When imagining vineyards, the rolling valleys, sloping mountains, and stunning coastline of California are sure to come to mind. After all, a whopping 90% of all American-grown wine originates from California wineries. So what makes the Golden State such a special place for winemaking?
A history of winemaking
California’s sloping hills and lush valleys have been home to vineyards for centuries. Beginning as far back as the 1700’s, vines were planted in California’s unique terrain. In the 18th century, these grapes were planted by Missionaries and grown primarily for communion wine. It was not until the late 1800’s that the commercial wine industry began as the Gold Rush brought an influx of settlers to California. Demand for wine soared, and wineries started popping up throughout the state.
Today, there are over 4,000 wineries in California alone that produce over 17 million gallons of wine each year. This wine is exported all over the world to at least 142 countries. So what makes California wine special enough to be so popular all over the globe?
Sprawling from the Mayacamas Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean, California’s wine country is home to a wide range of terrain including rocky coasts, steep mountains, green valleys, and flat benchlands. Most notably, the rich soil of the valleys and the sunny slopes of the mountains help the Golden State achieve its delicious, high-quality wine that is appreciated all over the world.
With peaks as high as 4,700 feet above the valley floor, the Mayacamas Mountains are home to unique high altitude wines and vineyards. Due to the strong direct sunlight and greater temperature fluctuations that increase as altitudes rise, mountain-grown wine tends to be bolder in flavor, deeper in color, and higher in acidity. This special combination of more sun and lower temperatures results in elegant, well-balanced wines that are unlike any other in California.
The sunny climate and rich soil of Napa Valley are the perfect conditions for growing grapes. The warm days and short rainy season leads to grapes that are strong in flavor and high in sugar which are made into sweet and fruit-forward wine. With uniquely perfect terroir like that in Napa Valley, it is no wonder why California is known for its wines!
A range of climates
It’s common to imagine a warm, sunny beach when imagining California, but the region has a more diverse climate than you might expect. Cool ocean breeze, foggy mountain air, and sun-soaked valleys differ greatly in terms of sunlight, temperature, and rainfall. Throughout the state, these climate differences allow for a variety of grapes to flourish.
Cool mountain air
A distinct benefit of high-altitude vineyards is their cool mountain freshness. With crisp mountain air, rocky soil, bright sunlight, and chilly breezes come an intensity in wine color, flavor, and tannins that simply cannot be found anywhere else but the high elevation of mountainside vineyards!
In addition to the flavorful wines grown on the mountainside having lower alcohol content and higher acidity levels, high elevation wines are also known for their complexities that result from the fluctuating climate. High altitudes mean a longer growing season since the grapes are exposed to more sunlight than they would be on the valley floor, resulting in bolder flavors and fuller-bodied wines as a result of the grapes having more time to ripen on the vine.
Warm valley sun
Warm summers, mild winters, and short rainy seasons are the perfect combination for long grape-growing seasons. The grapes are able to fully develop bold and rich flavors — resulting in flavorful and smooth wine that is world-renowned!
Many types of soil
Along with a variety of climates, California is home to quite a diverse range of soil. From the well-draining, volcanic soil of the mountains to the fertile soil of the valleys, Napa alone is home to over 100 varieties of soil. This is about half of the soil types on Earth — and even more than all of France!
The volcanic ferrous content found in the Mayacamas Mountains is incredibly fertile for growing grapes — plus, it creates a distinct flavor in the wine. In the hillsides and mountain slopes, you’ll also find sandstone and clay, which help produce more complex and fresh wines that can withstand the cooler climate at high altitudes.
Huge grape variety
The Golden State produces over 100 different types of grapes with the most popular being Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and White Zinfandel. In fact, there are almost 100,000 acres of Chardonnay planted across the state, almost 95,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and over 38,000 acres of Merlot.
In addition to native grapes, California is now home to grapes indigenous to other parts of the world including Portugal and Spain. However, Cabernet Sauvignon continues to be the most highly sought-after wine produced in the state year after year.
With such a huge variety, wine lovers are sure to find a wine that they love in California. Whether searching for something sweet and fruit-forward or a wine that is dry and rich, the hills and valleys of California will have what you crave.
Opportunity to follow your passions
Many dream of leaving behind the rat race and buying a vineyard to pursue a career in winemaking. It’s not surprising when those passions lead them to California, like it did Bruce. Universities including Sonoma State and University of California-Davis offer education programs concentrating on the wine industry, while vineyards offer unique opportunities for hands-on learning. Bruce would not have been able to make award-winning wine without the insights and collaborations with other family-run vineyards. You can taste the passion and commitment to quality in every drop.