California has had an unfathomably large stake in the story of wine in modernity, as it stands, were it a country, it would be the fourth largest wine producing country in the world. In a truly Golden State fashion, it has boomed and busted, but taken some of these peaks and troughs and globalis(or z)ed them. The world of wine that we know today would be an entirely different beast without it. Geographically, California is huge and has a vast array of soils, conditions and microclimates, that make it able to grow everything from delicate Pinot Noir and cool climate Riesling to powerful Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
Though America was rife with indigenous varieties of North American vines, few of them made wine of a decent caliber (no gun pun intended). Most were imported from Spain, France and Italy with waves of immigrants grossing the Atlantic. The first grapes were introduced by Franciscan missionaries, and the first vineyards were planted in areas stretching between San Diego and Sonoma at 21 different sites. The grape that they brought is very aptly named “The Mission Grape” by Americans, “Pais” by Chileans and “Criolla Chica” by Argentinians and is generally regarded as a poor-quality table grape of Spanish origin (though renewed interest and experimentation surrounding the grape may change this!).
It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century, that commercial wine was introduced, with French and German settlers bringing across Vitis Vitifera and other European grapes to the American frontier. With the gold rush that began in 1848, a plethora of immigrants swept into the state, and when gold-panning dreams didn’t all pay off, the state was still left with a wealth of knowledge of wine-making and a realisation of how suitable California was to vineyard land.
The acreage of vineyards steadily increased, and with railways in 1869, connected Californian wine with the east coast as well as trade with Europe. This was a boon and a curse. The industry grew until the 1890’s when a pest called phylloxera, native to some uncertain part of North America, found its way into vineyards across the world and decimated them, ruining some wine-makers and countless vineyards. It was only by taking the native North American rootstocks (that were immune to the phylloxera), sending them to grow in Europe and replanting European vines in California that the industry began to recover.
This recovery did not last long however; in 1919 a certain proportion of the population had pushed for prohibition, and once it arrived, any semblance of quality or commercial enterprise in wine-making was destroyed. In just six years, from 1919 to 1925, production dropped by 94%. The pittance of Californian wine that was left was used for sacrament or medicinal purposes and was strictly licensed.
Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933 and stunted by World War II, it was a laborious recovery; wine-making is a slow and steady process that requires time and devotion, and it took until 1986 for California to have as many winemaking operations as had existed before prohibition came into effect. It was thanks to the sheer vision and commitment of a few that the Golden State took these steps. These included:
- André Tchelistcheff – nicknamed “The Maestro” by other Californian wine-makers, who introduced refined European techniques to the country, such as ageing in oak barrels, malolactic fermentation, cold fermentation and the development of designated wine regions. He helped three generations of wine-makers, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, and set the benchmark for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in Beaulieu Vineyard in conjunction with Georges de La Tour.
- Brother Timothy – a former science teacher who had been making sacramental wine during prohibition. He then moved with his order to Napa Valley in 1932 and then made commercial brandy and wine after prohibition had finished. He developed wines for the Christian Brothers and made them synonymous with good Californian wine, their bottles often adorned with pictures of him smiling.
- Frank Schoonmaker – A hugely important importer, journalist and writer who was responsible for consulting with various wineries such as Wente. He is also known for popularising the German style of labelling wines by varietal rather than generic names that emulated or copied French wine regions.
- Robert Mondavi – A wine operator who revolutionised quality levels and marketing strategy for California by adopting the varietal labelling system, working tirelessly to promote the practice and winning international acclaim as well as creating the infamous Opus One Winery with Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
Thanks to the efforts of these and others, quality in California began to be recognised in the 1960’s and 70’s by a few vintners, but did not achieve international acclaim until Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris, decided that some of these wines were hugely underrated and in 1976, organised a tasting of a range of little-known Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. The judges that he chose were selected from the highest echelons of the French wine industry and all held great stature. Before the event began, he decided to increase the stakes by introducing some of the finest French wines in each category to be judged blind against the American upstarts. In two increasingly surprising moments for the judges, Stag’s Leap (Cabernet Sauvignon), and Chateau Montelena (Chardonnay) placed first in their respective categories. Realising the gravity of what had just occurred, Odette Khan (a judge who was also Editor of La Revue du vin de France) asked for her notes on the wines back, which Steven Spurrier refused. There was one other important figure paying attention who appreciated what they had just witnessed; the only journalist to attend, George Taber, from the Time magazine. He reported the events back in America with the somewhat grandiose title “the judgment of Paris”, and the following controversies and paradigm shift changed the world of wine.
No longer did the court of fine wine hold only French nobility; and no longer could the greatest of Bordeaux and Burgundy feel complacent. It encouraged wines of international acclaim to come from new world producers with drive, passion and an understanding of their particular terroir. Oz Clarke has said of California that “[it was] the catalyst and then the locomotive for change that finally prised open the ancient European wineland’s rigid grip on the hierarchy of quality wine and led the way in proving that there are hundreds, if not thousands of places around the world where good to great wine can be made.” In the years since the tasting has been replicated with the same and different wine numerous times, always with the potential that France will get another kicking, and it has allowed California to have a booming wine culture. In 1930, there were less than 100 wineries, in 1966, there were 373, and at the start of 2018 there were 4,391.
Today, the volume of produce, and the passion, experience, and devotion of Californian wine-makers means that there is much more experimentation and creativity as well as quality coming out of the Golden State. A familiarity with weather conditions, soil types and what grape does well where mean that Californians are making each area their own, with a wealth of AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that aim to increase quality and establish the best practice for great wine in these varied places. The sheer scale and range of climates and soils is unbelievably extensive; vineyards grow north to south over 600 miles of California’s 900 mile range. Experimentation with grapes from areas other than France is also increasing, with an eye upon the success of Zinfandel (Primitivo in Southern Italy), and the world-beating status of Super-Tuscan Sangiovese led wines.
The struggles that the state faces now are not of perception of quality but of global warming – huge forest fires have torn through the state and displaced wine-makers as well as ruining vineyards, and the change in climactic conditions means that each vintage wine-maker has to roll dice and pray for the best. On top of this, California inevitably needs an army of grape pickers – who have often been made up of illegal immigrants from Mexico, a cut down on these will cause harm for the industry – for better or worse depending on your perspective on immigration.
Regardless, Californian wine has had a turbulent history, and the success it currently enjoys has a multiplicity of factors, including how suited wine country is to grapes, the sheer geological and meteorological variety that the state bears, as well as the enterprising, gold rush spirit of the Californians and immigrants who’ve poured their energies and abilities into it.
Pairings hosted ‘California vs. The World’ on Sunday 16th September 2018, the wines that were tasted were:
- Morning Fog, Wente, 2016 – Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay
- Pinot Noir, Schug, 2016 – Sonoma Coast
100% pinot noir
- Zinfandel, Sebastiani, 2014 – Sonoma County
76% zinfandel, 11% syrah, 8% malbec, 3% barbera, 2% petit verdot
- Artemis, Stag’s Leap, 2015 – Napa Valley
89% cabernet sauvignon, 5% merlot, 1% petit verdot
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Written by James Hallam