About California Wine

“Diverse” may be the best adjective that describes the California wine industry. California can easily match Bordeaux for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, Burgundy for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, the Rhone Valley for its Syrahs and Viogniers and Champagne for its Methode Champenoise. In addition to growing most of the world’s popular grapes (Sangiovese, Grenache, and Riesling also thrive in California), California has got some unique varietals of its own. Fundamentally extinct from wherever they came from, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah are now true California natives, as big, brash and entertaining as any of the state’s larger-than-life characters. 

What accounts for this diversity? A combination of geography and geology, but also the passion of California winemakers to explore, experiment, collaborate, compete and make great wine. 

California enjoys a Mediterranean climate of dry summers and wet winters, and weather is much less likely to ruin a vintage in California as it might in France or Germany. Running up the length of the state is the Coast Range, whose many hills, valleys and mountainsides host a wide range of soils and excellent vineyard sites. But the climate and terrain would count for little were it not for the influence of the cold Pacific Ocean. Giant banks of fog hug the coast throughout the summer months when cold ocean air meets the heat streaming in from the interior. On summer evenings, the fog rolls in, winding its way inland through pathways formed by mountain gaps, valleys and rivers. This fog is wine country’s natural air conditioner and the reason behind the region’s many diverse microclimates. Some valleys are socked in with fog for much of the day, while in others the fog burns off by mid-morning, and others are not touched by fog at all. Just a few degree differences in daily average highs and lows can have a profound effect on the development of grapes. It is why Cabernet produced in the warm, upper half of the Napa Valley can be full-bodied, perfumed and fruity but another from foggier, southern Napa may taste green and vegetal. The diverse microclimates give California optimum locations for a number of varietals, from bracing Sauvignon Blancs in Santa Maria, to elegant Pinots in the Russian River Valley to intense, earthy, age-worthy Cabernets on Howell Mountain. Indeed, it seems that California can produce wine that a person in almost any region of Europe could mistake as one of their own.

While the temperature differences in California’s microclimates have been well-known for years, only in the last 25 years or so has this knowledge been taken on to craft superior wines. The generation of winemakers who led the revival of fine wine in the 1960s and 1970s tended to make what they liked to drink - no matter where their vineyards lay - or they tried their hands at a bit of everything. It was not uncommon for one Napa Valley Winery to produce Cabernet and Chardonnay; Chenin, Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc; Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; and perhaps even a grape called Napa Gamay. Over time, it became clear that certain varieties perform better under certain conditions, that an Alexander Valley Chardonnay lacked the finesse of one from the Russian River Valley just a few miles away. “Great wine is produced in the vineyard” became the mantra, and winemakers and grape growers began to focus more on planting vineyard sites with appropriate grape varieties as well as on improving trellising, vine spacing and the selection of clones - all in service of making more intense and flavorful wines.

One result of this way of thinking is to identify superior vineyards and make "single-vineyard" wines.  For a winery to reference a vineyard on a label, a minimum of 95% of the grapes must come from that vineyard. But another trend is to recognize the conditions in specific winegrowing areas. In 1978, the US government began permitting districts to be officially classified as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). For an area to be granted AVA status, a set of distinctive conditions must exist (usually a combination of climate and soil and sometimes elevation) that have a particular and recognizable effect on the grape varieties grown there. It should be noted that the system gives winemakers a lot of flexibility. For a wine label to reference an AVA, 85% of the grapes used in that wine must be from that district. However, the system includes large “macro” AVAs, such as the North Coast AVA, which spans all of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Solano counties, as well as AVAs within AVAs. The Napa Valley AVA includes such sub-AVAs as Oakville, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, Stags Leap District, and more. So wineries can blend their wines with almost any combination of grapes and still be afforded some sort of AVA status. Furthermore, AVAs do not set rules for varieties or winemaking methods as the AOC regulations do in France. On the other hand, because winegrowers within an AVA have an interest in seeing their particular AVA stand out, the designation of AVA status can stimulate them not only to make better wines but to make wines that are identifiable as to their place of origin. Now that the system has been in place for about 30 years, the words “Napa Cab” or “Russian River Pinot” or “Santa Maria Chard” are more meaningful than ever.   

