CALIFORNIA BROUGHT US MARILYN MONROE, FAST FOOD, STEVE JOBS, SIDEWAYS, HOLLYWOOD, STEINBECK, THE INTERNET, APPLE INC, DEATH VALLEY AND ARGOSTON HARASZTHY
Today it is giving us fine wine to rival and even surpass the European greats. California produces 85% of US grown wine. Incredibly that makes it the fourth largest producer in the world.
A Californian winery is the ultimate status symbol and names like David Beckham, Rupert Murdoch and Francis Ford Copolla have all succumbed. Wines from this state are so sought after that those deemed the best have made celebrities of their winemakers too, Kris Curran (her wine, Sea Smoke featured in the massive hit movie Sideways), Cathy Corison, Robert Foley, Philippe Melka, Bob Levy, Andy Erickson, John Kongsgaard and Helen Turley rose to fame in the 90s and are assured titans of the industry today.
In 2004 the release of the universally acclaimed movie Sideways is said to have caused Californian Merlot sales to drop by two percent and Pinot Noir to rise by fifteen – such is the power of Hollywood.
Merlot on the vine
Californian Pinot Noir
In the 90s a ‘California Cult’ was born. Sought after small batch wines surpassed even Bordeaux in price and if you were lucky enough to get an allocation from one of these feted producers the wines would fetch an even greater price on the secondary market. These wines were predominantly Napa Cabernet, created in tiny quantities by the likes of Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Moraga.
Harlan priced their very first vintage at an audacious 65 bucks in 1996 – ambitiously matched in price with Opus One, a true marker of intent. Opus One was founded in 1980, a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton and Robert Modavi, they sought to make a Bordeaux blend from Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. This added huge cachet to the region, the wines weren't bad wither and sell for a fortune today. Excessive prices elicited a kick back by certain Sommeliers and may just have presaged later moves to dial back in the form of something entirely new.
In 2005 an unseasonably cold vintage gave rise to a new wave of elegant vinous incarnations, wines of higher acidity, less brix, less oak…. Arnot-Roberts and Sandhi remain prime examples of this paired back elegance.
Spanish soldiers slaughtering and capturing resisting Native Americans. 1595 image by Theodor de Bry
THE HISTORY BEHIND CALIFORNIAN WINE
California has most likely been inhabited for the past thirteen thousand years. American Indians are thought to be descended from Asian tribes who made their way across the Bering Straits from Russia to Alaska when it was possible to traverse these two Continents on foot. Even today the now flooded strait is only 55 miles wide. Decedents of these people are believed to have populated North and South America.
'Indian Village' engraving from Harpers monthly Magazine 1880
Vitus Vinifera was first cultivated in California by Spanish missionaries bent on converting Native Americans to Catholicism with the aid of Communion wine. Listán Prieto, Mission, País, Criolla Chica are all names for this one grape variety that journeyed to the Americas from Europe with early Christian settlers eager to make Holy wine for the Blessed Sacrament. Old vines can still be found dotted about the few remaining early Franciscan farmsteads and odd remaining mission.
Mission San Juan Capistrano, California
California’s Native Americans were living in solitary isolated groups when the Spanish claimed it for Spain in 1542. Some 130,000 Native Americans lived in the territory back then. They had developed multiple languages and were very much culturally and linguistically separate even from each other perhaps because of the mountainous landscapes. Hunter gatherers survived well despite low summer rainfall thanks to an abundance of fruit, nuts and fish.
Native American woman with her grandchildren
The Spanish did not really return until about two hundred years after their initial claim. Efforts to colonise California were centred on the conversion of the Native Americans to Christianity and ensuring they acquired a useful trade or skill. Once this was accomplished they might be sent forth to populate. Settlements were planned outside the mission juristiction but this does not seem to have ever happened. Indigenous peoples were ravaged by contact with western disease - unfortunately the close quarters of mission accommodation made them ripe for epidemics. Half of them lost their lives. Isolated tribes free of contact with the invaders went on much as before.
