WineInk: California |

WineInk: California

A Case of You

Kelly J. Hayes
Down to Earth Month 2023.
Wine Institute/Courtesy photo

While I know that in the above title I am co-mingling the lyrics of two Joni Mitchell songs from the “Blue” album (a half-century-old fave), when I think of my home state of California, I automatically think of the refrain, “I could drink a case of you.” Or two as the case may be. Such is the allure and attraction wine lovers feel for the state.

If California were its own separate country, it would be one of the great wine nations on earth. With apologies to the Old-World wine producers – like France, Italy, and Spain, as well as New World producers including Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia – California as a single entity is uniquely positioned to one day be the greatest source for wine on the planet. Of course, with the crazed weather that is pounding the state regularly, it may be too early to make any predictions for the future.

I was thinking about this recently as I prepared for a wine trip to the Paso Robles wine region. Where else in the world can you find the diversity of soils, the availability of capital, and the commitment of winemakers to such a large degree as that found in California? Consider that if the state were indeed a single country, it would today rank as the world’s fourth-largest producer of wine, trailing the aforementioned Italy, Spain, and France, in that order. And we, as a nation, are the thirstiest consumers of wine on a total consumption basis.

Over 80% of America’s total wine production comes from the Golden State, and 90% of all wines exported from the United States to other nations have their roots in California soil. There are just under 5,000 bonded wineries in California, ranging from those under the aegis of wine-producing behemoths like Gallo and The Wine Group to small mom-and-pop operations, many of which make their wines in custom crush facilities. A recent study of the industry showed that, in 2022, the industry had an $88 billion impact on the economy and produced jobs for nearly a half million people.

Hillspring Vineyard.
Trefethen Family Vineyards

Yes, Cali is king.

We all know that the cultural epicenter of the California wine story lies in the Napa Valley. It is in this 30-mile-long wonder of geology and climatology, just to the north and east of San Francisco, that the most famous and highest-priced wines in the state are grown and made. While Bordeaux is the home of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the wines of Napa made from Cabernet have often rivaled those of the motherland.

But despite its outsize reputation, Napa as a wine region accounts for less than 5% of California’s total wine production. In contrast, over three-quarters of all grapes grown in California have origins in the vast Central Valley that sits in the shadow of the Sierra Mountains and encompasses the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. There grapes are grown in bulk to meet the needs of wine marketing giants. And while the region may not have the marketing panache of Napa, it is the region that powers the California wine economy.

In more recent years the Central Valley’s Lodi AVA (American Viticultural Area), one of the most prolific producers of wine grapes with more acreage under vine than Sonoma and Napa combined, has seen an evolution with the advent of close to 100 wineries, many of which are producing quality Zinfandel, a grape that was significant in the earliest days in the history of California wine.  

Lodi is just one example of a California wine region that is seeking footing and identity as both a cradle for particular grape varieties and marketing muscle. There are 147 separate AVAs in California, each with their own unique qualities and attributes that make them different from the others.

Ripe Chardonnay clusters ready for harvest.
Trefethen Family Vineyards/Courtesy photo

In Sonoma County, for example, there are 19 separate sub-regional AVAs, each with special characteristics that help define them. These include rocky, heated regions like the Rockpile AVA, whose vineyards sit at elevations close to 2,000 feet above the fog line and are perfect for making ripe red wines like Syrah and Grenache, as well as the newly minted West Sonoma Coast AVA that hugs the Pacific and sees its grapes chill in the ocean fog. Here the wines that stand out are cool climate varieties, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

It is these differences in locale, soils, and climate that make California such a special place for those who love wine and for those who make it. In relative terms, California is still in its infancy as a wine region. While there are challenges ranging from climate change issues to the current semi-stunted growth of the wine industry as a whole, there has never been a more interesting time in the history of California wine.

Oh, and about that wine trip I mentioned at the top. The Paso Robles (pronounced PASS-oh ROE-bulls by the locals) wine region on the Pacific Coast, about equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is one of the most exciting emerging regions not just in the country, but in the entire world. The diversity of soils coupled with a distinct Mediterranean climate converge to create a region that has yet, like much of the rest of the state, to see its full potential realized.

While wine production in Paso Robles has a history that dates to the Franciscan monks in the late 1700s, it is just in the past 40 years or so that winemakers have begun to understand the best places for planting the different varieties that are producing exciting wines.

This represents just a sprinkling of the great wine regions found within the confines of California. Whether it is Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, Pinot Noir from Sonoma, Zinfandel from Lodi, or Syrah from Paso Robles, the state of Cali is rich in its diversity and the quality of its many varied wines. And being good stewards of those attributes is a priority of the industry, as well.

This week as we near Earth Day on Saturday, the California Wine Institute is in the midst of what they are calling their Down to Earth Month, an initiative that celebrates and promotes the status of sustainability in the wine industry. As much as 80% of wine produced in the state is made by wineries certified under the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program.

“California has seen a 118% increase in certified sustainable vineyards over the past five years,” said Robert P. Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute, about the commitment to protecting the environment.

This weekend is a good time to celebrate California with a case. Maybe two.


Trefethen Chardonnay 2021

If I had to name a wine that first influenced my passion for the wines of California, it would have to be the Trefethen Chardonnay.

You see, my grandfather, instead of having the two-martini lunch that was par for the course in his business in the early 1980s, would instead have a glass of Trefethen with his daily lunch. He was kind enough to share with me on those rare occasions that we would dine together, and it made a distinct impression. I remember the citrus notes always reminded me of sunshine and spring. In fact, they still do.

This is classic Napa Valley Chardonnay that embodies everything that makes California a world-class wine region.

Trefethen Chardonnay
Trefethen Family Vineyards/Courtesy photo
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