California wine regions

California is the main wine producer in the United States of America.

Many a grape variety has found a new home there.

Northern California

The terrain and climate of the wine areas of Northern California remind the visitor of nothing so much as rural France. But the scale is vastly smaller — Napa Valley is only 35 miles long and 5 miles wide, while Sonoma County covers 1,600 square miles along 60 miles of coastline — with only a few hundred wineries sited there. Farthest north is Mendocino County with 30 wineries of its own, whose 3,500 square miles of cool climate helps create Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Those wineries have had a hard struggle over the last two hundred years. Since Russian colonists planted vines in 1812, through the founding of the wine industry by Spanish Franciscans in 1823, up through Prohibition to today, vintners have made heroic efforts to produce wines that rival the best of France and Italy.

In the 1920s there were 256 wineries, but Prohibition reduced that to under 50. Fortunately, the region has recovered over the decades and is now thriving. In Sonoma County, roughly 150,000 tons of grapes are produced by 200 wineries, over half fewer than 20 years old, on a mere 49,000 acres.

The temperate climate, with moderate winters and warm to hot summers is perfect for growing a wide variety of native and imported wine grape species. The most common varieties are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, with a healthy sprinkling of Merlot and Zinfandel.

From those grapes California wineries produced over 500 million gallons of wine in 2004 at a retail value of $15 billion, with the majority of that coming from Northern California. The total US production was 668 million gallons. The overall impact of the California wine industry on the state's economy has been estimated as high as $45 billion.

Second only to Disneyland as a tourist attraction the Northern California wineries form part of a trade that attracts almost 15 million visitors per year.

No wonder when the area hosts the majority of California's 96,500 acres of Chardonnay and almost 75 thousand acres of Cabernet Sauvignon to regularly produce award winning wines.

Whether one's taste runs to the lower tannin, dark red Merlot with characteristics of black currant, or the spicy Syrah with characteristics of sweet blackberry and plum or the cherry and violet Pinot Noir, a lover of red will find something to suit from among California's many offerings.

But those fond of white needn't feel left out where the buttery Chardonnay or the delicate Riesling with hints of peaches and apricots compete favorably with those of France and Germany. And the California Pinot Grigio, light and dry, or the sweet, fruity Chenin Blanc is as crisp as those from Italy or France.

So for those looking for a European experience in a California setting, the Northern California wineries await with their sure to please offerings. Enjoy!

Southern California

In a state that produces 90% of all US wine, the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa in Northern California are justly famous. But they have no monopoly on quality, the wines from the newer Southern California wineries are an equal match for any of their northern sisters.

Most Southern California wine is produced in one of two areas: the wineries near Santa Barbara or those near San Diego, 100 miles north and south of Los Angeles respectively.

Each area has participated actively in the growth of the California wine industry which now ships over 450 million gallons a year to the US and elsewhere.

SANTA BARBARA

The east-west orientation of the coastal mountains forms valleys that open directly onto the Pacific Ocean. This produces a flow of fog and breezes that produce the conditions for growing world class varietals and wines.

Home to several micro-climates near the Pacific Coast and the Pala Mesa Mountains, the area enjoys moderate temperatures throughout the growing season, with warm days and cool nights. The environment provides favorable conditions for producing grapes with optimal sugar and acid levels.

The fifty mile stretch from Point Conception to Rincon form the longest east-west arrow of shoreline from Alaska down to Cape Horn. Here lie vines that grow on everything from wind-swept hillsides to rolling valleys where summer temperatures often hover around 100F (38C).

The climate allows working the vineyards year round, with pruning and weeding in winter, new planting in springtime, canopy management in summer and harvest in the fall.

The area mirrors to a large extent the Rhône Valley area of France and vintners have responded accordingly. One hillside vineyard resides 1,000 feet above sea level with northern exposure, making it ideal for the Rhône varietals grown here.

There is Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese and Syrah — a cornucopia of European grapes. The wide variety is made possible by the numerous micro-climates of the region with occasional snow on some of the mountains where cool-climate Chardonnay does well and the heat soaking Syrah in others.

And never ones to take the easy path, growers even took on the notoriously difficult Pinot Noir to produce a wine luscious with strawberry and herbal tones.

Twenty-five years ago there were almost no vineyards in the area, but today wine is a $100 million business in the county, which include the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. These two areas alone grew to 8,000 acres under cultivation in just the twenty years between 1975 and 1995. In the five years following that 8,000 jumped to 18,000. Today there are over 21,000 acres of vineyards, over half of the grapes being shipped to winemakers outside the county.

TEMECULA

The friendly rivalry between Northern and Southern California is mirrored in the wine business. A young upstart, most of the southern vineyards didn't exist twenty years ago. The first Temecula wines were produced in 1971.

The 1,400-foot Temecula plateau is nestled 22 miles from the Pacific Ocean between peaks of the Coastal Mountain range. The cool afternoon breeze helps keep the smog away and the unique micro-climate also enjoys a higher solar intensity than Napa Valley.

Temecula's vineyards are irrigated from enormous underground aquifers that feed soils high in decomposed granite, which helps drainage and to keep it free of Phylloxera — an invasive insect that devastated entire European wine regions in centuries past and remains a concern today.

Not far away is the highest vineyard in California, Shadow Mountain, growing Cabernet Sauvignon in the mountains above San Diego at an elevation of 4,400 feet above sea level.

Everything grows here from Chardonnay and white Rhône to Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet and the Italian Nebbiolo harvested as late as November. The result is a wonderfully fresh fruit character without the woodiness common to other California regions.

The roots of Southern California winemaking go back almost 200 years when the padres of Mission San Juan Capistrano produced the first vintages. But today business is better than ever, with 1,800 acres in commercial vineyards, thanks to the partnership of sophisticated oenologists and passionate vintners.