San Jaun Capistrano, founded in 1776
In 1821 Mexico achieved independence from Spain and therefore Alta California fell under Mexican jurisdiction. Moves to secularise the missions and remove the natives and the Franciscans monks began. Native Americans were supposedly to be allotted parcels of mission land but few were granted. A good many large grants were dished out to the friends and family of commanding Mexican Generals. Yountville is named after George C. Yount, the recipient of a huge Mexican land grant in 1836 and subsequent avid planter of the vine. He was a former employee and friend of the commanding general.
Mexicans and white Californians or rancheros also moved in. Land grants enabled profitable large scale cattle farming. Grape growing continued on old mission land but the baton had been passed. Then in 1847, the US annexed Alta California following war with Mexico. Gold was discovered the very next year and demand for wine and alcohol grew exponentially.
San Luis Obispo, home of early settler Pierre Dallidet
A man named Agoston Haraszthy arrived in California in 1849, buying a Sonoma vineyard in 1856, later to become Buena Vista. Haraszthy was born in Austro-Hungary and crucially for the future of the nascent wine industry he returned to Europe in order to send many thousands of cuttings back to California. He wrote about his trip thus guaranteeing himself a place in California’s wine history as the (somewhat disputed) ‘Father of Californian Wine’. Sonoma had already been established as a winemaking region even in the 1820s thanks to the demands of thirsty Mexican military commanders. In 1861 Charles Krug started Napa’s first commercial operation.
Miners with gold in a pan
The fortunes of Californian wine have ebbed and flown with successive man made and natural disasters but the industry was kickstarted by good old-fashioned avarice. The California Gold Rush brought settlers from far afield and the Sierra Foothills spawned many a winery as a result of the demand caused by these thirsty settlers. Zinfandel was planted because it made robust hearty high alcohol wine. Wines were no doubt rustic, boozy and meaty much like their imbibers.
The mining industry caused large scale damage to farmlands and rivers - floods caused by careless excavation, silt and diverted rivers clogged up the waterways. The once crystalline San Francisco bay became tainted and muddy. Trees were felled and riverbanks collapsed as hydraulic excavations, banned in 1884, gained pace.
San Francisco grew rich serving the gold mining industry and consequently became a hub for ancillary production. Settlers seeking riches also needed machinery, housing, food and supplies. Crucially, many of the new settlers came from Europe and when gold prospecting failed them, wine making offered an alternative trade. A large and thirsty market awaited.
Wineries such as Schramsberg, Beringer, Fisher (now Myacamas) Inglenook and many others were established during this period. Thirty years after Charles Krug launched his seminal winery European grapes were springing up all over California. Phylloxera in faraway Europe further aided growth and by the 1890s Sonoma had more than 22,000 acres under vine and Napa 18,000.
The University of California began conducting important wine research and education in 1880. This facilitated a meteoric understanding of Californian terroir. Coastal regions were deemed perfect for fine wines. Mission was still the main variety but tens of others had now been planted.
The end of Prohibition 1933
Over-planting caused prices to drop in the 1890s just before Phylloxera hit the US. Prohibition was also waiting in the wings. Coming on the back of phylloxera, recession and the carnage of World War I, the effect was devastating. When Prohibition passed as Law in 1919 the wine industry was already on its knees. The meteoric rise of Californian wine had presaged an equally mighty fall.
Prohibition Agents and a then illegal still
Prohibition loopholes made many a gangster rich and many a home winemaker drunk. Allowances for medicinal and sacramental wine kept a few wineries open but a key allowance of two hundred gallons of fruit juice per household meant home brew was ubiquitous. It might be said that Prohibition strengthened or indeed created organised crime in America. Bootleggers fed the needs of Americans and at the same time established a gigantic network of bribery and corruption that permeated all echelons of society.
Post probation recovery was slow, essentially it was a case of starting afresh as existing wines were uninspiring and of poor quality. This led one despondent winery owner, George de Latour of Beaulieu in Napa, to journey to France for assistance. He hired French trained enologist Andre Tchelistcheff in 1938, it was to be an excellent choice. Tchelistcheff had trained at the French National Agronomy Institute and crucially had a scientific understanding of the requirements of making wine. His impact was huge. He defined the region’s future style by creating up market Cabernet Sauvignon. He introduced French oak ageing in small barrels and he understood the science of winemaking too. Oregon, Washington State and Carneros also benefited from his consultancy.
