September was California Wine Month. The evenings are becoming cooler, nightfall is creeping in earlier, and the harvest moon is rising over California wine country, where ripe grapes may be picked at night by hand or machine. Floodlights pulled along by tractors illuminate vines heavy with grape bunches clipped and collected in the wee hours before dawn. Cool to the touch with bright fruit flavors, these grape clusters boasting ideal sugar levels and crisp acids are delivered to the winemakers.
The Golden State
Raise a glass to healthy 137-year-old Zinfandel and century-old Chardonnay vines, first planted as European budwood in our hospitable California soil. Cheers to the famous reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir, as well as gorgeous whites Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, and Viognier. The Golden State’s signature industry is thriving on hundreds of thousands of acres with approximately 100 grape varieties in and beyond the famous American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, which are best known to most Americans.
Disease and Distress
Survival and success have not come easy. A phylloxera pest epidemic rocked the industry in the late 19th century, only to be followed by the enforcement of the 18th Amendment in 1920. Those 14 years of prohibition nearly wiped out the state’s production, leaving only 140 wineries in operation. Today, California acres planted under vine are home to wineries 10 times that number, accounting for 90 percent of America’s production, exceeded only by France, Italy, and Spain.
Judgment of Paris
Since the surprise results of the Paris wine tasting of 1976, confirmed by a blind tasting test 30 years later, the wine world has overcome its initial shock of California wines beating out the French. Elevated to the highest international reputation, 21st-century California winemaking goes from strength to strength.
Gold Rush Days
A small stone fountain at the entrance to Livermore’s East Bay winery, Murrieta’s Well, marks the spot where an underground water source was discovered by a grateful bunch of bandits 160 years ago. Settling in with their stolen horses for a drink, it served as a hiding place for Joaquin Murieta, known as the Mexican Robin Hood or “El Zorro” before his celebrated capture, which inspired the biographical interpretations of Zorro that followed. Today, 92 acres of volcanic soil provide a hospitable terroir for the vine cuttings imported from the renowned Bordeaux wineries Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux. Harvesting at night, Murrieta’s Well is part of Wente Family Estates, America’s oldest continuously operated, family-owned winery.
Crazy for Wine
Vines planted before 1960 are classified as old by the Historical Vineyard Society. At Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi, California, an unusual 95 percent of the vines are 127 years old. They produce Cinsault, which is one of the more unusual varietals from the northern portion of Central Valley, 90 miles east of San Francisco and famous for its sustainable farming methods. As Camron King of the Lodi Winegrape Commission points out, “Temperatures typically vary by as much as 45 degrees from daytime highs above 90 F to nighttime lows around 50 F” in the historically rich Lodi region.
The highly regarded 1980s Balverne brand is back, relaunched in 2013 at the 710-acre Windsor Oaks Vineyard straddling Russian River and Chalk Hills in Sonoma overlooking land that owner Bob Stein explained is designated “forever wildlife.” Served at the White House by President Reagan to Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt at a state dinner in 1981, look out for Balverne labels featuring Mariposa, the rolling hill estate’s resident red-tailed hawk.
When it comes to Northern California wines, the dual themes of historical and made in the USA are beautifully intertwined with the 2013 grapes receiving very good comments from the winemakers.