California is a place of amazing geologic and climatic diversity. Almost every kind of climate, land formation, vegetation, and animal life that can be found anywhere in the United States can be found in California.
Interestingly enough, most of the state is either too bitterly cold or too scorching hot to be ideal for wine grapes. Close to the Pacific Coast line which runs the length of 840 miles, summer can be bone-chilling cold.
Eighty miles inland, the Central Valley can be blazing hot. The Central Valley is a flat valley that dominates the interior of California. It covers around 18,000 square miles, about 11% of California’s total land area.
Most of California’s best wine regions are located between these two extreme locations. These top wine regions are close enough to the ocean, by way of the Pacific Coast, to get the much-needed cooling effects beneficial for grapes, and the Central Valley is inland enough for nearby wine regions to benefit from the warmth needed for the ripening of the grapes.
The major California wine regions are stacked and intimately attached to one another, up and down the state, from Mendocino in the north to Santa Barbara in the south.
California Wine Regions
The state can be divided into primary wine-producing regions:
- Napa Valley
- Sierra Foothills
- North Central Coast
- Livermore Valley
- Paso Robles and York Mountain
- The South Central Coast.
Each of these regions can be divided into sub-regions. For example, the North Coast is home to both Napa Valley and Sonoma. Mendocino County and Lake County are also primary regions located in the North Coast.
Some notable regions within Napa Valley are Howell Mountain, Oakville, Stags Leap, and Yountville.
Notable regions within Sonoma include the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek, Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley.
California’s Biggest Wine-Producing Region
The Central Valley, a vast, hot, fertile, 300 mile expanse extending from the Sacramento Valley in the north to the San Joaquin Valley in the South, produces a full 60 percent of all the agricultural products in California and crushes 75 percent of all the wine grapes.
Such well-established firms such as Gallo dominate the region. Wineries are huge and the wines themselves are mostly inexpensive generic blends.
The family-owned company of Gallo produces 75 million cases a year. The company makes numerous inexpensive wines but also has over sixty sister brands that are fine wine, most of which use grapes from Sonoma County.
California’s Distinct Climate
The fine wine regions of California exist for one reason: a unique climatic phenomenon. As the days warm up and the heat in the interior rises and escalates, cool winds and fog are drawn in from the Pacific.
The wind is either drawn in directly to the wine valleys (ex. Santa Ynez Valley) or through gaps in the low coastal mountain ranges. The San Francisco Bay acts as a funnel for cool winds that are drawn in off the ocean and then pulled up into Napa and Sonoma Valleys. This is an example of the cycle of warming and cooling that is happening all along the coast.
Obviously, this symbiotic relationship is more dramatic in some wine regions than others. However, without this crucial aspect of California’s viticulture, the state would be full of areas that are too hot to produce fine wine.
AVA (American Viticulture Area)
California winemakers are free to plant whatever grape varieties they want. They can also make the wine in almost any way they choose. Conversely, European winemakers are mandated through many details such as vineyard and farming practices and how long and in what type of vessel their wine must be aged.
Which grape varieties can be used and in what percentages is another mandate. For example, a French Riesling must be 100% Riesling if the label indicates the wine as such. There are also other regulations such as minimum grape maturity required.
The French have a term that means controlled designation of origin (AOC). The classification was developed as a way of certifying geographical indications for wine. Italy and Spain have similar systems.
An AVA is a designated appellation for American wine in the United States. An AVA is a grape-growing area with unique geographical and cultural features.
In order for a wine to carry an AVA label, at least 85%o the grapes must come from the listed AVA (American Viticulture Area).
Some California examples of AVAs and sub-AVAs are: the Oakville AVA is a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley AVA. And the Napa Valley AVA is a sub-appellation within the much larger North Coast AVA.
Does the Region Dictate the Quality?
It is interesting to note that, although there is no quality-based hierarchy, regions that are divided into sub-appellations are thought to make higher quality wines.
While it is agreeable that the freedoms given to the American winemaker is the better scenario, there is one negative side. The thought is that wines of a certain AVA should have similar taste profiles and overall characteristics.
However, winemakers in the United States can treat wines in majorly different ways. So much so that it’s hard to tell if the flavors are coming from the characteristics of the place, or a particular method the winemaker used.
California is the U.S. Driving Force behind Wine
More than 90% of all American wine is produced in California! Even though winemaking in the state has spanned four centuries, California is one of the most modern, technologically oriented wine regions in the entire world.
Evidence of wine’s health benefits has caused wine consumption to rise in the last 20+ years. Among people who drink alcohol, wine has now surpassed beer as the preferred alcoholic beverage!
The first attempts at producing wine from European grapes occurred on the east coast in the early decades of the 17th century.
Multiple efforts by viticulturist, including those of Thomas Jefferson, ended in frustration. Most ended in failure even though they were convinced Virginia possessed the perfect environment for making fine wine.
