California is, hands down, the wine capital of the United States. It accounts for more than 90 percent of all the wines made in the country and 75 percent of all the wines consumed within its borders.
The climate has a lot to do with California's preeminence. Not only is it ideal for growing grapes, it is so reliable that there is little variation in the wine from year to year. Getting enough sun every year to ripen the grapes is never a problem in California. The challenge is to find areas cool enough to allow the grapes to ripen slowly, thus allowing full flavor development.
Wineries have popped up all over the state, from the far reaches of the north to the Mexican border in the south. The following areas are most notable for winegrowing:
The North Coast includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake Counties.
The Central Coast stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It includes Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Livermore in the northern part and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara in the south.
The Sierra Foothills are on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The massive Central Valley extends from Sacramento in the north to the San Joaquin Valley in the south.
Napa and Sonoma
The Napa Valley has almost become synonymous with the term “wine country.” It is famous for its expensive wines, rich history, and breathtaking landscapes. Inside its 35-mile stretch, you can eat at world-class restaurants and taste wine from 400 different producers as hot air balloons pass overhead.
The Napa Valley AVA has 15 distinct sub-AVAs, each with diverse microclimates. In the south, Carneros benefits from cool breezes where it meets the bay, perfect for Pinot Noir. As you move north and temperatures warm, Cabernet Sauvignon begins showing up in Oakville and St. Helena.
Napa Valley even has higher-altitude vineyards on Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Howell Mountain, where climate, soil, and exposure differ from what vineyards on the Valley floor enjoy. Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa Valley, and among its “subjects” are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Some of the Napa sub-AVAs that you'll probably recognize from wine labels are:
Stags' Leap District
Often lost in Napa Valley's shadow is its neighbor to the west, Sonoma, which was planted to wine grapes before Napa. Sonoma has a more relaxed personality and more of the character of “Old California.”
Sonoma is twice as big as Napa, and due to its proximity to the Pacific coast, it has a more diverse climate. Sonoma's most distinctive AVAs include the following:
Alexander Valley — famous for its Cabs and Chardonnays
Russian River Valley — produces Pinot Noir (thanks to its cooler climate); also known for Chardonnay and sparkling wine
Dry Creek Valley — known for Zinfandel
Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain — produce Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay
The Carneros AVA is particularly interesting. It straddles Sonoma and Napa to the south, right next to San Pablo Bay, the northern area of San Francisco Bay. It has a cool climate, making it an ideal area for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These grapes are perfect for both dry and sparkling wine. Because of its climate, Carneros attracted a number of sparkling wine producers from Europe.
Mendocino and Lake County
Northern California has had a reputation for attracting residents who liked to “do their own thing.” Mendocino and Lake County are California's northernmost wine-producing areas, and the winemakers there are open-minded and experimental about what grapes to grow. Growers have also been especially sensitive regarding their farming methods, such that Mendocino is credited with being at the forefront of sustainable agriculture and organic farming.
Mendocino and Lake County are cool, making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay obvious planting choices, although Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc are rapidly gaining respect. Notable producers are Navarro, Guenoc, and Roederer.
Sierra Foothills and Livermore Valley
The Sierra Foothills are the site of the historic California Gold Rush of the nineteenth century. The AVA is mountainous and cool. The most cultivated grapes are Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah, but you'll also find Barbera, Sangiovese, and Mourvèdre.
About an hour outside of San Francisco to the southeast lies the Livermore Valley, a historic wine-producing area with a warm and windy climate. It's situated between the cool, marine air of the San Francisco Bay and the hot, dry air of the Central Valley. Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon were first planted there by the French immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s. They remain and thrive. Other varieties include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel.
The Central Coast
The areas within the Central Coast AVA are numerous and disparate. Each one has its own distinctive qualities. Of course, the one with the most celebrity is the Santa Ynez Valley, north of the town of Santa Barbara.
When a movie filmed in your backyard gets an Academy Award nomination — like Sideways did in 2005 — fame is soon to follow. As great as the wines of Santa Ynez Valley are, there is much more to the Central Coast. From the blazingly hot Paso Robles area to the cooler Edna Valley, the Central Coast is home to grape varieties as varied as Syrah and Viognier.
No fine wine producer brags that its grapes come from the Central Valley. This huge expanse of inland vineyards produces the majority of California's bulk wine, accounting for three-quarters of the state's wine production. (The region also grows table grapes and raisins.) However, new facilities and technology are bringing much-deserved respect to the Central Valley AVAs of Lodi and Clarksburg.
California Is Trendsetting
In the 1980s some progressive winemakers got tired of producing only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. They wanted to express more of their creativity. In the vein of “everything old becomes new again,” they looked to the Old World for inspiration. One group, dubbed the “Rhone Rangers,” took their inspiration from southern France and concentrated on making wines from traditional Rhone varieties such Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. The idea caught on, and plantings of those grapes were expanded.
Meanwhile, another group of Francophile winemakers wanted to express their creativity in blending, rather than producing strictly varietal wines. They looked to Bordeaux and its tradition of blending as many as six “noble” grapes together to produce a single wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenère (all but extinct in Bordeaux). The result of their collaboration was Meritage wines and the Meritage Association.
Meritage wines have to blend at least two of the Bordeaux varieties, and no single variety can make up more than 90 percent of the blend. Producers must be members of the Meritage Alliance to employ the Meritage name.
What's next? Because winemaking practices and the popular enjoyment of wine are cyclical, you can probably look to history for the answer. One trend seems to be the shift away from heavily oaked California wines. For 25 years California winemakers were fascinated with oak and used a lot of it. On another continent, the wine-producing regions of France — like the Loire Valley and Rhone — have always relied on the true taste of the fermented grape and have met with popular approval. Today, California winemakers are making the move to create softer, more fruit-driven wine — with a more judicial use of oak.