A few traditionalists may still turn up their noses at wines that don’t have an old-country pedigree, but for the rest of us, California wines have become a staple of restaurants and wine cellars everywhere. In fact, the wine business has been growing ever since the 1970s, when California wines began winning international competitions, breaking record after record. The industry today exports well over a billion dollars in wine annually. The reason for all this success? Coastal weather, fine soil, and American ingenuity.
The first wine made in California was likely prepared by Franciscan missionaries, who needed the wine for its sacramental value as well as its flavor. In the 1830s, the first commercial winery opened, but the wine industry didn’t really develop until the gold rush of the mid-1800s, when many failed miners turned to vineyards as a backup plan. California’s wineries grew without restraint until 1919, when Prohibition became the law of the land, followed by the Great Depression and World War II. The industry didn’t fully recover until 1960, and it has been booming ever since.
California’s unique climate, which millions of people have found extremely agreeable, also happens to provide the ideal conditions for growing wine grapes. This is especially true in northern California, thanks to ocean breezes meeting inland heat and the area’s numerous microclimates suitable for different grape varietals.
Those looking to sample California wine will have a hard time sorting out the great from the great pile of merely acceptable wines. Table wines from Bogle, Colby, and Joel Gott Wines tend to be popular with those looking for a bargain, but oenophiles will do well to seek out some of the better bottles, such as the 2009 Shafer Vineyards Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay or the 2007 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.