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An Introduction to California Wines

Updated on December 8, 2012

The Napa Valley

An Introduction to California Wines

California Wines
California Wines
Autumn in the Napa Vally
Autumn in the Napa Vally
Robert Mondavi Winery
Robert Mondavi Winery
Santa Barbara Vineyard
Santa Barbara Vineyard

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Introduction to California Wines

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If California was a country, it would be the fourth largest wine producer in the world behind France, Italy and Spain.

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California produces 90 percent of all of the wine made in the United States and two out of every three bottles of wine sold in America comes from California.

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In addition, California produces some of the best wines in the world and their less expensive wines are among the best bargains available anywhere. Therefore, if you are a serious wine drinker or even a novice, you need to understand California wines.

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When I started drinking wine in the mid 1960’s there were only about a dozen producers of quality table wines in California, and now there are more than 3300,which is approximately half of all of the wineries in America.

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There were no legally defined California wine regions then and now there are many. Wines were sold simply by the grape variety and the name of the winery or the producer. Nowadays, a new winery seems to spring up every day, and thanks to modern wine making methods, most of them produce good wines.

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The biggest problem with California wines, just like it is with French wines, is that a lot of people are buying red wine as an investment driving up the prices to ridiculous levels. While the best California wines are nearly as good as the best French wines, they are way overpriced.

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However, there are some excellent wines for less than $20 a bottle if you look around and plenty of nice wines for less than $10 especially at super markets and wine stores. I have even found some for less than $4 a bottle from little known wineries. My recommendation is to try different inexpensive wines until you find some that you like.

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I also suggest that you stay away from any that have an alcoholic content greater than 14 percent unless you like alcoholic, raisiny tasting wines.

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I have broken down the remainder of this Hub into four topics:

1. Most Important California Grape Varieties

The most important red wine grapes are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, zinfandel and syrah (shiraz in Austrailia)

The most important white wine grapes are chardonay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, French columbard and riesling. 

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2. California Wine Regions

There are twelve major California appellations:

( Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, Marin County, Lake County, Monterey County, San Louis Obispo, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Central Valley and Sierra Foothills)

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There are more than 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California. (They keep adding new ones) 

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3. California Vintages

A lot of people used to say that California vintages didn’t matter – they are all same. That may have been true when California was producing mostly bulk wines like Gallo and Christian Brothers and they were blended to taste the same from year to year. However, now with a lot of smaller wineries producing varietal wines from individual vineyards, you can taste the difference between vintages if you taste the same wines side by side from different years from the same vineyard.

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Unlike France and Germany, you will not encounter any really bad vintages because California almost always gets enough sunshine to ripen the grapes. Sounds like a wine tasting is in order - different vintages of the exact same wine.

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One more thing; very few if any California wines need to be aged before drinking so drink them now.

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4. Reading a California Wine Label

There is a lot to be learned when you know how to read a wine label. As opposed to European wines, where the wine region comes before the grape variety, in California, the grape variety is the more important piece of information. However, there is still a great deal to be learned from where the grapes were grown. While there are officially designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California, a lot of wines simply state the county in which the grapes were grown or simply say California which means that 100 percent of the grapes were grown in California. The following list is an explanation of things you should look for in the order of importance when you do not have a specific vineyard in mind.

A. Wine Type / Grape Variety

California wines fall into one of two categories; varietal (grape name) or generic (Red Table Wine, etc.). Since 1983, varietal wines must contain at least 75 percent of their volume from their designated grape. If that seems low, please note that many of the world’s greatest wines come from a blend of different grape varieties, The finest Bordeaux wines are made from a blend of three or four different grapes and none of them exceed 90 percent cabernet sauvignon (usually a lot less). Once you have decided on the grape variety, you should choose the producer.

B. Brand Name or Producer

Ultimately, this is your best guarantee of quality, but when you are just starting out, you don’t know who to trust

. The label must contain the brand name or producer or if nothing else, the name of the bottler. Make a note of it when you find one that you like.

