California: A look at the top wine producer in the U.S.
By Liza B. Zimmerman
It was long viewed as the “Promised Land,” home to the missionaries who planted the first grapes and key families of wine. California is also known for having one of the most diverse wine-growing terrior in the United States and could compete for that title in the New World. It was also for many years the only source of the mainstream and well-known vitis vinifera grapes in the U.S.
Missionaries planted the state’s first grapes around the 1770s and for almost a decade afterwards the Mission grape remained the area’s primary grape. Much of the state was historically home to bulk and table grape production: acres of Mission grapes baking in the Central Valley Sun. Some of the state’s hotter-climate areas still provide blending grapes for many prestigious wine regions.
Some of the world’s best-known, and most-expensive, wine regions have grown by leaps and bounds on the Northern and Central Coast. Napa has always taken the lead in prestigious wine production, highest prices and defined varietal style. Sonoma has leisurely followed right behind it, with a more eclectic style a greater focus on Pinot Noir.
Cool and temperate areas outside of San Francisco, such as Anderson Valley and Lodi have been emerging as solid wine producers over the years. The less-than-two-drive to both regions has encouraged more trade and consumer visits these and other to lower-traffic wine regions.
The Central Coast—most notably Paso Robles—has emerged as a classic and incredibly diverse wine making area: making exceptional Rhone and Bordeaux blends. Monterey and Santa Ynez and Santa Maria are also making some great Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines, among other notables.
Italian-Americans, many of whom continued to make wine during Prohibition, have been very influencial in founding and running many of the state’s iconic wineries: such as Mondavi, Gallo and Coppola. Some of these noted producers have been sold to large corporate wine producers who now own multiple wineries and dominate much of the state’s production.
Diversity and Variety
The incredible assortment of terroirs in California has always made is a fantastic place for producing wine. Wine regions cover the bulk of the state’s close to 800 miles from top to bottom. Much of the state has a Mediterranean climate, although it is hard to generalize with such a large wine-growing area. Enormous shifts in diurnal and nocturnal temperature provide, for the most part, for balanced grapes even from the state’s hottest regions.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have long reigned and the King and Queen of the realm: not just in California but producers here can be given much of the credit for it. Many of the state’s most famous Cabernet Sauvignons are alcohol and fruit rich, highly rated and consumed much too young. Styles of Chardonnay are changing, but many of the most prestigious are still more oak- than fruit- and acid-focused.
California has also become a great producer of Pinot Noir. Styles range from the corpulent, intense feel of many of the Sonoma Coast Pinots to more delicate wind-whipped and reserved fruit profiles from the Anderson Valley and Mendocino.
Rhône and Iberian varietals are exploding all over the state. Regions such as Paso Robles and Lodi have been particularly successful with rich, peppery reds and cool-climate whites. Many boutique producers in Napa are also working with these esoteric varietals, along with some Italian-bred favorites such as Nebbiolo and Barbera.