California - Always good for a surprise

Trends are part of everyday business in California. It is not unusual for them to expand worldwide. This is also the case for wine to a lesser extent. Luxurious wines in the style of Robert Parker set the tone in the nineties. Today, sustainable wines are the focus, many from types of grapes that not everyone has on their radar.
The key data from California sounds a little bit like the wish list of an oenologist. There are plenty of hours of sun and barely any untimely rain. It is hardly ever too hot and never too cold. The favourable conditions are maintained over around 1000 kilometres from Oregon in the north to the Mexican border. No wonder that California produces around 90% of American wines on its 221,000 hectares.


Vineyard in California

Almost all vineyards are in the valleys between two mountain ranges in a north to south direction, and are more or less influenced by the Pacific. The soil formations vary a great deal, some of the best wines grow on a mixture of maritime limestone and lava. Although areas such as the fast growing Central Coast, Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley have the largest areas, small sub appellations such as Sonoma on the North Coast are the best known names. Many winegrowing families have been living here for generations. The Pacific is just around the corner, and so Chardonnay and Pinot noir flourish in the cooler altitudes. 

Reared agriculturally and economically, Napa Valley is delectable. The over 350 vineyards vary from small farms right up to famous architectural buildings. Their owners literally built their vineyards up from nothing, were laughed at for a long time, and are now saying to the world: "I showed you all". For many, they characterise the image of California.


Thereby, Californian winegrowing was still practically unknown outside of the USA even a few decades ago. This changed in a single day. In 1976 the English critic Steven Spurrier held a blind tasting of American and French top wines in Paris. Thereby the Californian wines ended up in the top places, and a whole range of influential French critics disgraced themselves. Nothing was the same again. 

After the tasting, known as the "Paris Judgement", California was in business worldwide. The winegrowing area increased from 10,000 to 140,000 hectares. Hundreds of new vineyards arose, and used state-of-the-art cellar technology, which was anything other than a given in Europe at the time.

An abundance of grape varieties 

In California, they also do not have so many strict regulations, as is often the case in Europe. The origin system of the American Viticultural Areas (AVA) from 1983, primarily relates to the geography, which is why the winegrowers quickly accepted it. There were 120 AVAs last year, and even today, new ones are emerging. At least 85% of the grapes must come from this region. In growing and cellar technology, particularly in the selection of the grape varieties, the legislator gives the winegrowers free reign. Grape variety wine, previous rarely sown in most European countries, became the model for the new wine culture.


Thus a wide range of European and American varieties grow in California, including some American crosses such as Jumbo, Diamond or Supernong. However, the market is dominated by French grapes – not least due to the rivalry with France. Chardonnay, whose first grapevines were brought from Montpellier in 1912 by Westphalia born Ernest Wente, is one of the most important varieties. "Most American plants come from clones of this plant even today," says winegrowing daughter in the 5th generation, Christine Hill, (daughter of winegrower Wente). The Burgundy varieties achieved excellent results in warm, dry California, until the style very clearly changed in favour of wood growing at the turn of the century. 

Therefore, the wine world has California to thank for the "Anything but Chardonnay" trend which attracted wine drinkers, who were bored of the fat white wines. Current versions are mostly more balanced. In spite of this, there is still more Chardonnay growing in California than in France, or anywhere else in the world. With Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, you measure it primarily against Bordeaux. Both varieties find their ideal conditions in the slightly warmer climes.

Syrah, which is stagnating slightly, and Pinot noir cover a further sector of the French top varieties. Up until recently, the Pinots in the Californian wine style were harvested very ripe, and strongly extracted. This resulted in muscular wines, whose characteristics were hardly comparable with the Bourgogne. A shining counterexample is Schug Winery in Sonoma with its delicate late Burgundies.  

The Zinfandel variety is genetically identical to the South Italian Primitivo, but originally comes from Croatia. According to the current school of thought, it came to the American West Coast via Hungary and a confusion of names. "In reality, Primitivo is a clone of Zinfandel," says Carol Shelton, wine grower from Sonoma. "And cheap Primitivo was later sold as Zinfandel in Northern Europe. That ruined its image," agreed David G. Deboer, Vice President of Delicato Vineyards. There is always a bit of rivalry in the air in transatlantic matters. Especially when it comes to Zinfandel, which occupies the role of the indigenous variety in California.


