California is the largest economy in the US, it is also the most populated state with almost 40 million residents. It has over 600,000 acres under vine and accounts for 85% of US wine production, this makes it the biggest wine state in the US and the fourth biggest wine producer in the world.
It is a significant contributor to the US economy and a major employer through wine production jobs, wine tourism, and wine hospitality. Cutting edge in terms of their visitor experience, Californian wineries and vineyards have been referred to as adult theme parks. So, from afar it would be easy to imagine that California’s multi-billion wine industry would be devoid of the authenticity that abounds in other wine growing areas around the world.
However, on a recent visit to Sonoma and Napa I discovered that this could not have been further from the truth. Yes, at some wineries the impeccable visitor experience is similar to visiting the top Chateaux in Bordeaux – wine of the highest quality, information in-depth and flawless. But my overriding impression of the Californian winery visits was of their diversity and individuality.
Furthermore, my final thoughts of Napa and Sonoma were of the passionate dedicated grape growers and wine makers. Who, like their colleagues around the globe, are doing their very best to make the best wine they can from the climate, the soil, the grapes and the prevailing vintage conditions.
California is steeped in grape growing history and winemaking know how, the first vines were planted in 1863 by Spanish missionaries. The Californian gold rush started in 1848 which increased and the numbers of people arriving in the state and the subsequent demand for the local wines increased. In 1919 California faced the challenge of prohibition which all but wiped out the industry. In 1976, The Judgement of Paris tasting elevated the status of California wines and once again increased demand for them worldwide.
No stranger to environmental challenges, the insect Phylloxera (1980’s) and Pierces Disease (1880’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1990’s) have taken their toll on the vineyards over the years. Even as I write Santa Barbara in Southern California is battling with a wild fire that has already been burning for two weeks. The damage so far is estimated to be in excess of 55 million US dollars. This is on top of the wild fires this October, in the wine regions of Sonoma and Napa.
These fires destroyed over 5,000 buildings, caused $9.4 billion US dollars and led to loss of life. It has been suggested that the long drought, followed by excessive spring rains and a dry summer left dry brittle trees and grasses which was perfect kindling for the fires that spread quickly, fanned by the autumn winds.
Perhaps because of the environmental issues California has faced, in 2001, The Sustainable Wine growing Program was initiated. It has impressive far reaching objectives for its 975 member wineries which represents 85% of the countries wine production. Apart from an agenda to protect rural land from urban sprawl, the focus is directed towards biodiversity, ecosystem management, energy efficiency, water quality and air quality.
When driving through the vineyards of Napa, bat boxes and owl boxes are common place. Land set aside to encourage pollinator insects and vegetable gardens growing beside the vines are frequently seen. Refreshingly, in keeping with this philosophy, cover crops and the decision not to use weed killer, leaves the vineyards alive and natural in appearance rather than manicured to within an inch of their lives.
It was the people however who brought the California wine scene alive for me, and their abounding devotion to making the best quality wines they could. Raymond Winery, owned by the well know Burgundian Jean Charles Boisset, is a fully functioning Biodynamic winery making interesting Cabernet Sauvignon. Kitted out internally with a night club, a wine sensory area and a “Winemaker for a Day Experience”, the external area is the complete opposite with a biodynamic garden populated by goats and sheep. Jean Charles is committed to the idea of sustainable practises, wants people to remember his wines and winery and maintains “wine is fun, it should enhance life”. Raymond Winery is open to visitors.
At the smaller more traditional end of the scale is Schramsberg. This property was established in 1965 by Jack and Jamie Davis, now run by their son, this is one of the most prestigious sparkling wines made in the US. Made in the same way as Champagne, the elegance and quality of the wines are exceptional and well worth seeking out. A visit to this winery promises traditional cellars and traditional winemaking practises as well as the opportunity to taste high quality sparkling wines.
There was no doubt when arriving at Ingelnook, that the owner was a “movie mogul”. This is a stunning estate that has a French style Chateau at its heart. Owned by Francis Ford Copolla, the visitors centre is stuffed with movie industry paraphernalia including the hand written cast list from The Godfather. Making stunning Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, elegance and fruit purity are the hallmarks of the estates wine style.
Of Irish heritage is the Teac Mor estate in the Russian River Valley. Originally from County Galway, this Irish family are making premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from their own vineyards. The Russian River is technically cool climate in California so perfectly suited to growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Burgundian in approach, the wines are exceptional quality and an honest reflection of the climate and vineyards of this beautiful river influenced inland region.
Owner Steve Moore, expresses his delight and wonder that his Galway father planted their vineyards and shares he his families straightforward desire to make the best possible Chardonnay and Pinot Noir they can.
This article first appeared in Taste.ie Jan 2018