California dreaming

March 2022

Historically, wine emerged from the old world – Europe and the Middle East; today it flows from all around the world. During the era of European colonization, settlers carried the grapes they knew from home, planting them everywhere they went. Nowhere was this transplanting more brilliantly successful than in sunny California, today one of the world’s premier wine regions, in both quantity and quality.

California has become synonymous with the good life: Hollywood, Malibu, Big Sur – those golden destinations beckon. Today, California produces some 90% of all wine made in the USA, making our southern neighbour the fourth largest wine producer in the world, after Italy, France and Spain.

While wine is made all across the golden state – there are more than 2,000 wineries – the centre of fine wine making lies just north-east of San Francisco in two sheltered valleys nestled between the coastal mountain ranges and the Sierra Nevada, the fertile rural counties of Napa and Sonoma. Here they make sumptuous red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and suave whites from Chardonnay that rival any in the world. Back in 1976, these then-unknown wines burst onto the international scene when French judges in Paris conducted a blind tasting, putting these newcomers up against the finest that France has to offer – and California won the day, hands down! Since then their fame has spread – and their prices have risen to match.

California has no official classification system comparable to the European controlled appellations, but in lieu of a formal ranking, price serves as a guide to quality. But value is another matter; as you survey the range of products and prices available, how do you assess value?

First, look for specific sourcing. Wines labelled ‘Napa’ or ‘Sonoma’ are definitely a cut above those labelled generically ‘California’. Within these two leading counties there are further degrees of specific sourcing known as ‘AVA’ – American Viticultural Area. As with their European counterparts, California producers now acknowledge the importance of ‘a sense of place’ in
their wines, and proudly promote those legally defined AVA sites on their labels. There are some sixteen AVAs in Napa – Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain, Stags Leap… and almost as many in Sonoma – Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast… They even share one – AVA Los Carneros – that straddles the county line between them.

Besides the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for which they are renowned, California also produces fine wine from a broad variety of grapes.

I have had particularly good luck with Zinfandel, the grape that first made California famous. From Sonoma Coast AVA, Pinot Noir is emerging as their finest wine. I have not had the same success with California Shiraz or Sauvignon blanc – here they call it Fumé blanc – but I’m sure many fans of California wine would disagree with me on this.

Above all, explore! The LCBO regularly has many fine producers available to choose from – from Napa: Beaulieu, Beringer, Caymus, Freemark Abbey, Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, Sterling… and from Sonoma: Benziger, Buena Vista, DeLoach, Hartford, Iron Horse, Meomi… And there are many more that become available from time to time through the bi-weekly Vintages releases: Belle Glos, Duckhorn, Martin Ray, Rutherford, Seghesio, Silver Oak, St. Francis… Prices range from bargain level to astronomical, and overall quality level is high. Always be sure to look for an AVA source, as many of these producers make entry-level “California” wines as well as their Napa and Sonoma AVA offerings. Find a few producers you trust, and you will discover many great additions to your cellar and your table.

© Paul Inksetter 2022

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog,
© Paul Inksetter 2016

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.