The Changing Landscape of California Wine
A generation ago, California wine meant Napa Valley. For the average consumer, Napa Valley still stands tallest among American wine producing regions, but when the region only produces approximately two percent of the nation’s wine, prices tend to be dramatically higher than they are elsewhere, which leads many consumers to become more accustomed to drinking wine from other regions.
The landscape of California wine is changing, here’s how:
The rise of new growing regions:
About 10 years ago, Santa Barbara burst onto the international wine scene because of its Pinot Noir, largely with the help of a little movie called Sideways that is still the biggest hit in the history of wine related movies. We’ve seen similar movements into prominence from Sonoma County (both for cooler climate varietals such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but lately for Cabernet Sauvignon and other red wines) and Paso Robles. In the coming months and years, we’re likely to see similar rises from other growing regions. On the short list of possibilities are Mendocino County, a cooler climate region further north from Sonoma, but not quite as far, or cold as Oregon. Mendocino shares many of the same marketing advantages as Napa Valley and Sonoma and the industry is rapidly enjoying and doing a good job selling these cooler climate vineyard sites. Secondly, the Livermore Valley, about an hour east of Berkeley California stands to gain a dramatic amount of market share in the coming years. Before Prohibition gutted the fledgling wine industry in California 80 years ago, the Livermore Valley was considered Napa Valley’s equal when it came to fine wine production. They are only now starting to produce great wine again (for generation’s they’ve focused on the cheaper end of the price spectrum, much as Napa Valley did before Mondavi showed the AVA a different way).
In the 1980’s it appeared at one point that California might only plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay in its new vineyards. The Rhone Rangers in Paso Robles helped to change that of course, but these days we’re seeing an ever increasing diversity of plantings taking place. From Tempranillo being produced extremely well in Lodi to encouraging new plantings of Pinotage on the western Sonoma coast in vineyard sites considered even too cool for Pinot Noir, vintners are becoming increasingly aggressive with sites that they are willing to try and the grapes they are willing to plant in these sites. This type of research and trial and error is exactly the type of thing we saw in Napa Valley on a smaller scale in the 1960’s, which helped the area to explore mountainous vineyards which weren’t (at that time at least) planted anywhere else in the world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this small set of insights into the rapidly and exciting world of California wine. California at one point produced approximately 90% of the nation’s wine and while that number should only continue to decrease as more state’s allow an increasing number of plantings themselves, California will always be the epicenter of American wine.
Mark Aselstine is the owner of Uncorked Ventures, an online wine club based in San Francisco focused on delivering the highest quality wine in the industry. He enjoys scouting new wine regions and wineries for his customers, and yes for himself.