Growth throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s was pretty slow, though Mondavi brought Charles Krug and began to make fine wine. The significant investment Mondavi made reallly shined the spotlight on California. Diamond Creek, Chappellet and Spring Mountain were established about this time. Beringer, Mayacamas and Inglenook relaunched.
Chateau Montelena 1973 was one of the wines to triumph at Spurrier's infamous 1976 blind tasting, together with Stags Leap 1973. A Californian wine rated first in both of the categories, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
the judgement of paris
Stephen Spurrier’s infamous Judgement of Paris took place in 1976, notionally to mark 200 years of American Independence, it took the form of a blind tasting and Spurrier took the opportunity to add what he felt were corresponding US wines to the French greats. It was to radically enhance the fortunes of Californian wine. 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and 1973 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon trounced the counterpart French offerings. The Californian wine industry saw a major injection of investment courtesy of the positive press this generated. Two seminal wine journals were launched that same year, The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. They introduced wine scoring.
Napa Valley AVA was established in 1981. Clos du Val in 1972, Domaine Chandon 1973, Opus One 1979, Domaine Carneros 1987. Big money had come to town and was replacing the slightly flowery hippy ethos of the 70s. Professionally trained winemakers from places like UC Davis meant wine making practice was more standardised.
Disaster struck in the 1980s when phylloxera took hold thanks to widespread flooding and use of AXR1 rootstock which was not resistant to the bug. On the slim plus side this did serve as an opportunity to replant, it created a clean slate and fresh opportunity. Modernisation in the 1990s no doubt came about in large part because of this disaster. Bordeaux served as a definitive role model for change. Bordeaux is far cooler therefore some of these techniques may have created a move toward riper wine.
This was when the Cult Winery movement was born – small wineries can only produce so much so a coveted allocation was highly sought after. Places like Screaming Eagle and Harlan produced such small quantities of wine that hired consultants made more sense than a fulltime winemaker. These Consultants became rockstars especially if they had the ear of the ever more powerful wine press. Prices continued to climb.
THE NEW WAVE
Young producers inspired by the wines of 2005 - an unusually cool vintage, sought marginal climatic areas of California to make wine. These were in small part reactive to the obscene prices of their forerunners and the general richness of California’s wines. This also placed the spotlight on established producers who had been thought of as old fashioned simply because they had always made wines this way. Restrained and elegant Mayacamas certainly fits this descriptor. This has filtered through to the higher echelons and judiciously applied oak, less ripeness, less intervention is common today. There is today a myriad of styles available offering consumers a smorgasbord of diversity.
The climate in California is technically Mediterranean but with many mitigating factors. The Pacific Coastline delivers offshore ocean currents that form fog, this does not extend far in land thanks to the mountainous coastal range – it is possible to roughly determine the temperatures by looking at the gaps in the mountain ranges - gaps in the cordillera facilitate cooler climbs.
California lies between ocean-influenced Sonoma and the dry Central Valley. Unusually it is hotter in the north and cooler in the south because the wider southern part is near to fog and cool breeze laden San Pablo Bay. Fog is key to understanding California’s microclimates, that and the Mayacamas Mountains which block fog from reaching far inland. Yountville and Oak Knoll get fog daily and by St Helena its almost non-existent. Diamond Mountain and Calistoga get a mere whisper.
Huge diurnal shifts are possible and this is of course very important for producing high quality fruit. Summers are dry, rain falls almost exclusively between October and April.
Westerly parts of Santa Barbera are 300 miles South of Napa and far cooler and foggier than anywhere in Napa. Mendocino is hotter than Napa. Winter frost is really only ever an issue North of Sanfrancisco. Soils are wildly diverse thanks to the entire region sitting atop two tectonic plates – the North American and Pacific below.
California's Central Valley is where most of the larger productions may be found, the majority of these are white, rosé or blush. Most of the State focuses on premium brands - aka more pricey options. There is a strong sparkling wine making tradition in California, dating all the way back to the 1870s, today French firms have come to dominate. Domaine Chandon were first, followed by Mumm, Roederer, Tattinger, Pommery - Spanish firms Cordorníu and Freixenet are there too. Schramsberg are amongst the biggest of the US contingent.
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