Horse statue in front of Black Stallion Winery

The nose for marketing 

Apart from ambition, you cannot deny that the Californians have a flair for marketing. Just a few examples: 

• If you go past the larger-than-life horse statue in front of the Black Stallion Winery, you can see that it is about more than selling wine at the vineyard. In the house there are poker and billiard tables, and you can book coach rides over the Silverado Trail. You can enjoy the wine by the swimming pool and have snacks from the show kitchen. Californian cuisine is amongst the most experimental in the world. 

• Wente in Livermore maintains one of the best golf courses north of San Francisco, as well as its vineyard. Live acts on the scale of Sheryl Crow and Earth, Wind & Fire regularly take place at the family vineyard. 

• At Inglenook in Geyserville, they are not even trying to look like a vineyard. The building complex in the Victorian style, with pointy towers and gables, belongs to director Francis Ford Coppola ("Apocalypse Now") and is consciously imitating experience parks such as the Copenhagen Tivoli. 

• Strong personalities are a further embodiment of the industry. Joseph Gallo manages the largest wine company in the world, processes grapes on the scale of a million tonnes per year, and produces more than some entire countries. When Robert Parker used the 100 point scale of the American school system on wine, he made the rating more popular than ever. Even if the result does not suit everyone. 

• Robert Mondavi – together with Philippine de Rothschild – created the Opus One, an iconic wine, which is known all over the world. Wines such as Francis Ford Coppola's "Rubicon" are also setting standards in terms of Bordeaux-Cuvées. 

• The sector is reflected in Hollywood productions, as so often in American society. It is not only directors who buy vineyards. The wine grower saga "Falcon Crest" was one of the most popular soap operas of the eighties. The award-winning comedy "Sideways" made the grape varieties Merlot and Pinot noir better know than ever. A US senator once called Robert Mondavi the "Godfather of American wines".


Vineyard with planted greenery against erosion


Sustainability and social ethics  

California has also always been involved in the mass market. Too often, such large productions are accompanied by not very environmentally friendly practices such as high use of chemicals and water consumption. In addition, California has enormous problems with the falling groundwater level, after a drought which lasted for years. However, the wine industry has painstakingly developed one of the most progressive sustainability concepts for winegrowing, in collaboration with scientists from various disciplines. Apart from water and resource management, the social balance is a main topic in this. A third of the businesses is certified. Including big players such as Fetzer, who employ hundreds of Mexican farm labourers. When there was an earthquake in Napa in August, most wineries had a narrow escape. Within days, the sector set up a relief fund for ten million dollars for earth quake victims from all sectors. 

Last year, the total turnover of the industry increased by 3% in quantity and 5% in value to €17.6 billion. The American inland market has been growing for 21 years in a row, and 3.9 billion bottles of wine were drunk in the last year. Therefore, the USA is the largest wine market in the world. California serves over half of it. Last year there was a jump of 31% in exports to Europe. So, it is fitting that California has continually increased its presence at the ProWein trade fair for years. The exhibition space will once again be increased at the coming ProWein.

It is not only from an economic point of view that the country needed a long time to get over the consequences of prohibition. Even today, wine is not a normal part of everyday culture, as it is in Europe. 

Wine, which is treated as a drug in many states, can practically not be shown anywhere in public, let alone drunk. Alcohol consumption under the age of 21 is illegal. For younger winegrowing students, the Californian governor Jerry Brown had to change a law recently, so that they could also taste their own wine. However, swallowing is still forbidden. 

Demagogic phrases like "the devil alcohol" are still bandied about today, and you can even find individual anachronistic anti saloon leagues. Administrative matters are handled by the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives], a federal law enforcement organisation, which reports to the Ministry of Justice, and regularly works together with the FBI. In many states, sales channels such as mail order selling are closed.


On the course of success in spite of head wind 

 With its dynamism, California is always setting trends. The Moscato boom from the Hip-Hop scene was one of them, and helped to win new customers under thirty. Rappers such as Kanye West and Lil’ Kim got thousands of fans interested in the bouquet variety with a previously somewhat dusty image. Malbec is also going well currently as well as sweet red wines. 

Grüner Veltliner, Tempranillo and Touriga nacional appear in the statistics of new plantings. At the moment, more and more small producers are establishing themselves, who turn their attention to rare varieties such as Marsanne, Nebbiolo or Roussanne. "There are enough vineyards with old vines," explains Hardy Wallace, who vinifies some highly complex Mourvèdres at a rented factory hall. Like many winegrowers he looks for vineyards with old vines and buys the grapes. The phase in which many Californians wanted to primarily copy French wines, seems to be over. Instead, balance and finesse are coming to the fore. All in all, California is excellently set up for this. Even if sometimes the earth does shake. 

Matthias Stelzig