Everything You Need to Know About California Wine Country

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Wine travel is now almost as popular as wine drinking. But you don't have to be a master sommelier to expertly discuss California varietals at your next dinner party.

If you enjoy sipping a glass of chilled rosè on a summer evening or a lush Cabernet with a steak dinner, you have almost certainly sampled the bounty of California’s wineries. The Golden State’s more than 4500 wineries produce an average of 85% of the total United States wine output. After Italy, France, and Spain, California is the next largest producer of wines, according to the Wine Institute.

From the state’s northernmost border to San Diego in the south, a distance of nearly 800 miles, the diverse climates, soils, and topography support over a hundred grape varieties, leading to complex varietals and unique blends. From coastal locations with morning fog and cool breezes to warmer inland vineyards, and from hillsides to low lying valleys, each microclimate creates distinct growing conditions and flavor characteristics. Soils range from sand, clay, and loam to volcanic ash and seabed gravel, contributing even more varied qualities.


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California’s Varietals

Chardonnay, the most popular wine in the United States, is the most widely planted grape in California. Sometimes referred to as the “queen of whites,” Chardonnay has been described as toasty, spicy, or buttery when aged in oak, and crisp or citrusy when unoaked. Other flavor descriptors have included green apple, fig, and baked apple, but food accompaniment, serving temperature, and the palate of the beholder all affect the taste of the wine.

For more California wine royalty, Cabernet Sauvignon has been called “king of red wine grapes.” Although produced throughout the state and second in acreage, Cabernet from the Napa Valley in California’s North Coast region, is the most prized—and the priciest—with new releases from acclaimed vineyards going for over $200 a bottle and up. Described with terms such as blackberry, blueberry, leather, and plum, the full-bodied wine can be aged as long as twenty years, although five to nine is generally acceptable. Many are now produced to be delicious upon release for those who don’t wish to delay gratification.

Introduced during the Gold Rush, Zinfandel is California’s signature grape, thriving in the state’s rich soil and ideal climate. Most of the widely grown grapes are used for White Zinfandel, a blush wine with some sweetness, popular as an introduction to wine drinking, but often looked upon with some disdain for its ubiquity and low price point. Red wines made from the Zinfandel grape are full-bodied and bold, with flavors of raspberry, cloves, anise, blackberry, and raspberry.


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Pinot Noir continues to increase in popularity, in part due to the 2004 film Sideways, but also because of its elegant black cherry and floral flavors, its style which ranges from delicate to fuller-bodied, and its ability to pair well with a variety of foods. Growing areas with cooler climates, including the Central Coast, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Rita Hills, produce outstanding Pinot Noirs with subtle, but unique flavors.

Rosè, well-loved and fashionable, primarily as a summer wine, is generally dry and pale pink in color. The wines are made by juicing red grapes but allowing contact with the skins for only a short time before fermentation, creating the enticing pink color. The White Zinfandel mentioned previously is a type of rosè, usually only partially fermented to retain some of the sugars; hence the sweetness that has both fans and detractors.

Sparkling wines speak of celebration and luxury, but they are delightful for any occasion or as an aperitif. Shades range from white (Blanc de Blanc) to blush (Blanc de Noirs), and flavors range from extra brut as the driest to demi-sec and doux as sweeter. Extra-dry, somewhat confusingly, is in the middle of the range, and many would consider it a bit sweet. California sparkling wines from the Schramsberg winery have been served by every U. S. Presidential administration at official State functions since President Nixon’s historic 1972 “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai.

The Methode Champenoise, a complex process involving a secondary bottle fermentation to produce the bubbles, is used to produce most California sparkling wines. The word champagne is generally used only for wines from France’s Champagne region, but some wineries are legally able to use the term, accompanied by the wine’s actual California origin.

Other California wines include Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Petite Syrah, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Gris, and a variety of late harvest dessert wines. Blends of these and other varietals have created unique flavors, styles, and prices, inspiring winemakers’ creativity and enhancing consumers’ choices.


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Visiting wineries as a travel adventure

California’s wineries are situated among rolling hills, green valleys, and breezy coasts, many with spectacular architecture to match their picturesque settings among rows of grapevines. Tasting rooms welcome visitors, and picnic areas, restaurants, and even lodging are features of many wineries, making it no surprise that recent figures indicate over 23 million tourist visits to California wine country in 2017.

Wine aficionados and novices alike can learn about their preferences and expand their knowledge through visits to wineries. Generally, a “flight” or group of four to six wines will be prearranged for tastings. The tasting fee, ranging from about $15 to $35 depending on the number and type of wines served, is often waived with a wine purchase. Many wineries are open for walk-in tastings, but some require appointments, so it’s wise to plan ahead. Tours provide information about the process of winemaking, and it’s fascinating to see the barrels, tanks, and production equipment as well as to hear about what goes into producing the wine you’re tasting. In most regions, tour companies arrange winery visits and handle the driving so visitors can enjoy tasting without worries.

With wine producing regions throughout California, travelers can choose an area they would like to explore along with their winery visits. Wine producing regions in California are the North Coast which includes Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Mendocino County; the Central Coast, including Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara County; Sierra Foothills; Far North; Inland Valleys; and Southern California.

A wine label indicating “California” guarantees that 100% of the grapes are grown in the state. For a wine to carry an AVA (American Viticultural Area) name on its label, at least 85% of the grapes must be grown in that AVA, a federal designation. Although the regulations may seem quite technical, they are important as protections for both consumers and wineries.

Whether you’re sipping California’s wines at home, at a restaurant, or at a winery, you’ll be experiencing a product of Mother Nature combined with the efforts of many hands along the way, from grape growers to winemakers. For hundreds of years in California and for thousands of years throughout the world, wine has been part of celebrations, ceremonies, and everyday life.