California – what I’ve learnt

Wines born of sunshine and heat are fruit driven and higher in alcohol. They tend to be richer and fuller in fruit, particularly the chardonnays and Bordeaux varieties. This does not mean they are simple wines, as in most cases they have a higher acidity to balance out the fruit and alcohol. Winemaking techniques are fairly universal. They don’t do anything different in the winery or out in the vineyards that distinguishes them in particular. What speaks volumes is the quality of the fruit and the expressions of terroir. The problem is when winemakers do too much to interfere with the fruit, attempting to exert their influence on the finished product.

Los Olivos market

Los Olivos market

Within California there are as many variations of region and site as there are in Australia, which means there are endless styles and varieties. California isn’t doing anywhere near enough Spanish, Portuguese or Italian varieties as they should. The vast majority are French, with the exception of zinfandel (Croatian). Premium wine in general is a little more expensive than Australian premium wine. There is also more of it. Wine clubs and mailing lists are really important here. In very crowded regions like Napa and Sonoma, a productive and successful wine club is vital for survival, and they all seem to do very well. Operating outside the three-tiered system means they can offer huge discounts on wines, but it is also about offering exclusivity and special treatment, something Americans are really into.

In the cellars of Opus One in Napa Valley, California

Wine tourism is very different here. Very few wineries serve food compared to Australia, and almost all of them charge for tastings. Depending on where you are and the nature of the tasting, you can expect to pay between $5 and $50, Napa being the most expensive. The approach is less a marketing expense to allow potential customers to try your wines, and more a revenue raising venture. When you consider that the Napa Valley is the second most visited place in California, it would be silly not to capitalise on it. The pours tend to be more generous though, and people often share tastings. The legal limit being 0.08 helps a bit too.

Enjoying fine food in Santa Rosa, California

In my humble opinion, these are the regions I think produce the best varieties;

Chardonnay – Russian River Valley
Viognier – Mt Harlan
Rhone white and red blends – Paso Robles
Syrah – Carneros
Pinot Noir – Anderson Valley
Zinfandel – Dry Creek Valley
Cabernet – Sonoma
Cabernet blends – elevated sites away from the coast, e.g. Spring Mountain and Montebello

The Silicon Valley one day after Steve Jobs died, Montebello California

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