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The Impact of Terroir on California Wines
Despite strides made by other states in the industry, the California Wine Country remains the nation’s undisputed leader in wine innovation, and production. Roughly eighty percent of American wine is produced in California. The inherent beauty of the many American Viticultural Areas American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the Golden State makes exploring California wine exciting and enjoyable.
Although the California Wine Country has produced wine for over a century, most wine lovers point to 1976 as the year that the Golden State truly gained respect as a world-class producer. In this year, a blind-tasting was arranged between selected California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, versus the best reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy. All of the judges were French (a condition for that nation’s participation). The Napa Valley stunned the wine world when a Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and Calistoga Chardonnay were named the best red and white respectively.
In response to this shakeup, Europe began to adopt some newer technologies and processes that the California Wine Country pioneered. Longstanding practices and traditions were called into question, and science began to take a more prominent role in a sizeable amount of wine production in some European regions. Cleanliness and anit-contamination practices consequently became much more prevalent in the Old World.
It would be untrue, however, to suggest that the California Wine Country influences Europe and not vice-versa. Centuries of practice and experimentation has led many areas in Europe to plant varietals that attempt to fully express the terroir of the area. The concept of terroir does not directly translate to English, but it basically means all elements that influence and are part of a particular vineyard. This can include sun exposure, humidity, wind, temperature, fog, and soil type amongst other things.
The California Wine Country is also coming to terms with the Old World technique of blending different varietals. Certain types of grapes complement others well and have historically been combined in Europe. For example, Merlot will soften the tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon pair nicely, and Sangiovese mingles exceptionally well with Cabernet Sauvignon in “Super Tuscan” blends. California has adopted some European blends as well as experimenting with some that are not a part of European tradition. I recently visited Paso Robles , and tasted some great Zinfandel Syrah blends.
As the California Wine Country continues to consider the imporance of terroir and blending, different regions are gaining reputations for producing specific varietals exceptionally. For example, Lodi is increasingly becoming a leader at producing great Zinfandels. Oakville is an established producer of distinguished Cabernet Sauvignon. The fusion of beneficial Old World traditions with the innovations taking place in the California Wine Country will likely produce increasingly stunning wines in the future.
The following sections take a more in-depth look at some of the major regions within the California Wine Country with more links to articles on specific AVAs.
The Napa Valley is widely regarded as the premier wine region in the California Wine Country. The evolution of the valley over the pat few decades has been nothing short of revolutionary. I grew up in North Napa and can attest to the massive changes that have occurred even in my short lifetime. Touring this gorgeous region’s picturesque scenery coupled with world-class wine and food is an unforgeable experience.
Most would agree that the Napa Valley has had the most to do with the fine wine revolution in America over the past few decades. This is amazing considering the region produces less than 3% of all California wine.
Far from being a homogenous region, many microclimates exist, each having its own unique terroir. Appellations range from the cool and foggy Carneros , to the warm Mt Veeder , to the hot Diamond Mountain . There are also differences between AVAs located in the eastern Mayacamas Mountains, and the western Vaca Hills. Spring Mountain is located in the west, and receives considerably more rainfall than Howell Mountain in the east. Vineyard growers are continuing to discover the different nuances of each AVA, and are growing varietals to specifically fit each unique terroir.
Napa Valley History
In 1836, George Yount settled in the Napa Valley after being granted the Caymus Rancho between modern day Yountville and St Helena from General Vallejo. In 1839, he became the first European to plant grapes in the Napa Valley on a part of his 12,000 acres. Colonel Joseph Ballinger Chiles was another earlier settler in the region and was also granted land from General Vallejo in modern day Chiles Valley The first winery established in Napa was Charles Krug in 1861 in St Helena. In 1879, the legendary Inglenook was founded by Captain Gustave Niebaum in Rutherford . These were booming years for the wine industry in the Napa Valley as well as the California Wine Country in general. However, the coming decades would see two devastating setbacks.
The first occured from the late 1870s to early 1890s when the phylloxera louse began striking vinyards all over the California Wine Country. Phylloxera originated in Europe, and attacks the roots of vitis vinifera vines. This species is native to the Old World and is grown for fine wine production. The louse was effectively combatted by the discovery that vitis vinifera cuttings could be grafted on to phylloxera resistant rootstocks. Unfortunately, an immense amount of damage had already been done.
The second debilitating setback occured in 1919, when Prohibition became the law of the land in the United States. Most wineries in Napa did not survive these two massive setbacks, although a few withstood Phylloxera and then weathered Prohibition through two major loopholes.
Sacramental wine was not banned under prohibition, and some wineries were able to stay afloat by producing wine for the Church. Male heads of household were also allowed to make fifty gallons of wine per year for private use under the Volstead Act. Some wineries and vineyard owners sold their grapes to individuals for this use. However, the vast majority of wineries went out of business, and most vineyards in the Napa Valley were converted to other crops.
When prohibition ended in 1933, the era of fortified and jug wines began throughout the California Wine Country. Most of the arable land in Napa was planted with prunes, and production shifted to other regions in the California Wine Country. The resulting jug wines had generic names like, “Chablis” and “Burgundy”, and had no defined varietals or inherent character. The exceptional terroir of the Napa Valley were not widely utilized as these years focused on quanity, not quality. Technological breakthroughs focused mainly on making sound, safe wines, of little character.
