About California Wines

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About California Wines

" Californians have taken advantage of their rich agricultural heritage to develop an adventurous and beautiful intertwined food and wine culture."

California’s 850 wineries account for 90% of total U.S. wine production – about 6% of the wine in the world. Winegrapes are grown in 45 of California’s 58 counties. The industry contributes more then $10 billion annually to the California economy.

The U.S. is the fourth largest wine-producing nation in the world behind Italy, France and Spain. Compared to nearly 1 million hectares of vineyards in France, California produces its wine in an area of 190,000 hectares Of that, 65,000 hectares are planted to twenty-five white varieties led by Chardonnay, and 125,000 hectares are planted to thirty-three red varieties led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel (used for both red and blush wines) in that order.

The nearly 2000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean coastline and the chilly waters of the Alaskan Current reaching as far south as Santa Barbara distinguish California winegrape growing. This means that hot summer air is cooled by a unique inversion effect that occurs when the cool ocean air is drawn into the hot, dry desert areas, causing condensation. The combination of hot days, cool nights and virtually no rainfall during the growing season contributes to grapes that ripen and mature for flavor and sugar content, yet still maintain the complexity and appropriate acidity necessary for great wines. Protective mountain ranges that run from north to south essentially tr ap the cool air near the coast. However, whenever there is a gap in this barrier, which occurs at four major points along the coast, the cool air pours through creating colder locales in unlikely places.

The soil is another important component of California’s viticulture diversity. As part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire", California experiences frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions resulting in volcanic soils throughout the State. The Coastal Mountain Range is composed primarily of sedimentary deposits. Over time, the ocean and the rivers eroded and moved both the volcanic soils and the sedimentary deposits, creating alluvial soils.

The concept of viticulture areas did not exist in the United States before 1978. Regulations pertaining to “American Viticulture Areas” (Alva’s) became mandatory on January 1, 1983. An AVA designation does not guarantee quality nor does in prescribe winemaking practices. The granting of an AVA by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) merely acknowledges that the area is distinguished from surrounding areas by geographical features, such as climate, soil, elevation, physical features and sometimes-historical data. The winegrape grower is free to decide what grapes grow best on a given site and to determine what practices--from irrigation to pruning, trellising and when to harvest--produce the best quality wine.

There are more than 160 AVA’s in the U.S., eighty-nine of them in California. An appellation of origin may also be a state (e.g. California) or a county (such as Sonoma). Each designation has its own requirements for grape content, varying from 75% for a county designation, 85% for an AVA and 100% if the wine label indicates California as the appellation.

California is unofficially divided into five wine regions:

The North Coast includes Napa, Sonoma, Los Carneros, and Mendocino. Although Napa is perhaps the best-known wine region in California, this valley, one-eighth the size of Bordeaux, produces only 5% of California’s wine. Forty-two AVA’s are encompassed in the North Coast.

The Central Coast encompasses 21 smaller appellations and nearly 250 wineries. The area extends from the San Francisco Bay south to Santa Barbara, and from the ocean east to the Diablo Mountains. In between are Santa Cruz, Monterey, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Some of California’s oldest and newest vineyards are in this region. Santa Barbara has the longest growing season in the state.

The Central Valley actually consists of two valleys, the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, which extend 800 kilometers down the middle of the state. Also the primary agricultural area of the state, it produces over half of California's wine grapes. The Lodi/ Woodbridge area, located at the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta is known for its leadership in organizing growers to work together to improve both the quality of the fruit grown and the sustainability of winegrowing practices to protect the land for future generations.

In the Sierra Nevada, the wine industry developed to serve thirsty prospectors during the Gold Rush 150 years ago. Zinfandel was the primary grape then, but now many varietals are grown in the diverse microclimates of this mountainous region.

Spanish missionaries grew California’s first wine in Southern California. Today, the largest appellation in Southern California is Temecula with 1200 hectares.

U.S. wine exports, more than 90 percent from California, have grown dramatically over the past decade from $153 million in 1991 to $548 million in 2002. California ships wines to 165 countries worldwide.

Sophie Esser
Esser Vineyards

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