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California wines are so good and unique because California is a place of incredible geologic and climatic diversity. Almost every kind of climate, land formation, vegetation, and animal life in the United States can be found in California too.
The climate, soil, and geology over such a vast territory differ. But no matter where their location is within the state, the vineyards are all blessed by the warm, bright sunlight that means grapes will ripen to a natural richness and become delicious fruit.
Interestingly enough, most of the state is either too bitterly cold or too scorching hot to be ideal for wine grapes. Close to the Pacific Coastline, which runs the length of 840 miles, summer can be bone-chilling cold.
Eighty miles inland, the Central Valley can be blazing hot. The Central Valley is a flat valley that dominates the interior of California. It covers around 18,000 square miles, about 11% of California’s total land area.
Please read the article below to learn more about California wines and why they are so unique!
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Why is California Wine Good
California wine is good because of the unique and distinctive climate and soil and because California winemakers are free to plant whatever grape varieties they want. They can also make the wine in almost any way they choose.
Conversely, European winemakers are mandated through many details such as vineyard and farming practices and how long and in what type of vessel their wine must be aged.
In other areas, which grape varieties can be used and what percentages is another mandate. For example, a French Riesling must be 100% Riesling if the label indicates the wine as such.
There are also other regulations, such as minimum grape maturity required. Since California winemakers do not have these restrictions, they can utilize the soil and other conditions and make the wine in the best possible way.
What Makes California Wines Unique
California wines are unique because of the State’s distinctive climate. The delicate wine regions of California exist for one reason: a unique climatic phenomenon. As the days warm up and the heat in the interior rises and escalates, calm winds and fog are drawn in from the Pacific.
The wind is either drawn directly to the wine valleys (ex., Santa Ynez Valley) or through gaps in the low coastal mountain ranges.
The San Francisco Bay is a funnel for calm winds drawn off the ocean and pulled up into Napa and Sonoma Valleys. This is an example of the cycle of warming and cooling happening all along the coast.
This symbiotic relationship is more dramatic in some wine regions than others. However, without this crucial aspect of California’s viticulture, the state would be full of areas too hot to produce fine wine.
Terroir: Terroir is a French term for “a sense of place.” When someone says a wine exhibits terroir, all they mean is that the wine they are drinking tastes the way a wine grown and made in the region where it was grown and made should taste.
Since California has a unique and fantastic blend of weather, soil, and climate, this is the number one reason California’s wines are excellent.
California is the United States driving force behind the wine. More than 90% of all American wine is produced in California!
Even though winemaking in the state has spanned four centuries, California is one of the most modern, technologically oriented wine regions in the entire world. California’s resiliency in times of devastation is why California wines are so great.
This fact is made even more interesting because of the devastating hits taken by California wine country in prohibition and phylloxera (a bug that ate almost all vineyards).
How did California keep its wineries afloat during prohibition? California wineries began to stay alive by making dried table grapes or switching to grape juice production. Perhaps the most crucial legal loophole was the permittance of home winemaking.
California sent thousands of railroad cars full of fresh grapes to the east coast to make wine in American kitchens, basements, and garages.
The vine plantings in California nearly doubled during this time; however, the grapes were of awful quality. More emphasis was put on making grapes that could be transported long distances than those that would make great wine.
A great example is Beaulieu Vineyard (BV) in Rutherford. Napa winemaker Leon Bonnet used religion and medicine as a way around the Volstead Act (prohibition).
He used wine for religious and medicinal purposes. The religious wine business boomed as wines were used for blessings as well as prescribed for medicinal purposes.
It may be hard to believe, but the effects of prohibition are unfortunately still felt today in California. The restrictions on transporting through states and the massive paperwork stifle market access between states.
Even today, California winery owners have to get through a lot of unnecessary paperwork and file many permits to welcome visitors and hold tastings.
TIP: French wines are often compared to Italian wines. Find out the main differences between these wines in this article. And if you want to know what the differences between Spanish wines and all others (French, Italian, Chilean, and more) are, check out this article.
What Wine is California Famous for
California is famous for many wines, but the most famous is Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley region. The quality of Napa Valley soil for Cabernet Sauvignon is unmatched. Although many different soil types are suited for Cabernet Sauvignon, ultimately, what’s important is good drainage and not too much soil fertility.
Low fertility puts the vines in a state of stress earlier in the growing season, which shifts the vine’s focus from growing leaves to ripening grapes.
What makes Napa Valley particular—especially as a New World region—is a prevalence of volcanic soils that inexplicably add an earthy, “dusty” taste to Napa’s best wines.
Since earthiness and minerality are not typical in New World wine regions, this “dustiness” adds complexity to Napa wines.
Read on for more regions in California and how they break down from the more prominent regions:
The state can be divided into primary wine-producing regions:
- Napa Valley,
- Sierra Foothills,
- North Central Coast,
- Livermore Valley,
- Paso Robles,
- York Mountain,
- South Central Coast.
Each of these regions can be divided into sub-regions. For example, the North Coast is home to Napa Valley and Sonoma. Mendocino County and Lake County are also primary regions located on the North Coast.
Some notable regions within Napa Valley are:
- Howell Mountain,
- Stags Leap,
Notable regions within Sonoma include:
- Russian River Valley,
- Dry Creek,
- Chalk Hill,
- Alexander Valley.
Interestingly, although there is no quality-based hierarchy, regions divided into sub-appellations are thought to make higher-quality wines.
However, winemakers in the United States can treat wines in different ways. So much so that it’s hard to tell if the flavors are coming from the characteristics of the place or a particular method the winemaker used.
TIP: In the world of fine wines, France and California have emerged as powerhouses in the wine industry. Find out the differences between these famous wines in this article. Did you know many wine coolers are prohibited from sale by California residents? Check out the best California-approved wine fridges in this article.
California has incredible beauty and a wine region with endless possibilities. California’s almost 4,000 wine producers range from extremely large to tiny commercial wineries that buy small amounts of grapes and make a few barrels.
120+ grape varieties are grown in the state, and 8 lead the pack. The eight in order are: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, pinot noir, pinot gris/pinot grigio, syrah, and sauvignon blanc.
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