With 206 AVAs in California and with new ones seemingly added every year, consumers may feel confused and even suspicious about the supposed quality of a particular area. Certainly some AVAs are yet too new for a true style to have developed. Others (North Coast AVA and Central Coast AVA) are too big to provide any identifiable characteristic to a wine. On the other hand, understanding this trend and knowing a little bit about California’s most successful AVAs can improve one’s enjoyment of California wine immeasurably. 

The Napa Valley has long led the way in fine wines, viticulture and even wine country marketing and tourism. It became world famous when several Napa wineries outscored French luminaries in the infamous “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976. The hills, mountains, and flatlands feature a phenomenal diversity of soil types and microclimates. As a result, the Napa Valley AVA is now carved into 16 sub AVAs, including Stags Leap District, Oakville, Carneros and Howell Mountain. Overall, however, conditions (geographic and economic) in the Napa Valley appear to favor Bordeaux varietals. Today Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot account for 64% of all grapes planted in Napa County (up from 28% in 1980). The mountain AVAs produce wines that tend to be earthier and more tannic while those from the warm upper valley floor can be rich and supple. At the southern end of Napa County, particularly in the Carneros AVA, the vineyards feature Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, used in particular for sparkling wine production. 

Sonoma County stands out as less “glitzy” and more “laid back” than the Napa Valley and was for decades more focused on grape growing than wine making. Many families continue to make wine from vineyards planted by their grand and great-grandfathers. The county is divided into 15 AVAs. The warm Alexander Valley AVA produces voluptuous and rich Cabernet Sauvignon but but also dark-fruited Zinfandels and Sauvignon Blanc. The cool (but not cold) Russian River Valley is a glorious spot for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay as well as Zinfandel, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Pinot Noir can be outstanding, velvety and full of red fruit, spices and cola flavors. The balanced acidity in RRV Chardonnay often results in wine that straddles the difference between austere Chablis and typical tropical fruity California Chard. The Sonoma Coast AVA is cold, foggy and windy, and of growing interest to producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. High acids lead many Chardonnay winemakers to follow Burgundian best practices such as sur lie aging and battonage (lees stirring) to soften the wine. The Dry Creek Valley AVA has some of California’s very best Zinfandels growing on its hillsides and produces outstanding Sauvignon Blanc as well.  

Mendocino County is not dissimilar to Sonoma County with regard to traditions of grape growing by Italian family farmers. A leader in organic viticulture, it may be geared even less toward large, corporate interests and more toward small producers than Sonoma. There are 10 AVAs in the area. The districts on the eastern side (Mendicino AVA, McDowell Valley AVA, Redwood Valley AVA) are warmer, and producers lean toward hearty reds, such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Barbera – though Potter Valley AVA has carved a niche for Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Anderson Valley AVA offers a cool climate and does well with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (especially for sparkling wines), Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The Central Coast AVA is a giant “macro” AVA that stretches from near the San Francisco Bay all the way to Santa Barbara. With some notable exceptions, the production of fine wine arrived somewhat later than it did in Napa and Sonoma. 25 sub AVAs render the Central Coast somewhat confusing. Whereas some AVAs (Chalone AVA and Mt. Harlan AVA) can be the province of just one winery, others have clearly added focus to the production of high quality wine. The Monterey AVA is an oversized AVA within the Central Coast AVA, where a mostly cool climate produces a range of crisp white wines as well as Pinot Noir. Giant vineyards, especially along the floor of the Salinas Valley, produce great quantities of grapes destined for bulk wines with the California appellation. Better quality is found in such higher-elevation AVAs as Santa Lucia Highlands AVA or Carmel Valley AVA. The Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Inez Valley AVAs, near Santa Barbara, can be called “Sideways country” after the popular film. Low rainfall and cool summers give these AVAs (as well as Edna Valley AVA to the north) exceedingly long growing seasons. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are exquisite but some extraordinary Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Viognier are produced as well. The warmer Paso Robles AVA is making its name with Zinfandel and Rhône reds (Syrah and Grenache) and whites (Roussanne and Viognier).