problems arose. This time it was the Prohibition Act. For 14 years alcohol was illegal in the United States and when it ended in 1933, only 140 wineries remained. In a strange twist of fate, these wineries managed to sustain themselves through producing the sacramental wines which helped to start the Californian wine industry, (MacNeil 677).

Once more, like a long-standing sporting dynasty, the Californian wine industry went into a rebuilding phase. They were back on top of their game by the late 1960s and it would be just a decade later that the Judgement of Paris would solidify their status as a major player in the world of wine.

More specifically, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay won 1st place in the red and white wine categories. They beat out famous names such as Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion in a blind-tasting.

French judges quickly blamed this on the fact that the wines were ‘young’. They claimed that if the wines were given the proper time to age then the French wines would clearly be shown to be superior. Of course, this comment may have been the final nail in the coffin.

The competition was held again in 2006. The same wines were used, but now they were 30 years older. Once more, California won, taking all five of the top places. Indeed, that 1973 vintage of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was still amongst the best of the best, (MacNeil 679).

The Terroir And Key Natural Factors In The Californian Wine Region

California is third largest state is the whole of the United States and close to three quarters the size of France. With its size, it is unsurprising that it accounts for 90% of all the wine production in America, (MacNeil 673). It is also unsurprising that a region of this size has a diverse terroir.

Across 540000 acres, you can find imposing redwood forests, sun-drenched hills and long stretches of coastal beaches. Obviously, vineyards don’t occupy all of these areas, but it speaks to the fact that the Californian wine region is home to a rich array of natural factors that help to shape the wines which we know and love.

Thanks to seismic events millions of years ago, California was formed. This became a place of rich and varied geology and climate. Yet, there are a number of spots where vines thrive.

Much of the region is either too hot or too cold, but thankfully these goldilocks zone exist where things are just right for viticulture. This area is between the cold Pacific coastline and the scorching Central Valley. Although, the heavily irrigated and fertile valley floor of the latter is home to some of the most well-known high-volume inexpensive wine brands. Whereas the best vineyards sit one on top of another, down this narrow strip of ideal conditions which benefit from the cooling ocean effects, as well as the warm inland areas.

Though, there is more to the Californian wine region than just sunshine and cool ocean air. In fact, there is a unique phenomenon which happens in California that helps grapes to thrive. The days warm up and the heat builds. This causes cool wind and fog to be drawn in from the Pacific. They are brought into the valleys where vines are planted, often through advantageous gaps in the low coastal mountain ranges.

As an example, San Francisco Bay funnels ocean winds into Los Carneros and they make their way through Sonoma and Napa, (MacNeil 680). This ensures that grapes don’t overheat. Ample sunshine is balanced out by cool air to allow for a long period of ripening which allows for Californian wines to reach their full potential.

Californian Wine Regions

Now, it is time to dive into some of the most famous Californian wine regions. The two key regions are Napa Valley and Sonoma. However, we’ll also touch upon Mendocino, Monterey County and Paso Robles. Beyond these, there are even more AVAs which have their own specialities, but we’ll keep our focus on the ones mentioned above. The Californian wine area is huge, but we’ll give you the starting points to start your Californian wine adventure. Beware, it may be an adventure that you never stop!

Napa Valley

This is the most well-known of perhaps all the American wine regions, let alone the Californian wine regions, but it actually produces just 4% of the wine in California, (MacNeil 694). It is a region which is soaked in history and a certain charm where stories such as that of the Inglenook winery have happened. This estate was created by a Finnish sea captain and fur trader in the 19th century, then almost a hundred years later it was purchased by the famous director Francis Ford Coppola, (MacNeil 695).

There is almost an ego, or an aura of superiority to Napa Valley, but it is consistently backed up by results. If you know you’re great, then why not flaunt it?

