The World of Wine – December 2009

The World of Wine

By Ceci Rodriguez

California Wine


The wine industry in California is very young. In 1769, Spanish missionaries founded their first mission on what is now US soil at San Diego. They brought the Mission grape, which, while it does not produce fine wine, can survive in difficult climates and needs minimal tending. The Missions were established in California; the furthest north that they ventured was Sonoma in 1823. California’s first commercial wine was produced in 1824, with the first vineyard of any size being planted by J.J. Warner in Los Angeles in 1831. The Gold Rush of 1849 led to a boom in the wine industry, with planting in the Sierra foothills, close to potential consumers.

In 1851, a Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy, introduced a number of grape varieties from Europe. Beginning in 1920, prohibition led to a serious decline in winemaking, though an increasing demand for grapes for the production of grape juice kept many vineyards in business. From 1933 until the mid-1960s, winemaking was concentrated in the Central (or San Joaquín) Valley and was mainly for liqueur and jug wines.

In the mid-1960s, Robert Mondavi, a member of a family of winemakers, changed history by starting to make fine wines with varietal wines or Bordeaux- style blends. Many wineries followed him, and in 1976, there was a “blind tasting” in Paris, titled the “Judgment of Paris.” This competition was organized by a British wine merchant, in which French judges did blind tasting of top-quality Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons from France and California. California wines rated best in each category. Both wines were produced in Napa.

California produces more than 90% of the wine that is produced in the US. The principal vineyards are grouped into six regions, three of which, by virtue of their more northern coastal position, are important for the production of premium wines and contain the majority of the well-known counties and AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). The North Coast Region is the home of one-third of the State’s wineries, located between Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Lake Marin and Solano Counties. The Central Coast (North and South Central) produces wines from the San Francisco Bay to Santa Cruz, Monterey, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara.

The Central Valley, nestled between California’s Coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevada Range, contains the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys and produces more than 71% of California’s wine grapes. The Sierra Nevada Region has produced wines since the Gold Rush days. The sixth region, Southern California, contains the vineyards between Los Angeles and San Diego.

You can be sure that somewhere in California there will be someone growing almost every wine grape of which you have heard. And, California has its own grape variety, the “Zinfandel.”. It is widely planted and used for blends, for varietal wines and for the sweet, faintly pink or blush White Zinfandel.

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