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The warm late-afternoon sun bathes California wine country, leaving both vineyards and wineries awash in a golden brilliance. On the western horizon, wisps of fog float in from the Pacific Ocean. This is nature's majestic and magical cooling ritual, a hallmark of California's unique coastal weather pattern.
In this mecca of New World wine making, heat and sunshine ripen grapes while bracing Pacific air preserves their precious natural acidity. These elements translate to intense, juicy, and complex wine flavors that hold firm on the palate and show great finesse.
California's nearly nine hundred wineries produce 90 percent of all the wine made in America, and it's no surprise that many of the nation's best wines are made here. In this land of diversity, where lofty mountain ranges give way to picturesque hillside and valley vineyards, each region has its own distinct characterboth geographically as well as stylistically.
Napa Valley is somewhat inland. Its naturally warm growing season favors robust red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Syrah. Neighboring Sonoma County is really a collection of very distinct areas that stretch west from the border of Napa to the Pacific Ocean.
Among them is the Russian River Valley, home to fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. East of the Russian River lies Alexander Valley, where growing conditions resemble those of Napa Valley. Then there is Carneros, a cooler, marine-influenced zone that straddles both Sonoma and Napa Countiesa place where not only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir shine, but also Merlot and Syrah.
Generally speaking, California'sfinest wine-growing regions have a coastal proximity, although the distance to the sea can vary drastically, and several jagged, twisty mountain ranges may effectively block much of the ocean's cooling effect. North of Napa and Sonoma sits Mendocino County, which sports some of the state's most temperate growing conditions. East of Mendocino are the Sierra foothills, and Contra Costa and Livermore Counties, where the growing season can be very hot.
South of sparkling San Francisco rise the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains, which eventually give way to Monterey and the Central Coast appellations. Here, vintners are taking advantage of a large, fertile, and extremely multifaceted topography to produce a wide range of excellent varietals. They include white wines such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and reds like Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Grenache.
Diversity is also evident in California's relatively short but rich wine-making past. The first wine makers in the state were Spanish Jesuit missionaries who planted Mission grapes near San Diego toward the end of the eighteenth century. Quality was probably marginal, for it's no accident that Mission grapes are not among today's pantheon of high-end varietals. To make matters worse, these early wines were often fermented in animal skins, a technique that gave new meaning to the occasionally used wine descriptor, gamy.
As more wine-loving immigrants settled the West, their combined wine-making acumen grew. Recent historical findings indicate that early-nineteenth-century Russian fur traders who settled the Sonoma coast planted vines as early as 1812 near what is now aptly called the Russian River. They must have been inspired by their Black Sea Crimean cousins, whose wine tradition predates that of the French and Italians.
The 1849 Gold Rush brought a new influx of wine drinkers. French, Italian, German, and Hungarian pioneers, among others, brought their vinous desires and considerable energy to California, which achieved statehood on September 9, 1850.
Some twenty years earlier, however, California had belonged to Mexico. And in northern California, Mexico's General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo is considered to be the father of commercial wine growing. The industrious general began his formidable career as a young lieutenant assigned to the then-troublesome Sonoma Mission, which still stands at the center of the town of Sonoma.
For his success at subduing local Native Americans and other nonconformists, Vallejo was awarded extensive acreage on which he planted his first vineyards circa 1830. A small remnant of his effort remains today as a straggly vineyard that sits directly in front of the famous general's Sonoma home, now a museum.
Was General Vallejo's wine any good? Supposedly it was, but alas, no dusty bottles of Villa Vallejo have surfaced lately for tasting. Nonetheless, Vallejo's enthusiasm was clearly infectious, for he inspired a succeeding generation of vintners who built the foundation of what has become the New World's most renowned wine-growing community.
Best known among Vallejo's disciples was Hungarian immigrant Agostin Haraszthy, who not only founded Sonoma's Buena Vista Winery in 1856, but also married off his two sons to the general's two daughters seven years later. Haraszthy and Vallejo thus cemented a bond that created California's first wine dynasty.
Haraszthy's journey to California was circuitous. The young entrepreneur sailed to America when he was in his late twenties, settling in Wisconsin as a businessman. The Gold Rush probably provoked his westward voyage, for in 1849 he brought his family to San Diego, albeit far from the strike lode at Sutter's Creek.
A brief political career eventually sent Haraszthy north to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he ultimately entered the gold business, first as a smelter and later as an assayer for the U.S. government. Unfortunately, he was accusedand later acquittedof stealing gold, after which time he devoted himself to his budding Sonoma winery.