Napa Valley Wine Region | Californian Wine Region
Napa Valley Wine Region

It has been an AVA, (American Viticultural Area), since 1981, which made it California’s first. The valley is a small banana shape, which is roughly the same length as the Côte d’Or in Burgundy. It runs from San Pablo Bay and ends at the extinct volcano of Mount St. Helena.

It has the Vaca Mountains on the east, then the Mayacamas on the west. This helps to temper the climate. The sun sets in the west, so the vineyards to the east get far more sun, whereas the west is far cooler. Along this valley you’ll also find a rich and varied soil type.

Perhaps the most striking variation is in the temperature from one end of the valley to the other. San Pablo Bay can be mighty chilly while Calistoga could be red hot at the same time! Vineyards on the mountain sides can be in glorious sunshine, while those at ground level sit beneath a thick layer of fog.

While variations are clear, the whole region shares a high diurnal temperature. This helps the grapes cool off at night. They can achieve full ripeness, while retaining freshness and acidity.

While Napa Valley is its own broad Californian wine region, there are smaller appellations to look out for within it. Some to look out for include Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Rutherford, Los Carneros and Stag’s Leap District. All these are likely a sure fire sign of quality.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County is twice the size of Napa Valley and is made up of a patchwork of different viticultural areas. While they may be neighbours, Sonoma and Napa are deeply different. Rather than the large scale, affluent and entitled edge that Napa can give off, Sonoma is more rustic.

It has a largely rural aesthetic, but it is no slouch. High-quality wines permeate this region and it has many winemakers working on the cutting edge both technologically and stylistically. As Karen MacNeil puts it, “talk is as likely to be about tractors as about wine sales in Tokyo”, (MacNeil 706).

This pastoral landscape houses exquisite vineyards, as well as rolling hills, redwood forests, orchards and ranches. Even large fisheries can be seen dotted across the Pacific coast. A cool Sonoma white wine with some fresh local fish sounds good to me!

Fog is one of the key natural factors in Sonoma. Early morning fogs roll inland, they wrap the mountains and coat the valley floors. Then, throughout the day the fog battles the sunshine. This yin and yang typifies the Sonoma climate. Warm days and cool nights help ensure an excellent standard of wine. Ripe, intensely flavoured, balanced and fresh.

You’ll also see a greater variety of high-quality wines when compared to Napa. Napa may primarily be Cab country, but thanks to a deeply varied terroir, Sonoma is home to a heap of different grape varieties. Smaller AVAs will specialise in certain grape varieties.

Alexander Valley is further inland and warmer, (MacNeil 709). Therefore, it’s suited to red grape varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if you go to the Russian River Valley you’ll find a far cooler climate. Here, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay will dominate the plantings.

Other Californian Wine Regions

To the north of both Napa and Sonoma, you’ll find Mendocino. Mendocino stands in stark contrast to the big, booming industries to the south. Here, rolling mountains span across majestic forests. It also provides the largest amount of organic wine in California, producing around 30% of all the organic Californian wine.

The key wine-making area of this Californian wine region is Anderson Valley, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive, as does sparkling wine. Louis Roederer even opened a winery in this region. It is strikingly cool which allows for grapes to preserve their acidity. That’s why we are in sparkling wine country.

Outside of these regions, there are other pockets of quality in the Californian wine world. Monterey County sits by the famous Monterey Bay. While it is named the lettuce capital of the world, (MacNeil 725), you’ll also find some astoundingly good new world Pinot Noir.

Then, we can move to Paso Robles, which sits between San Francisco and LA. A rustic haven between two metropolitan hubs. This sun-baked area is red wine country. Expect excellent Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and some top-class Zinfandel.

The Grapes of The Californian Wine Region

While there are a staggering 120 varieties grown in California, just 8 hold the majority of the focus, (MacNeil 674). They are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel (known in Italy as Primitivo), Merlot, Pinot Noir Pinot Gris, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Let’s look at each of these now.

