The Wines of California: An Overview

The pride of American wine production, California is a dynamic, ever changing area. History is being written as the land undergoes constant examination and experimentation. Blessed with a warm climate and abundant rich topsoil, California is ideal for the growing of almost every sort of produce. While grapes do not necessarily demand rich soil and in fact often produce better wine under challenging conditions, Californian grape growers and winemakers have been able to produce world class wines, learning how to make the best use of the varied climates and conditions present throughout the state.

There are 5 official wine growing regions in California. Within these regions are eighty-three distinct AVAs or American Viticultural Areas. Similar to European designations a Californian wine bearing a distinct AVA on the label must contain at least 85% of grapes from that area.

The most prestigious region is the North Coast. Napa is certainly the most famous, noted for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake County comprise the rest of the region. The North Coast benefits from a proximity to a maritime climate that is buffered by steep mountain ranges. Within these valleys some of the greatest wine in America is grown. Parts of Mendocino and Sonoma are directly exposed to the sea and are becoming known for cooler-climate wines, Pinot Noir in particular.

Further South is the Central Coast region, stretching from the San Francisco Bay to Santa Barbara. Within this enormous area a wide diversity of climates and conditions exist, the one constant perhaps being a close proximity to the ocean. The Santa Cruz Mountains AVA for example boasts an incredible amount of identifiable microclimates, with the weather differing drastically from one vineyard to another. The Salinas Valley in Monterey County is home of the world's largest contiguous vineyard. Much of the bulk wine for large corporations is grown here. Thanks to the ocean's cooling influence Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do particularly well throughout the entire region. Unfortunately much of the San Francisco Bay area is too expensive to profitably produce wine though the conditions promise to be ideal for Pinot Noir production.

The remaining three regions are the Sierra Foothills, where the high elevation has proven ideal for growing grapes, Zinfandel in particular as well as other grapes suited for cooler climates such as Riesling. In the area around Los Angeles is the South Coast region. Inland is the enormous Central Valley, which has considerably more grapes under cultivation than any other region. Many of these grapes are sold in bulk.

The California wine industry has changed considerably in the past fifty or so years. Initially the large agricultural forces like E.J. Gallo dominated the landscape and while these megaliths still loom large, Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their wine preferences. The jugs of "Hearty Burgundy" and "Chablis" are no longer the only choices available for the consumer. Overall quality has improved dramatically and smaller growers who are less concerned with the bottom line and more interested in creating good wine have broadened the scope of what California has to offer. Along with this process goes the slow discovery of which specific areas and vineyards are best suited for particular grapes. Year after year with each harvest the pool of knowledge is growing and these refinements, combined with large capital investments, are promising even better wine for the future.

Information is for educational and informational purposes only and is not be interpreted as financial or legal advice. This does not represent a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold any security. Please consult your financial advisor.