The very mention of California conjures up an image of ruggedly beautiful coastline, breathtaking mountain scenery and hectare upon hectare of impeccably maintained vine rows basking in the summer sunshine. This is a wine region like no other; a vast, topographically diverse area spanning ten degrees of latitude and boasting levels of production that dwarf that of most countries. Remarkably, the single state of California today produces 30% more wine than the entire nation of Australia!
But where did it all begin? Spanish missionaries are credited with pioneering viticulture on the West Coast of North America in the eighteenth century. Plantings of what would become known as the Mission grape - originally for the production of sacramental table wines - eventually grew to provide a significant source of revenue for the church as well as ample proof for future settlers, of the state’s winemaking potential. And when gold was discovered near Coloma in 1848, California’s population soared, with opportunists from the eastern states and European immigrants, all compelled to travel west in search of their fortunes.
The influx of people led to a huge increase in demand, leading to the development of a commercially focused winemaking industry that grew out from the North Coast counties of Napa and Sonoma. Long before it was a household name in the wine world; before vines were strewn across so much of the state’s picturesque peaks and valleys, premium cellars were being established in small towns, providing the foundations on which the state would later build so spectacularly. Sonoma’s, Buena Vista Winery - founded by viticultural pioneer, Agoston Haraszthy - was the first of these to appear in 1857. Still in operation today, the original winery is designated a California Historic Landmark and remains a must see stop on any serious wine focused itinerary.
The industry grew rapidly, and despite Phylloxera ravaging the vineyards in the late 1900s, resourceful Californian vintners were able to respond quickly to limit the impact, by grafting hardy, disease-resistant American rootstock, and subsequently introducing numerous new grape varieties to the state. At the beginning of the twentieth century, California had more than seven-hundred wineries and a growing reputation for excellence. World domination looked possible, if not probable, but in January of 1919, the industry received a significant setback, with the introduction of Prohibition. Many vineyards were destroyed and wineries - with the small exception of those who produced wine for religious purposes - were ordered to close. Few survived this period, and by the time the policy was repealed in 1933, only around one sixth of the wineries that had thrived previously, were still in operation.
The second wave of the Californian wine industry began in earnest some thirty or so years after this, when during the 1960s a new generation of innovative winemakers shifted the state’s focus to producing low yields of high quality grapes from traditional French varieties. International interest and widespread recognition followed suit, and on the 24th of May, 1976, at the famous ‘Judgement of Paris’ competition organised by British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, California’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines were pitted against the eminent first growths of Bordeaux and the world renowned Burgundy whites.
The results of these blind tastings are now legendary. Californian wines outscored France’s global superstars in each category, with the 1973 vintage from Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars (now known as Stags’ Leap Winery) triumphing for the red wines over estates such as Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion, and Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena repeating the feat for the white wines. This sweeping of the board signalled a change in the way that US wines were viewed on the international stage; suddenly the world was taking notice of the West Coast. And as word spread, and the popularity of Californian wines began to grow, the region emerged as the new powerhouse of premium viticulture.
Today, the state of California is widely recognised as one of the world’s great wine regions. A dependable climate, suitably diverse landscape and investment in sustainability and technology has enabled continued growth over the last half a century, such that prior to the Covid-19 crisis, there were more than three-thousand-five-hundred wineries dotted across the landscape.
A huge number of different varieties are cultivated here; the most prevalent include the principal Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and wines are produced in a wide range of styles from Bordeaux-style blends to sparkling wines in the Champagne tradition. In fact, such is the state’s proven suitability for the latter, a number of large French companies have set up Californian operations including Moët & Chandon’s, Domaine Chandon and Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros.
California boasts almost two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand hectares of vineyard and one-hundred-and-thirty-nine designated American Viticultural Areas, spread across the six key sub-zones - North Coast, Central Coast, Central Valley, Sierra Foothills, Northern California and Southern California. Whilst it is the North Coast valleys of Napa and Sonoma that continue to steal most of the headlines, Californian wine excellence extends way beyond the boundaries of these big names. Large scale international companies and small, boutique cellars operate side by side across the length and breath of the state, delivering everything from mass produced everyday wines to artisan varietals from single vineyards. Some of these cult wines - such as those from Screaming Eagle - are particularly sought after, and hence demand large sums of money on the collector / investor market.
There is an old joke about Californians being laid back about everything else but serious about wine, and it’s easy to understand where this comes from when you witness the energy, verve and commitment that goes into producing some of the world’s most celebrated varietals. The golden state it seems, has found liquid gold…