It is not the oldest wine-growing region in the United States, but California is the most iconic and the most influential. This status was not achieved by accident. Californian winegrowers worked hard to achieve dominance in the marketplace. Their contribution has helped to cement wine’s place as one of the US’s most well-loved beverages. It is reported that around 25% of American adults consumed wine on a regular basis in 2021.
The Place to Grow Wine
635,000 acres of California are devoted to growing wine grapes. Although geographically the state is very diverse, much of it is highly suitable for wine production. With long sunny days tempered by cooling ocean breezes, areas like Temecula Valley, Napa Valley, and the Santa Cruz Mountains are well placed to produce the very best quality grapes. These are made into some of the finest wines on Earth. These areas enjoy a Mediterranean style of climate.
The Central Valley is one of the most productive areas of agriculture in the entire world. This long, flat valley enjoys hot and dry conditions, irrigated by canals and reservoirs. It is perfect for creating high yields of grapes. A significant volume of bulk wine is grown and made here. Inexpensive, mass-produced liquids put California’s wines within easy reach of most consumers. They are accessible and affordable.
History of US Wine Production
The climate and topography of the state offer a multitude of ideal locations where grapes can be grown well. But you could say that about many other parts of America. The difference is that very early on Californian producers made a determined effort to be seen as number one. The makers first set out their stall as the pinnacle of the industry in 1934 with the foundation of the Wine Institute. In the post-Prohibition Era (and still today) the Wine Institute has been fundamental. They provide producers with routes to market and lobby against high taxation. The Institute boasts more members than the National Association of American Wineries, which represents the entire country.
The 1976 Judgement of Paris was a watershed moment for California wine production. White and red wines went head to head against their French equivalents. In a blind tasting, the Californian beverages all came out on top, to the surprise of the watching world. This cemented the state’s oenological credentials on the global stage. Perhaps more importantly, it made an impression in the mind of the American consumer too. Wine was not widely consumed or considered particularly socially acceptable before. The Judgement of Paris made the average American look again at their domestic products. Since the 1970s, California’s wine production has increased dramatically.
Alongside the astronomic growth in the amount of wine made each year, producers have also worked hard to make their region a gastronomic destination. There are tasting rooms alongside large numbers of Michelin-starred restaurants making it a hit with Americans as well as the global travel industry. Fine wine and fine food go hand in hand in CA.
The Big Names in California Wine-Making
California has more than its fair share of famous faces in comparison to the rest of the US wine industry. Perhaps the most famous is Robert Mondavi. He is credited with bringing the world’s attention to the wines of Napa Valley for the first time. He is well known for labeling his wines by varietal rather than geographic region. This simple action made them more accessible to the average consumer. Mondavi broke down some of the barriers around the perceived elitism that surrounded wine. Wine labels were not secret codes waiting to be cracked anymore.
Heidi Peterson Barrett is another big name that influenced the world’s expectations of California wine. In 1992, her Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon received a faultless 100 from wine critic Robert Parker. It went on to become the most expensive Californian wine ever sold.
Then, of course, there is California’s own homegrown wine critic, James Laube. He has been writing on the subject for The Wine Spectator for many decades and has written several books solely on the state’s wine. The first edition of his book California Wines won the 1996 James Beard Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. James has had a huge influence in making California’s wines the top name when it comes to American viticulture.
A Varietal of Our Own
One of the most famous products of the region is Zinfandel. This red varietal is well-known for its jammy fruit flavors, and it is also appreciated the world over when made into rosé as White Zinfandel. It is now understood that Zinfandel is the same grape as the Italian varietal, Primitivo. California’s abundant sunshine has allowed the West Coast to make this grape its own, This is another reason that when you think of American wine, you think of the Golden State.
If you would like to discover more about CA wines, why not schedule a tasting. There is no better way to understand wine culture than to immerse yourself in it!