Wild American vines grew heartily, but the wine coming from these native vines tasted strange, especially to those who had developed a European palate.
New York and Virginia settlers began reexamining the native grapes and crossing them with other grapes. They finally had success with crosses and French-American hybrid grapes. By the time of the Civil War, the east coast had a small but well- established wine industry.
California’s Original Wine
On the west coast, two Spanish clergymen founded missions near present-day San Antonio Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Farther west, Spanish soldiers (along with clergymen) moving north established missions along what was known as lower (Baja) California, Mexico, and into upper (Alta) California. Each string of missions was a day’s horsebacks ride from the next.
Each mission had its own vineyard based on a Spanish grape called listan prieto. These first California vines were descendants of vines brought to Mexico two centuries before by explorers including Hernan Cortes.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Alta California missions and their tiny vineyards were located from beyond San Diego to as far north as Sonoma.
The Father of California Wine
With the discovery of gold in 1849 in the Sierra Foothills, risk-taking, poor but hard-working Europeans came to California. Among those seeking their fortunes was Agoston Haraszthy.
Unfortunately, the mines dried up quickly and thousands of European immigrants who had come to the American west found themselves turning to agriculture and viticulture.
The oldest continually operating winery in the United States was founded in 1857 by Haraszthy. He not only founded Sonoma’s Buena Vista winery but he also promoted winegrowing with an intense passion. He was known as the father of California wine for many years.
Haraszthy is rumored to have imported 165 different varieties of grapes. His partner and close friend Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain, went on to build one of Napa Valley’s most impressive chateau-style wineries, Inglenook. Inglenook is now owned by Francis Ford Coppola.
California’s Wine Industry takes Devastating Hits
The West Coast had a thriving wine industry in the 1880’s. The countries of Europe were known as the wine-drinking part of the world. The United States, however, was poised to take on that same reputation.
Before the California wine boom in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, devastation hit the US wine industry. For 50+ years the wine industry endured phylloxera, prohibition, World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression.
A tiny, yellow, aphid-like bug, spread throughout Europe destroying vineyards. The bug is one-thirteenth of an inch long and one sixtieth of an inch wide. Phylloxera moved around the world killing vineyards in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and California.
The devastation was so great that many vintners believed the world’s vineyards and the future of wine would cease to exist. Named the “dry leaf devastator”, phylloxera feeds on vines roots and sucks the life out of the vine.
The bug remained harmless and unknown for centuries because several vine species are tolerant of the insect. However, native European vines belong to the species that is susceptible to the insect.
When American vines were sent to France for experimentation in the 1860’s, phylloxera attached itself to the roots. Within two decades, this “plague” had destroyed vineyards throughout Europe.
California Vineyards fall Victim to the Bug
While California’s early vintners planted vineyards with European vines – thought to be superior to American vines – California sadly became phylloxera’s next victim.
Nothing seemed to work to kill the destructive, disastrous bug. French vineyards were doused with chemicals and flooded with water. The French government offered prize money for anyone who could come up with a solution. Nothing worked.
California wine makers had to eventually uproot all their vineyards and replant on American rootstocks. As a result, most of the world’s vineyards today come from vines growing on American roots.
Phylloxera returns to Napa Valley in the 1980’s
The most devastating event possible happened to California winemaking in the mid 1980’s. A mutated version of phylloxera returned. It destroyed vines planted on AxR1 rootstock at an alarmingly rapid pace. Vintners were devastated.
The AxR1 was especially prevalent in Napa Valley. Over the next decade, every vineyard planted on AxR1 had to be replanted. The estimated cost was $3 billion.
Napa Valley Cabernet – A Silver Lining
When vintners replanted, through scientific data and many years worth of experience, they decided to change the grape varieties they planted to be better suited to their vineyard sites. The Napa Valley subsequently became a place nationally recognized for and highly specialized in Cabernet Sauvignon.
Prohibition in California
The California wine industry had been thriving for generations when prohibition hit. In January 1920, the National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, came into effect.
Even though wine was not its prime target, the infamous alcohol ban nearly destroyed California’s wine industry. As we now know, home winemaking and bootlegging surged during this period.
Thousands of families depended on their wineries for their livelihoods. Wine could be produced but not sold. Selling wines illegally and looking for regulatory loopholes was the only recourse.
California wineries began to stay alive by making dried table grapes or switching to grape juice production. Perhaps the most crucial legal loophole was the permittance of home winemaking.
California sent thousands of railroad cars full of fresh grapes to the east coast for making wine in American kitchens, basements and garages.
The vine plantings in California nearly doubled during this time, however, the grapes were of awful quality. There was more emphasis put on making grapes that could be transported long distances than those that would make great wine.
At Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) in Rutherford, Napa winemaker Leon Bonnet used religion as a way around the Volstead Act. The religious wine business boomed and wines used for blessings as well as though prescribed for medicinal purposes made their mark.
Some California Wine-Growers Disregard the Volstead Act
Some wine makers disregarded the Volstead Act and made their wines available up and down the California coast. Many restaurants in wine country could serve wine without reproach.
Bootlegging was how wine reached these restaurants. Prohibition agents looked away from these cafes and restaurants mostly because the mayor and his associates could regularly be seen in attendance partaking of the local red wine.
Many wineries from Sonoma and Napa were still making limitless amounts of wine. Some California wineries not only survived but thrived due to being bootlegged across the bay and transferred among underground buildings.
Prohibition Ends – the Great Depression Intensifies
The damage done by the Volstead Act was devastating to California wineries. At its end, less than 400 wineries existed and many of those were new wineries that had been anticipating the prohibition repeal.
The entire state of California had no quality grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay had very little hectarage left.
The wine-growers in California had such a daunting task ahead of them to try and restore the once flourishing wine industry. On top of the low quality of grapes left, the reputation of great wine had been severely damaged by home winemaking in terms of quality.
Another sad repercussion of the ridiculous Volstead Act is perhaps the misconception that wine was somehow improper. Many generations would see wine at dinnertime, or any other time, to be harmful and unacceptable.
Wine makers such as Robert Mondavi would eventually work to change the American palate after wines produced during prohibition had soured it altogether.
Instead of desiring sweet, cheap, and strong wine, fine table wine was finally re-introduced to Americans and led production in California in the late 1960’s.
Robert Mondavi and Earnest and Julio Gallo were three of the most successful vintners of the twentieth century. Because they had no traditions and historical experience to rely on, they had to teach themselves to make wine by reading books on the subject!
California Wineries still dealing with the Effects Today
It’s hard to believe but the effects of the repeal of prohibition still haunt wine-makers today. Although rules in California are more relaxed than some other states, the repeal puts wine in the direct control of the states.
The restrictions on transporting through states and the massive paperwork involved stifles market access between states.
Even today California winery owners have to get through a lot of unnecessary paperwork and file many permits in order to be able to welcome visitors and hold tastings.
To Sum Up California Wines
California is a place of awesome beauty and a wine region with endless possibilities. California’s almost 4,000 wine producers range from extremely large (as mentioned above – Gallo) to tiny commercial wineries that buy small amounts of grapes and make a few barrels.
120+ grape varieties are grown in the state and 8 lead the pack. The eight in order are:
- cabernet sauvignon
- pinot noir
- pinot gris/pinot grigio
- sauvignon blanc
The climate, soil, and geology over such a huge amount of territory are all so different. But no matter where their location within the state, the vineyards are all blessed by generous, bright sunlight that means grapes will ripen to a natural richness and become delicious fruit.
Now Let’s Explore the Wine Regions Within The State at a More Granular Level
California is a huge state that covers enormous stretches of coastline, most of which is perfect for growing grapes.
In addition to the coastal areas there are a number of interior stretches of land that have become heavy producers of grapes and wine and popular with tourists and enthusiasts.
You cannot easily describe California wines under one umbrella because the climates and regions within Cali are so different.
Below you’ll see how we divide up California into major regions and then within each of those regions are many official AVAs (American Viticultural Area) as well as a number of unofficial AVAs to explore.
► The North Coast
The north coast includes many of the most well known wine regions such as Napa, Sonoma, & Mediccino among others. These areas are some of the most famous wine regions to visit in America and some of the most prestigious wines and vineyards are located in this region.
► The Central Coast
The central coast spans the area between Oakland and Santa Barbara. Most people refer to and distinguish differences between the various large areas within the central coast such as Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Monterey, and Santa Cruz among others.
► The South Coast
The south coast includes areas in and around the LA and San Diego metropolitan areas including some sub-AVAs that are slightly inland. Larger regions found in the South Coast include Temecula, Ramona, and Cucamonga Valleys extending up the coast as far as Malibu among others.
► The Central Inland Valley
The inland valleys to the East of the coastal mountain ranges are some of the top wine producing regions of the entire state even though they are not often thought of as major wine tourism destinations. Top regions in the central valley include
► The Sierra Foothills
This region lines the eastern side of the central valley and spans multiple counties. The main geographical area for the Sierra foothills however is largely to the East of Sacramento and can be lined up in time with many important locations that were populated during the gold rush of the mid 19th century. These foothills offer a small and unique wine culture to this day that is often overlooked and under-appreciated in the state.
► The Northern California Regions
The Northern most parts of California have a number of small boutique winery regions that mostly fall into small valleys or basins that are tucked between mountainous areas. The volume of foot traffic and grapes produced in these regions is very small compared to larger areas along the coast or the central valleys of the state but they still offer wine tourists exciting places to visit that are a little less busy.