The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries

The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries

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by Charles E. Olken

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"I have depended on Charles Olken's Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine for more than 35 years. This new Guidebook is a perfect complement. No other book comes close to its thoroughness, accuracy, and usefulness. It is a must for travelers in California's wine country."—Charles L. Sullivan, author of Zinfandel

"Olken's perspective on

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"I have depended on Charles Olken's Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine for more than 35 years. This new Guidebook is a perfect complement. No other book comes close to its thoroughness, accuracy, and usefulness. It is a must for travelers in California's wine country."—Charles L. Sullivan, author of Zinfandel

"Olken's perspective on California wines is unmatched: he spans the landscape from the postwar pioneers to the newest garagistes, and wine criticism from before Parker to the age of blogs. This new guidebook is informed by his 35 years of careful, candid, and comprehensive attention to California wine."—John Winthrop Haeger, author of Pacific Pinot Noir

Editorial Reviews


“An essential reference book for those interested in America's most important producer of wine.”
Zester Daily

“Very personal compendium of California wineries, a solid leg-up for the aficionado.”
Tom Wark

“Indispensable. . . This new Handbook should prove to be one of my library's most important and most used editions for some time to come.”
1 Wine Dude

“Those planning a visit to CA wine country might just find it an indispensable and time-saving reference.”
Steve Heimoff

“I still have, use and enjoy my 1982 edition. Charlie is the dean of California wine writers!”
Miami Herald

“Supplies what the websites don’t: objective, blind-tasting notes and expert opinions on the wines. A very helpful guide.”
Alaska Airlines Mag / Horizontal Air Mag

“Accessible to the wine novice and the experiences taster alike.”
Santa Barbara News-Press

“Simply indispensable if you want to know the who's who of California wineries. “

“Provides detailed information on the state’s producers and provides an in-depth history on wine production in the state. . . . Insightful.”
Library Journal
Before winery websites and online guides, there was Olken's The Connoisseurs' Handbook of California Wine. Over 30 years later, he and wine collector Furstenthal have delivered an updated and encyclopedic starting point with baseline information on almost 500 wineries, links to further readings, a glossary, and maps. The writing is approachable, but the intended audience truly is the connoisseur: there are no illustrations to captivate wine tourists, and the organization of the book by geography is more about wine terroir than travel. Despite the book's evident strengths, it seems designed in part to drive readers to research further online, including Olken's paid-subscription site ( Comprehensive but of limited appeal. Recommended for specialized collections.—Peter Hepburn, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago

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University of California Press
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The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries

By Charles E. Olken, Joseph Furstenthal


Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94726-9


A Brief History of Wine in California

* * *

MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED YEARS after Spanish missionaries brought vine cuttings with them from Mexico's Baja California and established the first of the California missions in San Diego, researchers at Madrid's National Biotechnical Center, using DNA techniques, have traced those first vines back to a black grape that seems to be a dark-colored relative of the Palomino grape still in use for the production of Sherry. That humble beginning may not seem like it would have much to do with today's burgeoning wine industry, but the fact is that the Mission variety became the vine of choice in California as its population grew first through the arrival of trappers and wealthy landowners, then with the small but steady stream of wagon trains that came west out of the country's heartland and the establishment in the 1840s of the clipper ship trade. By the time the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, California's wine economy had become established, and despite world wars and periods in which the sale of alcohol was banned, the industry hung on and finally exploded into its current shape with the wine boom of the 1970s. Today, the Mission grape is gone, but the wine industry it helped spawn now boasts over a half million acres of wine grapes from one end of the state to the other.

1760 TO 1780

In 1769, Father Junípero Serra established the first of the Spanish missions at San Juan Capistrano in Orange County south of Los Angeles. Despite the supposed two hundredth anniversary of California wine that was celebrated in 1969, it is believed today that Father Serra did not plant vines and make wines until a decade later. During the last fifteen years of his life, Serra established eight more missions and associated vineyards. Serra planted a grape variety from Mexico that became known as the Mission grape and later thrived as the leading grape in California until the wave of settlers in the 1850s and 1860s would bring more noble varieties to California. What became a total of twenty-one missions would sustain the production of more wine, but it was all for the members of the church and not a wine "industry" per se.

