California wine is synonymous with US wine. For many it is US wine. Fortunately, the fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of Oregon, the Bordeaux blends of Washington State and the brisk Rieslings of New York’s Finger Lakes show that this is an oversimplification of America’s wine production, which covers pretty much every US state.
Nevertheless, at 85% of US wine and 95% of exports, it’s an understandable perspective. The scale of California in wine growing shouldn’t surprise, however. Standalone, the State is the 5th largest economy in the world, with a substantial $50Bn-value agricultural sector.
From the establishment of wines in the late 18th Century, mostly by Catholic missionaries in Southern California, wine production has grown – with hiccups of Phylloxera in the 1880s and Prohibition in the early 20th Century – to be a $3.8Bn industry in its own right.
Much of that is, like most parts of the world, production of mass-market, lower-priced wines – ‘jug wines’ in local parlance. In California, this is concentrated on the large, warm, fertile, inland plain of the central, San Joaquin Valley that runs South and East of State capitol, Sacramento.
But there is plenty of ambitiously-made fine wine made in California. Napa Valley is the most famous – and these days most expensive in terms of land prices (>$1M / Ha), grape prices per ton (up to $45-50,000 for the finest Cabernet Sauvignon) and bottle prices (frequently over $100 / bottle).
Though it makes up only 4% of production, Napa’s stature has risen relentlessly since the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting that had Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon beat the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux in a blind taste test.
It has evolved significantly since then, and in many ways set the stereotype for California wines – big, buttery, oaky Chardonnays and ripe, jammy, heavily-extracted, black Cabernet Sauvignons with 200% new oak straitjackets. There is much more to the Valley than that prejudicial perspective, thankfully.
Moreover, fine wines can be found in regions across much of the length of the State, from Los Angeles to well North of Napa Valley, itself on the North side of San Francisco’s Bay Area. To understand, appreciate and personally evaluate the spread of California wine styles across its diverse regions, the principal industry body, California Wine Institute brought over 45 Masters of Wine to the State to spend 9 days exploring its AVAs and their wines.
I took extensive notes on the presentations and discussions we had with State representatives, winemakers, marketers, sommeliers, retailers like CostCo and others, upon which this profile of California is based. I had visited Napa and Sonoma on 3 previous occasions as well – 2004, 2008 and 2013 – but this was the most comprehensive view of the State as a whole.
This includes 369 tasting notes from a little over 600 wines made available for us to taste (I think a 60% tasting rate was pretty good!), including several focused masterclasses – not least an exceptional vertical of Ridge Monte Bello 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005 and 2015, plus a first-ever, blending component tasting of ‘unicorn’ wine, Screaming Eagle. And yes, it really is ‘that’ good.
Further, there were over 30 additional wines tasted during a couple of extra events set up by the Institute of Masters of Wine North America on the day after the official tour ended. That included a fascinating debate on the future of Merlot in Napa, given the damage to the variety’s reputation caused by 2004’s Sideways movie.
I wanted to summarise my impressions of styles and trends of California wines, as well as brief overviews of the key regions we visited and tasted through. I also wanted to highlight wines and producers that really stood out.
The detailed notes and tasting notes I made, in order of events we attended across 9 official days plus the extra IMW North America day, totalled over 55,000 words alone, without any additional thoughts…so it made sense to split them up into separate pieces.
