California Wine – Will it be Merlot or a Cabernet Sauvignon

The state of California is known for its beauty, its beaches and its ability to set the standard in film almost as well as it is known for its wine. California makes ninety percent of the wine produced in this country; and it is not just any wine. California wineries account for some of the finest wines produced in the world; rivaling even those of the historic French vineyards.

History of Wine Making in California

The father of California wine country was Agoston Haraszthy, who made his way as a Hungarian soldier before immigrating to the United States where he became a profitable merchant. He single handedly imported over one hundred and sixty-five vines from the greatest vineyards in all of England. There were an astounding three hundred different grapes introduced to the Northern California area, where he founded Buena Vista winery.

The first commercial winery in the state was founded in St. Helena in the Napa Valley in 1861, and the first Bordeaux style winery followed in Rutherford, California. It was called Inglebrook, and was begun in 1879. By the year 1900, American produced wine had become quite popular and was regularly exported to several countries. Much of the success in American wines is said to have been attributed to a devastating disease that attacked vineyards in Europe, but nonetheless, California wine was winning competitions world wide.

One interesting thing to note: That first commercial winery founded in 1861 was done so under a Charles Krug. In later years, the Krug estate made its way to property of the Mondavi family. It was in 1965 that Robert Mondavi left his family’s winery and founded his own in Oakville, California. The Mondavi winery paved the way for Napa Valley growth. Mondavi also catapulted the labeling of wines by variety; such as chardonnay or Riesling, instead of using the names from the regions of Europe.


But what makes California so well suited to vineyard growth? Climate and soil. The climate of California’s Napa Valley, one of the two most popular wine growing regions in that state, resembles that found in the Mediterranean. The valley boasts several microclimates due to the various geographical influences that bound the region. The valley floor at the southern end is much cooler during the growing season because of its location near San Pablo Bay, while the northern floor remains much warmer because it is much more closed in. The soil is complemented with sediment from the receding Bay, as well as ash deposits from Mount St. Helena. The productivity of these soils is augmented with avid precipitation, making a, ideal grape growing climate.

Fine wines are among one of the most difficult products to procure, but California seems to have the edge. Their white wine production accounts for forty percent of the wine produced in the state, and California whites are recognized throughout the world for their superiority. California white varieties include popular items such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling, along with production of the less popular Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Muscats, and Gewurtztraminer.

The growing season in Napa Valley begins relatively cool and rainy, with a late spring. The long summers are moderate, which encourage growth and berry size. This leads to excellent produce production in regards to Chardonnay.


In the year 2001, Chardonnay accounted for twenty one percent of the winegrapes produced in California, with the remaining top for being: Cabernet Sauvignon, at fifteen percent, Merlot at eleven percent, Zinfandel at ten percent and French Columbard at eight percent. These constitute the top five winegrapes produced in the state.

The most popular white wine produced in California wine country is the Chardonnay. It is easy to drink and compliments a variety of meal selections and occasions. Chardonnays range from light to rich, with a host of fruity undercurrents. Perhaps one of the most common Chardonnays to come out of this region is the Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. It has a medium body with wonderful oaky tones that are complimented by vanilla, pineapple, peach, and apple flavors that finish smoothly. Kendall Jackson Chardonnay has won acclaim for many years from prestigious sources. It has earned wine ratings of 89 from Wine Advocate and an 85 from Wine Enthusiast. . This wine comes from one of the top producing wineries in the Northern California Sonoma Valley. Founded in 1982 by the Jackson family, Kendall Jackson Vineyards began making history immediately, earning the first ever Platinum Award from the American Wine Competition in 1983. They produce some of America’s favorite wines.

While California wineries produce excellent whites, they are not to be discounted in their red wine department, either. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular of the California wine varietals. It has a robust flavor but is not a heavy wine. The close runner up to the Cabernet is the Merlot. This California favorite is very full bodied with a deep red overtone. One of the lighter reds that is commonly produced in the region is the Pinot Noir. California Pinots comprise some of the most sought after wines in the state. It is a wonderful wine that has a bit more muted flavor.

One of the formidable producers of Cabernet is Cedar Mountain, according to Wine Enthusiast. The magazine touted the vineyard as one of “America’s great Cabernet Sauvignon producers,” with “consistent quality over the past five years.” (Wine Enthusiast, Vol.7, Num.10) This famous winery is located in the Livermore Valley and was founded in 1990. Their first release was in 1993, and included a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon that quickly gained acclaim nationally. Gold and double gold vintages followed this early production continuously. Rick and Linda Ault are the proud owners of this winery whose Cabernet exhibits firm tannins with tobacco and cherry flavors. The wine is an excellent choice for cellaring or enjoying today.

Of the top thirty wine producing companies in the United States, nine of the top ten are based in California, with the number one company being E & J Gallo. It has operating winemaking facilities in Modesto, Livingston, Sonoma, and Napa which produce seventy-five million cases of wine each year. E & J Gallo includes such formidable wineries as Frei Brothers, Gallo of Sonoma, Redwood Creek, Turning Leaf, Bridlewood Cellars, Anapamu Cellars, Indigo Hills Winery, Mirassou Vineyards, Rancho Zabaco, and Louis M. Martini. These ten vintners produce over 443, 000 gallons of wine, making them the largest producers in the country, let alone the state of California.

Top California Wine Picks

I have comprised a list of some of the top wines from California of 2006. The most formidable Cabernet Sauvignon was a Shafer, 2002, Hillside select, which was released in September. It has been noted as the perfect Cabernet, and acclaimed as Cabernet of the year, according to The Wine News. It is a bold and powerful wine, with black fruit flavors complimented by chocolate and vanilla.

The next selection is the Merlot from Beringer. The 2002 Bancroft Ranch, Howell Mountain vintage is rich and screams of blackberry and black cherry fruits. It is a powerful yet graceful wine that deserves respect.

An affordable Pinot Noir tops the list, and that is the Merry Edwards 2003 Klopp Ranch. It offers a wonderful bouquet with vivid flavor. Only 1,250 cases were released, making this an excellent cellaring and investment wine.

Topping the list of great red Zinfandels is the Rancho Zabaco 2004 Toreador, Monte Rosso Vineyard. It is cultivated from old vine zinfandel that relishes in a bold aroma. Again, here is a wine ripe for storing, with only 650 cases produced.

On to the Chardonnay, one of California’s most notable varietals. 2006 offered many wonderful selections, but the Grgich Hills, 2004 Estate Grown Chardonnay tops the list. It is classy and aromatic with an oaky finish.

Best Bets

When experiencing California wineries through tours, it is highly recommended to visit the quaint, antiquated smaller vineyards since they will afford you the most intimate wine experience, as opposed to a more commercialized operation. These smaller wineries produce some excellent varieties, and offer tastings of their best vintages. The staff are always ready to spend quality time with you, making the trip well worth it. Larger vineyards, such as Sterling, boast over 200,000 visitors, the state’s most commercialized wine producer. Their productivity and fiscal aptitude are apparent at any visit, as you will only be afforded lower end wines to sample, and will not be given any individual attention.



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