In Search of the Best Wines in California
There are but a few enchanting places in the world such as the wine growing regions of California’s north coast. With its picturesque landscape of pure natural beauty and an unparalleled richness of terrain, coupled with a most enjoyable and temperate climate is a winemaker’s paradise and a culinary
In 1769, a Franciscan missionary known as Father Junipero Serra planted the first grape vineyard at the Mission San Diego de Alcala (present-day San Diego) so he would be able to produce sacramental and table wines for his church. As he and his friars moved north toward Sonoma to establish more missions, establishing what is now known as the 600-mile road called El Camino Real, he brought with him the cultivation of the mission grape, and the rest, as they say, is viticulture history.
Today, wine grapes are grown on over 600,000 acres of California’s most fertile land, in 49 of the state’s 58 counties. As the fourth largest wine producer in the world, trailing only behind the Old World winemaking countries of Italy, France, and Spain, there are now a total of 138 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas or AVAs in the state, each with its own history, unique soil, climate, and topography, and each one contributing to California’s extensive range of
While less than one percent of California land is planted with vineyards, wine is still one of the state’s top agricultural products with an estimated 230 million cases sold in 2015. The established California Sustainable Winegrowing Program has put in place a strong framework of socially responsible winemaking practices from “grass to glass.” A set of best and comprehensive practices with accreditation, this program guides California growers and vintners with ways to farm the land and produce wine in an environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially equitable manner that benefits families, employees, communities, and wildlife. Together the California wine community has successfully adopted the green winemaking and winegrowing program and has made California an industry model for other wine regions around the world. This strong commitment to environmentally sustainable agriculture is one of the main reasons why California is the most visited state in the U.S. for food and wine-related activities, and one that boasts 24 million visits to its wine growing areas each year.
Supplementing its strong local market consumption, 90 percent of U.S. wine exports also come from California. In 2015, the total volume reached $1.61 billion, or 51.2 million cases, and set an all-time record for U.S. wine exports. After the European Union and Canada, Asian countries including Japan, China, South Korea, and Singapore are the largest importers of U.S. wine. The Philippines alone imported $11.7 million worth of wine in 2015, a hefty 36 percent increase over 2014 imports, and more than both Taiwan and Thailand. “California wines appeal to consumers across the globe who
The forecast for California wines continues to look promising and the 2016 wine grape vintage promises to be a good one. With the harvest arriving early last year due to slightly warmer temperatures than the year prior, winegrowers yielded exceptional quality fruit from around the state as a result of an even growing season, cooler than average climate, and winter rains that helped nourish the soil and vines while alleviating any possibility of drought.
THE NAPA VALLEY
Arguably California’s most influential wine region, and definitely its most popular, the Napa Valley was California’s first AVA and was established in 1981. Situated 40 miles northeast of San Francisco and set between the Vaca mountain range to the east and the Mayacamas mountains to the west, this 30-mile-long by five-mile-wide
Napa Valley’s first vineyards were planted in the 1850s. By 1861, the first commercial winery was opened by Charles Krug, and at the end of the
If a single event can be credited for putting Napa Valley and California wines on the world map, it would be the famous Paris tasting also known as the Judgment of Paris in 1976 that was
As renowned as the Napa Valley is today, it may come as a surprise that only 4 percent of California’s wine grapes and .04 percent of the world’s wine grape harvest are grown here. In fact, only nine percent of Napa County’s 505,000 acres are planted with wine grapes under cultivation. Now home to 700 grape growers and approximately 500 physical wineries, 95 percent of which are family-owned, together they produce over 1,000 different wine brands. Making up approximately 40 percent of the total fruit grown in Napa, with 90 percent of its reputation
The most coveted bottles, including those from Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Robert Mondavi, Inglenook, and Staglin, tend to come from the AVAs of Oakville and Rutherford while other highly sought-after
Nestled in between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east, Sonoma County produces double the quantity of wines than its more famous
The history of winemaking in Sonoma traces its roots back to 1812 when Russian colonists first planted grapes in Fort Ross along the county coast. By 1823, the Franciscan missions had found their way north, and Father Jose Altamira is credited with planting several thousand vines in the area. The first winery in Sonoma, Buena Vista, one that is still operational today, was opened in 1857 by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, also known as the father of the California wine industry. By 1919, there were as many as 256 wineries with 22,000 acres of wine production in Sonoma County. Unfortunately, by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, less than half of the Sonoma wineries had survived. During the post-war years leading up to the 1970s, Sonoma gained back its winemaking ground but it wasn’t until the 1980s, after the seminal Judgment of Paris, when Sonoma County shifted from being a dairy, grain, and fruit crop producer to a primarily wine grape-growing region.
While Napa Valley has built its culture around cabernet sauvignon, Sonoma is home to some of the best California chardonnay and pinot noir wines. The most premier bottles have traditionally come from the famed Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, where the cool coastal weather, early morning fog, and low overnight temperatures do wonders for the fruit without running the risk of frost. Some key players in the AVAs are Kendall-Jackson, Williams-Selyem, DeLoach, Merry Edwards, Ramey, Kosta Browne, Kistler, and Freeman Vineyards. In recent years, however, the 15-mile long Anderson Valley, once more known for growing cannabis than grapes, has become Sonoma’s new hot spot for pinot noir with many new and old producers setting up shop. And where there are
Bill Harlan is one of Napa Valley’s most revered winemakers. Thirty years ago, he set out to create a California first growth that could rival Bordeaux first-growth wine and by all
Founded by Gustave Niebaum in 1879, Inglenook has been producing
This family-owned vineyard and winery in St. Helena is renowned for its exceptional
Napa Valley’s loudest cheerleader and one of California’s most influential winemakers, Mondavi established his eponymous winery in 1966 at the To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville, California. Renowned for producing some of California’s finest
One of the Boisset Collection of wineries owned by Burgundy winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset (husband to Gallo heiress Gina Gallo), Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena is one of Napa’s pioneering winemakers and has been awarded the American Winery of the Year (2012) by Wine Enthusiast magazine. The vineyard offers unique and exciting experiences with its
Located in the Russian River Valley, DeLoach is one of the pioneering producers of pinot noir, chardonnay, and zinfandel wines in Sonoma County. A 21-acre property that is farmed biodynamically, it has received Wine & Spirits magazine’s Wine of the Year award 12 times. Happy Living
Iron Horse Vineyards
Made from chardonnay and pinot noir grown on the family-owned vineyards in the heart of Green Valley in Sonoma Country, Iron Horse produces some of the world’s best sparkling wines. These elegant wines are reflective of their “sense of place” and are perfectly balanced with distinct tastes and texture. Today, Iron Horse produces 12 different cuvées including a blanc de blanc and a brut rosé. ironhorsewineyards.com
Ramey Wine Cellars
Since 1996, David Ramey and his wife Carla have been committed to making award-winning wines from California’s north coast vineyards. Located in Healdsburg, California, Ramey is best known for its pinot noir and chardonnay, both made from fruit sourced from the region’s famed Russian River Valley.