The following 4 regional ‘blocs’ made most sense, with links to my summary perspective on each ‘bloc’, including key producers and AVAs, then the detailed, day-by-day notes and tasting notes for each wine:
Santa Barbara: Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with finesse and freshness, plus authentic Syrahs, from vineyards like famous Sandford & Benedict, and Bien Nacido:
- OVERVIEW: the Santa Barbara region
- Day 1: Central Coast walkaround tasting, including some unusual varieties like Albariño
- Day 2.1: introduction to the State of California’s wine and agriculture
- Day 2.2-2.3: exploring Santa Rita Hills fine, elegant Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays
- Day 2.4-2.5: Rhône varieties masterclass and dinner at Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon
- Day 3.1-3.2: visiting the famous Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and tasting its wines
- Day 3.3: lunch at Au Bon Climat cooked by Jim Clendenen with fine older wines including Qupé
Paso Robles to Santa Cruz Mountains: contrasting warm and cool-climate zones, sandwiching hotter Monterey in the zone between Santa Barbara and San Francisco. High-potential Paso Rhône blends and restrained Sta Cruz Cabernet blends, including Ridge Vineyards’ world-famous Monte Bello estate, separately profiled in-depth here:
- OVERVIEW: the Paso Robles to Santa Cruz Mountains zone
- Day 3.4-3.6: DAOU Vineyards underwhelming phenolics masterclass then dinner and tasting of Paso Robles Bordeaux varieties, followed by a western after-party with more Paso producers
- Day 4.1: California Sustainable Winemaking Alliance presentation on their approach and strategy
- Day 4.2: Tablas Creek Adelaida District vineyard tour, Rhone varieties masterclass and lunch with other local producers showing warm Paso’s potential for Mediterranean grapes
- Day 4.3: Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Estate and winery tour, with epic Monte Bello vertical tasting from 1965-2015, plus Geyserville and Lytton, then dinner with neighbours, Mount Eden
Sonoma: diverse terroirs, from Napa’s more laid-back sister, over the Mayacamas, with rich Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well as dense, old-vine Zinfandels, up to the rugged, mountainous Sonoma Coast region with taught, cool-climate expressions:
- OVERVIEW: the Sonoma region
- Day 5.1-5.2: Majestic masterclass tasting of old-vine Zinfandel in Bedrock Vineyard then lunch
- Day 5.3-5.4: Walkaround tasting of Sonoma paired-vintages then dinner at Francis Ford Coppola’s winery / Hollywood museum
- Day 6.1-6.2: Elaine Chukan Brown’s informative masterclass on Chardonnay history in California then lunch with the producers at La Crema Winery
- Day 6.3: Geoff Kruth MS’s masterclass selection of ‘California Cool’ wines
- Day 6.4: California sparkling wines at Sunset over the Pacific
- Day 6.5: A missed-opportunity of a blind tasting experience with a truly blind professor
- Day 6.6: Pinot Noir-themed dinner with Sonoma Coast producers at Timber Cove
- Day 7.1: California Coastal masterclass focusing on Pinot Noir
- Day 7.2-7.3: Presidential-style visit to the hilltop ridge blocks of Hirsch then lunch in the vineyard
Napa: where Cabernet Sauvignon is king and Chardonnay, queen; where money talks and California wine ‘aristocracy’ hang out. Big and bold, but with justifiably top-end fine wines:
- OVERVIEW: Napa Valley
- Day 7.4-7.5: Robert Mondavi To Kalon winery intriguing masterclass on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 1970s to 2010s, followed by a walkaround of diverse Napa Valley Vintners wines
- Day 8.1: very interesting overview of the business of selling wine with Annette Alvarez-Peters of CostCo, whose team buys around $4Bn-worth of wine a year
- Day 8.2-8.3: equally insightful E&J Gallo perspectives on the business of making wine, including growing the US and winemaking cost footprints, then lunch at Louis M. Martini winery
- Day 8.4: masterclass tasting and review of Napa’s mountain regions with Kelli White at OVID
- Day 8.5: masterclass panel tasting including legend Heidi Barrett, on consulting winemakers, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Day 8.6-8.7: reception then formal wine dinner with Napa’s greats, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Day 9.1: dawn hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, giving different views on it and its viticulture
- Day 9.2: first-ever blending components masterclass that shows Screaming Eagle to be that good
- Day 9.3: burgers and blends wine lunch at trendy Compline wine shop-bar-restaurant in Napa
- Day 9.4: sparkling wine reception then gala dinner at Waterbar, Embarcadero, San Francisco
- Extra day 1: Future of Napa Merlot masterclass with the IMW North America
- Extra day 2: IMW NA get-together and wine dinner at George Chen’s new ChinaLive venture