Haraszthy's hot and cold relations with government were not over, however. In 1861, he managed to convince the state to appoint him to the position of agricultural commissioner and to sponsor a European trip to bring back Old World vine cuttings. Ever the entrepreneur, the vintner returned with $12,000 worth of young vines but failed to receive payment for them from his sponsor. As a result, the vines were planted at Buena Vista and provided bud wood for many other local vintners.
By the mid-1860s, Haraszthy's finances were faltering, and the struggling vintner departed for Nicaragua to seek a new fortune in the rum business. He is rumored to have been devoured by an alligator while crossing a river in the rain forest.
Despite Haraszthy's reverses, late-nineteenth-century Californians had been bitten by the wine bug, and significant plantings occurred throughout the state. Napa Valley pioneers included such visionaries as Gustav Niebaum, the Finnish sea captain who founded Inglenook (now Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola Winery) in the town of Rutherford. The original Inglenook wines should not be confused with the jug wine that later adopted the illustrious winery's name. For nearly a century, the vines planted at Inglenook produced some of the greatest wines in Napa Valley.
Ten miles north of Inglenook, in Calistoga, a German barber named Jacob Schram created a hillside winery where Robert Louis Stevenson passed at least one memorable evening during his short tenure in the valley. Today, Schram's resuscitated winery is called Schramsberg and is famous for its sparkling wines.
The viticultural revolution overtaking California in the mid-to-late 1800s was by no means limited to Napa and Sonoma. The Sierra foothills gold country witnessed a plethora of new vineyards, as it became apparent that hard-working miners were thirsty for a good bottle of wine. In fact, some of the early vineyards planted there more than a century ago are still producing top-notch Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.
Farther south, on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a Frenchman named Paul Masson transported his wine-making dreams from Burgundy in 1878 and planted what may have been the first Chardonnay grapes grown in America. And it was actually in southern California where the state's most prolific wine-growing community was centered. The German settlers of Anaheimbetter known today as the home of Disneylandwere producing more than a half million gallons of wine annually in 1868.
Sadly, California's burgeoning wine industry was destined to fall on hard times. By 1893, Anaheim's vineyards had terminally succumbed to Pierce's disease, an incurable grape malady that continues to strike terror in the hearts of vintners today.
Anaheim's fatal experience with Pierce's disease was nearly overshadowed by phylloxera, a native American root-eating louse that almost wiped out both California's and France's wine industry in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The grape scourge was stemmed after it was discovered that valuable European vinifera wine grapes could flourish when they were grafted onto hearty phylloxera-resistant American rootstock.
Unlike the French, though, America's wine makers were dealt a second, nearly fatal blow with the adoption of Prohibition in 1920. California's formerly robust wine culture, which harbored hundreds of bustling wineries, literally dried up. A few wineries survived by making (legal) sacramental wines, while others sold their grapes across the nation to a thirsty (and law-abiding) group of home wine makers. Many others, like the Martinelli and Foppiano families of Sonoma County, found ways to sell their wine by less than legal means. This was not without hazard; the late Louisa Martinelli, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now "legitimate" wine makers, spent several months in jail for selling illegal wine during Prohibition.
During these hard times, the best profits came from "running" sugar to local liquor stills that transformed sucrose and water into "jackass" brandy. It was a difficult period for vintners and required a tenacious adherence to their belief in the culture of wine. We are fortunate that their way of life has not only survived, but also blossomed, as visitors to California wine country can witness for themselves.
The effects of the United States' thirteen-year experiment in temperance were long lasting, however. By the time Robert Mondavi opened his eponymous Napa Valley winery in 1966, only a handful of wineries remained in an area where 150 had once flourished. It was a sad commentary on the state of American wine.
Fortunately, New World vintners found a leader in Mondavi, whose innovative wine-making and marketing techniques helped to revive California wine. And as California's reputation for quality grew, a new generation of wine makers was drawn to the West Coast. This group built on a modern wealth of knowledge, one that blended contemporary science with traditional Old World methods that had been forgotten during Prohibition.
The newcomers included such wine makers as Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Helen Turley of Marcassin, and David Ramey, whose credentials include Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus, Rudd, and his own Ramey Cellars. These modern-day pioneers rekindled the flame for natural yeast fermentations and minimal filtration, techniques than can enhance flavor complexity. Their efforts have now been widely adopted by many of their colleagues, all of whom make wines that continue to impress the world.
