Guide to California Wine
It is easy to view the California wine business as a new and fast-paced industry that has risen out of nowhere. We see an amazing proliferation of new wines and wineries, new labels and appellations, new winemakers and new technology — a virtual whirlwind of change. Although California wine today is indeed evolving at a brisk pace, its roots date back more than 200 years, to the time when the first Europeans arrived in the state.
Early settlers, led by Spanish missionaries, planted Mission grapes as they built a chain of missions on California’s Pacific coast along what is now Highway 1. As important as the Mission grape was to the settlers, its origin remains a mystery. It is likely the grape hailed from Spain, as did the settlers. A versatile grape producing better sweet than dry wines, it was also used to produce fortified wines that could later be distilled into brandy. Although the Mission grape is still grown in California, it no longer plays the significant role that it did in the formative years of California wine.
The first known California vineyard was planted in 1779 at Mission San Juan Capistrano near the coast, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The first wine was produced in 1782, which was a sweet, fortified beverage. Following this initial effort, small vineyards were planted with increasing regularity at missions and on larger ranches. Father Junipero Serra, whose vision guided the formation of the mission system, moved back and forth along the coast and inland, reaching as far north as Sonoma. As he established missions, vineyards soon followed. Father Serra often lamented that there was not enough wine for the celebration of Mass. The Catholic Church was one of the first major consumers of wine in California.
After the Spanish Missionary period ended around 1833, wine growing continued to be centered around Los Angeles and Southern California. These regions dominated California wine production for the next 50 years, but the process was about to undergo a major change in quality.
As the Spanish were setting up missions, a wave of French, German, Italian and Hungarian immigrants began to flow into California. These new arrivals came from countries where wine was an integral part of everyday life, and planting grapes or perhaps even a small vineyard provided a direct link to their European heritage.
Through these settlers, Bordeaux varietals were introduced to California. The first Cabernet Sauvignon may have been bottled as early as 1837 using grapes grown in the heart of Los Angeles. Southern California continued to be the place where most of California’s wine was produced, and San Francisco was where most of it was sold. Nevertheless, many winegrowing advances were being made further north.
When gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the state changed forever, becoming the destination for many more thousands of immigrants. They came to pan for gold, work in mines and otherwise carve out a living for themselves and their families. They too planted vines for wine.
In 1857 the flamboyant Count Agoston Harazsthy of Hungary, a leading importer of grapevine cuttings, founded Buena Vista Winery in the town of Sonoma. Two years later the wine industry was large enough to be recognized by the state legislature, which passed an act that exempted new grapevines from taxation until they were four years old. Harazsthy was among those who realized that California would never reach its potential if the Mission grape remained the standard. Better grapes were needed, he argued, to produce better wines.
In 1861, Charles Krug founded the first winery in the Napa Valley near St. Helena. He was joined in 1862 by Jacob Schram, whose winery is now the home of Schramsberg. Many other wineries were established that still exist today, including Beringer, which was established in 1876, Niebaum in 1879 and Chateau Montelena in 1882.
Some adventurous winegrowers started planting on the hills and mountainsides of California, and although it was difficult to plant and harvest, the cool climate and poor soils yielded grapes that were dark in color and intensely flavored. The wineries of this era were small and unspecialized. Most California winemakers continued to make wines using high-yielding varieties like Colombard and Mataro and often named their wines after the great winemaking regions of Europe, calling their wines Chablis and Burgundy, for example. There was some increase in experimentation with the great French varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, but not much.
Dozens of wineries were built and abandoned in the quarter of a century between 1890 and 1915. Many were later to be discovered by a new wave of wine enthusiasts in the 1960s and 1990s. While these old wineries produced whatever grapes they could obtain, a select few still concentrated on increasing the quality of wines being produced. There were advances in winemaking techniques, but for the most part, viticulture remained rustic and truly Old World.
As the notion of fine wines began to take shape in the early 1900s, two disasters struck. The first was phylloxera, a louse that attacks the root system of grapevines. The resulting infestation eventually wiped out most of California’s vineyards. Efforts to replant the vineyards were hampered not only by costs but also by the absence of phylloxera-resistant rootstock. By 1915, a quarter of a million acres of vineyard in California had been wiped out.
The 1919 ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which instituted Prohibition, was equally devastating to the California wine industry. Prohibition outlawed the manufacture, transportation, sale and possession of alcoholic beverages and forced several hundred wineries to close permanently. No sooner had a broader, more organized and more sophisticated wine industry begun to emerge than it nearly vanished completely, practically driven to extinction by law and legislation.
In 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, most wineries were in sad shape, having been neglected for years. Many of the wines produced in the 30s, 40s and 50s had serious bacterial defects. The University of California at Davis accepted the challenge and played a major role in the regeneration to quality. The work done there was instrumental in defining the climatic zones for growing fine wine grapes, identifying five regions and rating them from coolest to warmest, and literally cleaning up California’s wines, establishing strict sanitation guidelines for winery operations and quality production standards.
In the 1960s the California wine industry began to lay the foundation for a surge in wine sales. Americans preferred ice-cold soft drinks and chilled martinis, so marketing white wines to consumers provided an easy niche to exploit.
The industry received another boost in 1976, when a Franco-Californian tasting was held in Paris to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial. To everyone’s surprise, especially the French, two upstart wineries from Napa Valley finished in first place. SLWC Cabernet 1973 won the red wine competition by outscoring some of the First Growths from Bordeaux, while Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was the preferred white wine over Premier Cru Burgundies.
The tasting triggered an avalanche of global publicity for California wine as newspapers and magazines around the world heralded the story. The publicity created an allure of California’s wine regions that captured the world’s imagination, prompting some of the greatest French winemakers to join forces with or buy California properties. Several dozen French Champagne houses purchased land, planted vineyards and built wineries on the American sun-drenched western coast.
By the late 1970s and throughout the 1990s, several other trends emerged that further shaped the market. Many of the assumptions concerning which grapes grew best in which area proved true, while others did not. The move toward cooler climates proved as important as the recognition that controlling crop yields, using natural winemaking techniques and fermenting wines in toasty oak barrels would lead to finer, more complex wines.
Modern viticultural practices emphasize the concept of terroir, which means planting the right grape in the right soil with the appropriate microclimate. Closer attention is being paid to farming techniques, such as how tightly grape vines were spaced and the preferred overall crop size. The best vineyards are tightly pruned to limit the number of grape clusters. Growers focused on grape canopies as well, rejecting earlier theories that a full umbrella-like covering protected the grapes from severe heat. Instead, grapevines are trimmed back and grape clusters were exposed to the sunlight early on, in the belief that the grapes would ripen more evenly and fully if directly exposed than they would if shaded.
Since the 1990s, demand for California wine has grown into a global market. With an increase in the number of fine dining establishments, wine retail stores and a general curiosity from consumers, the California wine industry is thriving. Media coverage on the health benefits of wine (the so-called French paradox) has skyrocketed sales and brought consumers to a greater appreciation of wine.
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