Grapes have been grown for wine in California since 1769, first planted by the missions to make communion wine. Wine became a commercial industry in the 1850s, and flourished when European wine was ravaged by the phylloxera epidemic in 1865-85.
The Phylloxera insect is a native of North America, and American vines were immune to it; the European vineyards only recovered when their vines were grafted onto American rootstock. So it could be argued that Californian wines have a longer history than many European wines; certainly the European and American wine industries have a close bond, and leading French brands, such as Moët & Chandon and Mumm have reinforced this recently by investing heavily in California. European wine was always considered superior until, in a famous blind wine-tasting in Paris in 1976, experts ranked Californian red and white wines higher than top French wines - a test that was repeated in 1986 and 2006 with similar results. California has also made its mark on wine-making technology, and introduced many of the modern innovations that have since been adopted elsewhere; Davis University (the University of California Davis) is one of the world leaders in the study of viticulture and oenology (the science and study of wine and winemaking).
The Californian wine that reaches European supermarkets tends to be middle-of-the-road produce, blended for export. This can be good, but it gives the impression that Californian wine is always middle-of-the-road. In fact, with hundreds of small wineries (as they are called) making wine, the variety is far, far greater than this, but because the smaller wineries cannot produce in sufficient bulk to make export viable, you have to go to California to appreciate this. You can visit wineries on a wine tour (by car, coach and even train): most are happy to see you, and have special facilities for visitors to taste (often for a small fee), and also have restaurants. The 2004 movie 'Sideways', set in the wine-growing Santa Ynez Valley (see below), will give you some indication of the pleasures of this experience.
There are nearly 100 grape varieties in California - and winemakers produce just about every sort of wine possible, including sparkling, dessert and fortified wines. Many of the vineyards were planted by first-generation Europeans, and the style of wine often reflects their own traditions. But the Californian soil and climate (especially the cooling fog in the north) have lent the wines a special twist. It was in the USA, by the way, that the idea of labelling wine with its grape variety was first introduced. Among the reds there are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir. A particular famous and uniquely Californian grape variety is Zinfandel, which makes a range of wine from rosé (or 'blush wine') to the more typical deep, dark and peppery red, where its probable origins in Italian Primitivo can be detected. Some of these Californian reds have a high alcohol content (up to 14º); look out - in more senses than one - for the splendidly rich, dark and strong Aleatico. Whites include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin, and the German-style Riesling and Gewürztraminer. New World Chardonnay has lost some popularity recently (ABC: 'Anything But Chardonnay') for its vanilla-like, sometimes cloying richness, but it is ungallant to dismiss it so casually, and Californian Chardonnay repays a reconsideration.
The Napa Valley is so famous worldwide that one might be tempted to think that this is the only place in California where wine-grapes are grown. In fact, there are vineyards across much of California, from Mendocino in the north to Temecula (between Los Angeles and San Diego) in the south, each bringing their own special qualities of soil and climate. California is divided into five major wine-growing regions. Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Mendocino County form part of the Northern California Coast region, to the north of San Francisco. To the south of San Francisco is the Central California Coast region, with Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County. The remaining three regions are Southern California (including Temecula), Sierra Nevada, and Central Valley.
Napa is an old Wappo Indian word meaning 'Valley of Plenty' - an indication of the supreme richness of soil here. This is where the Californian wine revolution took off, when its first-class wines shook up the wine world in the 1970s. The Robert Mondavi Winery, founded in 1966, played a key role in this development; now Napa Valley has a total of 373 wineries. They are particularly noted for their Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, each with a distinctive intensity of flavour seldom found elsewhere. Visitors should know that Napa Valley is also celebrated for its high-quality organic produce and cuisine.
Less famous than Napa, but close by and equally rewarding to visit, Sonoma County produces the full range of wines - especially Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Gewürztraminer - from 260 wineries. Sonoma Valley is in the south; this is where commercial Californian wine-making was launched in 1857 (at the Buena Vista winery) by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, who was responsible for introducing no fewer than 300 grape varieties from European vineyards. In the north is the Russian River Valley, first planted with vines by Russian immigrants as early as 1812.
Santa Ynez Valley
A rising star of Californian winemaking, the Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara County, lies well to the south of Napa Valley, so has a hotter climate, and a longer growing season. It produces distinctive Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling.
Stretching from Sacramento County in the north to Bakersfield in the south, and running along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the hot, flat agricultural lands of Central Valley produce over 50 per cent of California's wine. This is where much of California's export wine is produced.