California wines have a very rich history. It began in the 18th century as the Spanish immigrants built missions. The industry was just beginning to thrive when Prohibition was passed in 1919. Many vineyards were uprooted and cellars were destroyed. A few wineries survived prohibition by supplying sacramental wine as well as home “grape” kits. Before prohibition, there were over 800 wineries. When it was ended in 1933, there were only 140 wineries still operating.
The first commercial winery opened in Napa in 1859 by John Prachett. He later hired winemaker Charles Krug. This winery still maintains the Charles Krug name and is considered the oldest winery in Napa. Buena Vista in Sonoma is considered the oldest winery in the state.
The early construction of the buildings, planting, and harvesting was done by Chinese immigrants; they were an integral part of the industry. They also helped dig many of the underground caves that some of the early wineries used to store wine. Unfortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 began eliminating the Chinese wine workers, which led to the Chinese being out of the industry by 1890.
After prohibition, California was mostly known for sweet style port wines. The 1960’s brought in a new era of winemakers who began to develop quality and new styles of wine. In 1976, California wines won in blind taste testing against European wines at the Judgment of Paris. Napa Valley was now on the quality wine making map. A wine maker named Mike Grgich won 1st place at the World’s Fair in Paris for his Chardonnay. His winery Grgich Hills is still operating in Napa.
There are 4 wine regions in the state: North, Central, and West Coasts, along with the Central Valley. These regions are defined by distinct areas due to their climate and soil characteristics. (The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau sets these boundaries through an application process.) There are currently over 200 AVAs in California.
Currently, California wines account for 90% of American wine production and are distributed worldwide. There are over 1,200 wineries in the state.
The grape that is grown the most is the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. In 1988, the California Winemakers Association got together and formed a classification called Meritage. This is their answer to France’s Bordeaux blends. The Meritage wine usually includes Cabernet Sauvignon because of the excellent success with growing and harvesting that grape. This classification allows the winemakers to create their own style of wine through blending.
The top white wine of California is Chardonnay. This wine is almost always aged in oak. The oak gives the wine a buttery or vanilla taste, differing from the French version. There are some unoaked California Chardonnays; it usually says so on the bottle.
Many other wonderful grapes are grown in this area, from Zinfandel to Sauvignon Blanc and many in between.