Much production also focused on fortified, high-alcohol wines. These wines became the drink of choice for many transient alcoholics because they had the highest proportion of alcohol for its cost. The term, “wino” associated wine with alcoholism. This was a horrible occurance for proponents of moderate consumption of quality wine, and inhibits the industry to an extent even today.
The decades after prohibition were a time when most Americans drank cocktails. Quality wine was a mysterious beverage almost solely of European orgin, and with aristocratic associations. In the Napa Valley, some quality wines continued to be made, but they were few and far between. The vast majority of wine produced in the California Wine Country was either very alcoholic, or undistinguished and cheap.
During this era, Andre Tchelistcheff made massive breakthroughs in the science of qaulity wines at BV Winery. Originally from Russia, Tchelistcheff realized that unsanitary practices were adversely affecting wine production. He was extremely influential, and mentored many winemakers throughout the California Wine Country.
Tchelistcheff’s innovations helped to bring on a renaissance in high-quality wine making in the California Wine Country. In 1961, Joseph heitz opened the first post-prohibition winery in the Napa Valley. In 1966, Robert Mondavi split from his family at Charles Krug and began his own winery in Rutherford. Many other wineries were established in the following years with the philosophy of making high-quality wines. The area increasingly became a tourist destination, and people from all over the world became interested in visiting the rising star of the California Wine Country.
Located to the West of Napa County, Sonoma County is very different from its more famous neighbor. Producing world-class varietals and blends in its own right, Sonoma is more agriculturally diverse than Napa. Sonoma’s AVA system is also more defined in the varietals produced within certain geographic regions. Additionally, temperature and climate vary more widely in Sonoma than in Napa.
Parts of Sonoma are cooled by the Pacific Ocean, and others are very hot, contributing to its less consistent weather. Sonoma may not be as well known as Napa, but many varieties actually do better there. The Alexander Valley mades some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignons, and the Russian River Valley is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Sonoma County History
In 1823, Father Jose Altimira founded the last Spanish Mission in Sonoma. Vineyards were cultivated and simple wines were made by the Franciscans for the next decade. In 1833, Mexico won its independence from Spain and all of the Spanish Mission system was secularized. General Vallejo was consequently granted much of Sonoma Valley by the Mexican government. In 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt ended the Mexican era as well as Vallejo’s dominance in the region.
Agostaon Haraszthy, a Hungarian noble, arrived in Sonoma in 1856 and started the Buena Vista Winery. Although his venture was not ultimately successful, his experimentation with different varietals in the reion earned him the title, “Father of the California Wine Industry”. Luther Burbank inherited Haraszthy’s legacy and continued to experiment with differnet varietals until his death in 1926.
Prohibition devastated the entire California Wine Country, and Sonoma was no exception. Sebastiani Winery was one of the noteable survivors due to their contract to make wine for the Church. The industry lay dormant for a generation and began to rebound about the same time as Napa.
The two largest factors determining the various climates in Mendocino County are the Coastal Mountain Range, and elevation. Many of the vineyards that are grown west of the mountains are significantly affected by the moderating effect of the Pacific Ocean. East of the mountains is much warmer. The climate is transitional between the wetter Pacific Northwest and the drier Mediterranean climate of much of the California Wine Country.
The Anderson Valley is a very cool region that excels at producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines. This is one of my favorite areas in the California Wine Country to visit as the valley is absolutely beautiful and the people are friendly and welcoming. The Mendocino Ridge has a higher elevation and is thus less affected by fog from the ocean and is quite a bit warmer. Zinfandel is the varietal of choice in this diminutive region.
The altitude of the vineyards grown in Mendocino varies between 500 and 3000 feet above sea level. The Navarro and Russian Rivers are the two main waterways in the area. Over the millenia, they have created alluvial soils that are perfect for growing many varietals. The region lies over the collision of the Pacific and North American Plates, and is geologically very young. The San Andreas Fault runs through Mendocino County and ends at the Pacific Ocean. The region generally reieves a lot of rainfall, although it can be sporadic from year to year.
Mendocino County History
The first grapes were grown in Mendocino in the 1850s by failed gold prospectors. The wine production had a mainly local customer base due to the isolation of the region. Even when railroads were extended north, Mendocino had not established the national reputations that nearby Napa and Sonoma had, and it remained a relative unknown. Prohibition devastated the vineyards of Mendocino, and the Parducci Family is credited with keeping the industry alive during the subsequently difficult years.
The industry began to come alive with the rest of the California Wine Country during the 1960s. Mendocino finally gained esteem for producing many varietals exceptionally well. Wineries were established, and the practice of shipping grapes to Napa and Sonoma for production lessened.
Explore California Wine Country
The wine industry in the California Wine Country is extremely dynamic, and will continue to evolve and improve. The give and take between New World technology and Old World tradition is certainly benefiting winemaking in the California Wine Country. Regardless of your degree of expertise, learning about wine in the Golden State is a fun and rewarding adventure.