The gates to international acclaim were first rattled in 1976, long before the current trends in wine making and viticulture had found widespread acceptance among California's vintners. At the time, California was still perceived as a backwater by wine cognoscenti on both sides of the Atlantic. But a marvelous thing occurred when Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier hatched a publicity stunt that would send shock waves around the globe.
The cocky wine seller invited a group of French experts to compare well-known French wines with a number of California upstart producers of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The wines were tasted "blind," which means that the tasters were unaware of the wines' identities.
Unexpectedly, California did quite well, besting many of the French classics. Even better (for the Americans), Napa Valley wineries walked away with first place in both the red and white categories. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars won for Cabernet, and Chateau Montelena won for Chardonnay.
The French tasters were mortified and demanded a rematch, while the chauvinistic French press downplayed the whole thing. In fact, the Paris tasting might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that a reporter from Time magazine had decided to attend the event. He filed a widely read story that blew the lid off the tasting, gave Steven Spurrier considerably more than fifteen minutes of fame, and catapulted California into the public eye as a serious contender for the fine-wine throne.
And yet the succeeding years have not unfolded without a hitch. Phylloxera reared its ugly head again in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to a nonresistant rootstock that had been widely planted throughout the state. The situation provoked extensive and expensive replanting. During this time, growers were forced to examine their viticultural practices in an unprecedented manner. Their new, rejuvenated vineyards are clearly an improvement on the previous ones, featuring well-tended, well-exposed grape clusters that are positioned to collect the most energy possible from the sun.
As a result, California wine quality continues to improve, forging a destiny for New World wine that was unanticipated only thirty years ago. And it's not only cult wines like Harlan, Colgin, Kistler, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, and Grace that are making a difference. The landscape is teeming with hundreds of noteworthy producers, all of whom have set their sights on excellence and are currently achieving their dream.
Travelers to Napa Valley are struck by the sheer physical drama of the place. The five-mile-wide valley floor is carpeted by seemingly unending waves of grapevines, their green leaves and curly tendrils pointing skyward towards the life-giving sunshine. Bordering this sea of grapes are the two mountain ranges that define the valley. Jutting up from the west are the Mayacamas Mountains, a range that includes such well-known landmarks as Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain. Their steep slopes face eastward and catch the morning sun, and many well-known wineries have carved out a niche for their highly praised wines among the mountain evergreens.
On the eastern flank rise the golden-hued Vaca Mountains, which face the warm late-afternoon sunshine head-on. Howell Mountain is best known among the craggy peaks that top the crest of the range. Red-orange volcanic soils and blue-green perched vineyards add color to the landscape.
Nestled within the Vaca range is surreal Glass Mountain, where the fiery breath of a long-dead volcano once spewed a rain of molten black obsidian. Now transformed to glassy rock, the shiny sharp shards are littered among the vineyard soils, causing a shimmering effect in the mid-afternoon sunshine. It's no mirage, though; this is dream country.
From the valley floor to the tops of its highest slopes, Napa Valley is California's capital of Cabernet Sauvignon. The robust, complex varietal expresses itself in a bold, rich, and sensual manner when grown in the picturesque valley's seemingly endless hot, dry summer days.
Mountain vineyards are often hidden from the view of casual tourists, but those visitors driving north on Route 29 from Yountville to Calistoga will be astonished at the highly visible concentration of renowned wineries that hug the valley's main road: Trefethen, Domaine Chandon, Dominus, Cosentino, Cardinale, Far Niente, Mondavi, St. Supery, Beaulieu Vineyards, Niebaum-Coppola, Whitehall Lane, Heitz, Martini, Sutter Home, Beringer, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers (now the Culinary Institute of America), Markham, Folie à Deux, St. Clement, Grace Family, Freemark Abbey, Sterling, and Clos Pegaseto name just a fraction of the region's 250-plus wineries. It's like traveling a historic highway, punctuated by many of the names that have made this stretch of dirt one of the wine world's most noteworthy and valuable.
Cabernet Sauvignon is not the only grape that thrives in Napa Valley. Zinfandel, the most widely planted grape in California, also finds a happy home here, where it has grown for more than a century. You can still see gnarled one-hundred-year-old Zinfandel vineyards that produce some of the best and most concentrated wines of this variety. Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and Syrah have also found favorable microclimates throughout the thirty-five-mile-long valley.
Excerpted from THE FOOD AND WINE COOKBOOK by Jeff Morgan. Copyright © 2002 by Dean & DeLuca, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.