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C. Appelation of Origin

  1. If it says "California" on the label, 100 percent of the grapes used must be grown in California.
  2. For officially designated "AVA"s, at least 85 percent of the grapes must come from that region (for example Napa Valley).
  3. If the "vineyard is named, at least 95 percent of the grapes must be grown in that vineyard.
  4. The term "Estate Bottled" means that 100 percent of the grapes were grown on land that the winery owns or controls.

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D. Vintage

As I mentioned before, California wines do vary from year to year but not nearly as much as European wines. To get the best prices, buy the most recent vintages and drink them now. Beware of any older vintages if your retailer does not store his wine properly or does not sell many bottles. I once discovered two bottles of 1959 Chateau Mouton Rothschild in a small store at an unusually low price. It was only about 10 years after the vintage and this wine should last at least 25-30 years. I bought them both and later threw both of them out because they were badly oxidized due to poor storage conditions at the retailer. Buyer beware!

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E. Alcohol Content

Wines with less than 14 percent alcohol are not required to list their alcohol content, but most of them do. Be aware that their allowed tolerance is plus or minus 1.5 percent. They must, however, list their alcohol content if it is over 14 percent but now their allowed tolerance is only plus or minus 1.0 percent. Therefore this label information is only a guideline. Beware of dry wines that have more than 14 percent alcohol because they tend to be overly sweet and raisiny tasting which I find unpleasant.

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In conclusion

, If you are just starting out, I suggest that you start with inexpensive wine with the appelation "California". Explore different grape varieties until you find out which ones you like. Holding a wine tasting with some of your friends is an inexpensive way to do it.

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Stick to the most recent vintages. The 2010s are available now and they are good. A personal favorite of mine is any of the 2010 Crane Lake wines which are available in Wisconsin for under $4.00 a bottle.

Their wines are fairly typical of the various grape varieties and their cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, gewurtztraminer and pinot grigio are quite good.

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MAP OF CALIFORNIA WINE REGIONS

Napa Valley Wine Tour

Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting Tour

SAN FRANCISCO TO THE NAPA VALLEY

show route and directions
A markerSan Francisco -
San Francisco, CA, USA
get directions

B markerNapa Valley -
Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, CA 94599, USA
get directions

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    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 5 years ago from Georgia

      Hello, this was really great information. I love to learn about different wines. Living on the east coast, I know there a lot of different wineries appearing in this region with a lot of experimentation their own specialties emerging. Thank you for the information about California's wine evolution.

    • rambansal profile image

      Ram Bansal 5 years ago from India

      Wine through lovely hands provides additional intoxication for beauty..

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Ok so I love Lodi zinfandel. What can you tell me about them? Suggestions for good labels?

    • rjsadowski profile image
      Author

      rjsadowski 5 years ago

      Lodi is an AVA located in San Joaquin county in the northern end of the Central Valley in California. It is known as the "Zinfandel Capital of the World"

      Remember that "the best wine is the one that you like to drink".

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Oh yes love California wines. One of my favorites Zinfandel. Awful expensive here in Riga but occasionally on the holidays.

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      YES, to me Lodi wine is the best wine, lol!!! Until I discover a new spot on my tongue... Thank you.

    • lhchan profile image

      lhchan 5 years ago

      Thanks very much, very good information, I like California wines also. Agree with you the best wine is the one that you like to drink.

    • profile image

      Sueswan 5 years ago

      Great information on California wines.

      Voted up and awesome.

      Have a good evening.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

      You know RJS.. very useful.. a hub that gives huh? LOL thanks for sharing and teaching

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 5 years ago from North Carolina

      You did a great job organizing your hub. I am new to wine so this was helpful to me. Thanks!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I am really fascinated by the wine industry. Your information is is very organized and informative. I enjoyed reading it.

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