Fine Wines of California

California grapes on the vine in wine country, (photo by David Dunai)
California grapes on the vine in wine country, (photo by David Dunai)

The Napa and Sonoma valleys are stops on our Pacific Route road trip for a taste of California's glorious wine country. Find out more about where to go and what to look out for when getting to know Californian wine. 

California's 2,000-plus wineries produce 90 percent of the country's wine. The quality is just as high as the quantity, with California wines continuing to win awards and worldwide critical acclaim. 

In the 18th century, when the Franciscan fathers began winemaking, the grapes were dumped into troughs, trampled into pulp, and hung in cow skins to ferment before leaking into casks. “In those days the flavor was not described with enthusiasm,” wrote the Napa Historical Society’s Meredie Porterfield, “but that is what passed for wine in early LA.” 

California wine has come a long way since then, both in terms of quality and quantity. Today, the state accounts for 90 percent of the total US wine production. The reliably warm weather allows wineries to use very ripe fruit which makes for a fruitier wine, rather than the more earthy flavors of Europe. It also means higher alcohol levels, with some Californian wines having over 13.5 percent. 

Napa and Sonoma get the lion’s share of publicity, although they produce less than a quarter of the wine. Many more millions of gallons emanate from the San Joaquin Valley, the so-called “jug wines” that are mass-produced and low-priced. Other major wine areas are around Paso Robles, the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara, and, in the far south, the emerging vineyards of Temecula.

Despite increasing sophistication in bottling and manufacturing, basic winemaking has changed very little over the centuries. Wine is, after all, just fermented grape juice, not manufactured but generated by living yeast cells that ferment grape sugars into grape alcohol.

Sustainable winegrowing

Sustainable winegrowing and winemaking practices are a quickly growing trend in California. Many California wines are now labelled organic, meaning they have no added sulphites to prolong shelf-life and no synthetic pesticides or nonorganic chemicals. It also means that only natural alternatives were used for soil enrichment, pests, weeds, and vine disease management.

Additionally, vintners and growers (who represent one-quarter of the state's wine acreage and 40 percent of the annual wine case production) currently participate in the voluntary Code of Sustainable Wine Growing program. Introduced in 2002, the code aims to establish environmental standards and practices from ground to glass, including methods minimizing pesticide use, reducing water and energy use, building healthy soil, protecting air and water quality, recycling natural resources, and maintaining surrounding habitats. 

Examples of such sustainable winemaking practices include using sheep and beneficial birds to control weeds and pests, using drip irrigation and process ponds to conserve water, and composting and recycling to minimize waste. 

In 2012, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CCSW) developed a third-party certification program related to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP) – essentially like a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program for wineries. 


Visitors enjoying some California wine.


Buy a book: Insight Guides: California

Read more: Crossing the USA by song