Chardonnay
Chardonnay Grapes
Chardonnay Grapes

Chardonnay is grown in great quantities across the world, but it is hard to do well. It is even harder to do spectacularly. Yet, many vintners in California are up to the task. Indeed, it can also be found in a variety of styles. Cooler regions such as the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast produce racy and citrus heavy, unoaked offerings. Then, places like Napa produce the ultra-buttery and creamy oaked concoctions which many associate with the Californian wine region.

Pinot Gris

This grape variety can be seen in both its forms. That is the relatively neutral and simple styles of Pinot Grigio that you can find in Veneto, as well as the riper and more flavourful styles of wines that are more likely to be found in Alsace or Germany.

While the best Pinot Gris in California can be very good, it is often a considerable step below the Grand Cru wines of Alsace, or the best that Germany has to offer.

Sauvignon Blanc

Californian Sauvignon Blanc can often be overlooked. Many associate Californian wine with Chardonnay above all else, but Sauvignon Blanc is being made to the highest standard. Many are shown to be complex and age-worthy, much like the Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux. You’ll also find styles reminiscent of the smokey Pouilly-Fumé, which is held in high-regard in the Loire Valley. These are referred to as ‘Fumé Blanc’.

Cabernet Sauvignon

This is the grape that very much put Californian on the map. Complex, structured and powerful, yet elegant wines that command huge price tags. The grapes are left to hang on the vine for longer than they would be in many old world wine nations. This additional ‘hang time’ is a regular feature in Californian red wine. This allows the sugar and tannins to mature which means they feel softer on the palate, but they are still present which allows for long term ageing.

Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes
Merlot

Merlot has been on a journey in California and saw its reputation rocked by the film Sideways. An off-handed comment in the film led to a measurable decrease in Merlot sales. However, this only caused the low-quality Merlot producers to stop bothering with the grape. Talented winemakers persisted with Merlot and you can find some soft, supple and delightfully flavoured red wines, which are often blended with the premier Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinot Noir

On the other side of the Sideways coin, Pinot Noir sales boomed after the film. Many vintners placed greater emphasis on this grape variety, to match the growing demand and this has led to a sublime increase in quality over recent years. It is a difficult grape variety to manage, but Californian winemakers have done so gracefully. You can expect beautifully structured and complex wines. These rival both the best of the old world, such as Burgundy, and the best of the new world such as New Zealand and South Africa.

Syrah

California Syrah is not a one note wine. It is not easy to fit into a category. Rhône Valley is known for leaner and peppery wines, where Australian Shiraz is jammy and full bodied. California Syrah can jump between these two camps, or sit right between the two. However, it often displays a real gamey quality that distinguishes itself from many of the other styles of Syrah.

Zinfandel

Zinfandel is a key grape variety in the Californian wine industry. In fact, it was the most planted grape variety until Cabernet Sauvignon passed it in 1998, (MacNeil 698). Many will know it for the unexciting rosé wine which is called White Zinfandel, but the true red wine which comes from Zinfandel is a truly different breed.

They’re big and powerful wines, known for their high alcohol content. They’re also a prime candidate for increased ‘hang-time’. Zinfandel is known for ripening unevenly which means that if they weren’t left on the vine for a longer amount of time, you’d get unripened grapes which would impact the quality of the final wine. The increased hang-time can also cause the grapes to raisin. This concentrates sugars and can mean that the wines can often have an off-dry quality. Don’t be shocked if your Californian Zinfandel has a touch of residual sugar.


That’s our look into all things California, if you’re keen to learn about their neighbours to the north, then make sure you check out our article on the wine regions of the Pacific North West.

When it comes to American vino, we can’t recommend Californian wine enough. Whatever your particular tipple may be, you are guaranteed to find something you like in this part of the world. Get out there and start sipping something delicious!

If you do plan on trying some out, then be sure to check out the Water & Wines Californian Wine Region Puzzle. It’s a fun way to expand your knowledge of the Californian wine region even more.

California Jigsaw 1000 pieces | Californian Wine Region Puzzle
Water & Wines California Wine Puzzle

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Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.


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