Cheryl Anne Stapp
The Finest Wines in the World
Wine is big business in California. In 4,763 wineries large and small throughout the state, California vintners produce 87% of America’s total wine output, although all 50 states do produce wines, with the state of Washington ranking second in gallons produced. If it were an independent nation, California would be the fourth largest producer of wine in the world behind Italy, France, and Spain. Although California winemaking only dates back to the 1770s, the state was recognized in the late twentieth century as producing some of the world’s finest wines.
While still a Spanish province, California was introduced to a species of wine grapes native to the Mediterranean, with cuttings brought up from Mexico by Spanish padres who planted vineyards at each of the twenty-one missions they established, using the wine for religious sacraments as well as for daily life. This so-called “mission grape” was the descendant of what was known as the common black grape, which Hernán Cortés brought from Spain 1520.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the California Gold Rush brought scores of new settlers to the northern regions of the state, increasing the local demand for wine. Vineyards were planted in several areas, but the Napa-Sonoma region was soon recognized as the ideal region for growing grapes. Agoston Haraszhy, a Hungarian of noble family who had been a pioneer winemaker in Wisconsin, and entered California in 1849 as a gold-rusher, founded the first commercial winery in the state in 1857: Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. In 1859, John Patchett, an English native residing in the United States since 1817, opened the first commercial winery in Napa. He hired Charles Krug, a naturalized American citizen born in Prussia, as his winemaker. Krug founded his own winery in 1861, on land north of St. Helena.
However, wines are categorized by where the grapes are grown, not the site of the winery. Today California has more than 107 AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) which collectively produce an enormous variety of red and white table wines, brandies, sparkling wines, dessert wines, and flavored wines. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon lead as the most widely planted varietals, followed by Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Zinfandel. Other important wine grapes include Barbera and Malbec (red); and Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Viognier (white).
Land planted to grapes now tops 527,000 acres in four main regions: North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and Central Valley. The wine industry attracts twenty-four million tourists every year—so why not visit a winery near you, for a pleasant afternoon of wine-tasting?