1830 TO 1850

During this period, the only ways to get to California were overland, mostly by wagon train, or by clipper ship around the southern tip of South America. Because the continental railroad was still two decades away, California might have resisted population growth had it not been for the discovery of gold and the resulting Gold Rush. Indeed, in the early 1800s, there was almost no nonnative population in existence in the region. By the 1830s, though, Mexican land grants led to the establishment of farms and then to the development of villages. One such landowner was George Yount, who settled in the Napa Valley in 1836 and soon after planted the first vines there. It wasn't long until he attached his name to history by establishing Yountville in the Napa Valley.

Also during the 1830s, an aptly named Frenchman, Jean Louis Vignes, brought the first substantial stock of French vines to Los Angeles. While his contribution did not spark the first California wine expansion, his vines did find their way into the plantings in Southern California. And while Vignes may have been the first, his influence did not spread. Rather, it took a completely different circumstance to change California forever—the discovery of gold in the Sierra mountains east of San Francisco.

Back east, prior to the Gold Rush, a small wine industry developed in the Midwest, focused substantially in Ohio, while, at the same time, horticulturalists along the East Coast were growing grapes in hothouses and entering them in the competitions of the day. We know that one such person was a clipper ship captain named James Macondray. His prizewinning Zinfandel grapes were honored in Boston as early as the 1830s. Macondray would, by 1850 or so, settle in San Francisco. The records of his journey do not specifically list Zinfandel as part of his cargo, but it is very likely that Macondray is a primary source of the grape that for so long was known as California's own. His cuttings found their way to Napa and then to Sonoma.

Also during this period, Spanish land grants gave over-large blocks of what was thought to be unproductive dirt to California farmers. The shape and location of these holdings would influence later development, and even today the land grant known as Los Carneros still finds its name prominently attached to the Napa and Sonoma wine country. Still, by all accounts, the population of California at the end of this period was something like fifteen thousand, with about 40 percent immigrants and 60 percent native inhabitants. By 1850, that total would grow to almost one hundred thousand, boosted by statehood and the Gold Rush.

1850 TO 1870

This era was the first explosive period of California wine growth. With the discovery of gold in the Sierras, the population of California grew enormously and wine production along with it. While historians may differ on the impact of the Gold Rush, it is clear that the population of California grew from fifteen thousand in 1848 to almost six hundred thousand by 1870 and that the great majority of that population was centered in the swath from San Francisco to Sacramento and up into the Sierras. During the height of the Gold Rush, local agriculture in the Sierras and Sierra Foothills flourished. El Dorado County alone reported that six thousand acres were devoted to agriculture to feed the miners and camp followers who quickly filled the hills. Approximately half of that was vineyard land, and there were substantial holdings in the other foothill counties as well.

At the same time, the urban population was growing apace. About half of the newcomers arrived by boat in San Francisco, many of whom settled there and elsewhere in Northern California. Many of the settlers were of European ancestry, including notable wine pioneers such as "Count" Agoston Haraszthy (Sonoma County), Charles LeFranc and his future son-in-law, Paul Masson (Santa Clara County), and Charles Krug (Napa County). Hungarian Count Haraszthy, for one, imported some hundred thousand cuttings from many European vineyards and planted them in California. Haraszthy pioneered numerous winemaking techniques now thought commonplace, including hillside planting, and caves dug for aging. He founded the Buena Vista Winery in the Sonoma Valley, considered the birthplace of winemaking in California. Less well-known but also important were the exploits of folks like Sam Brannan who set up camp near the hot springs in Calistoga, thinking that he would re-create the atmosphere around New York state's Saratoga, and who, in 1860, realizing the potential for grape growing in the Napa Valley, would go to Europe, where he also arranged for thousands and thousands of noble grape vines to be sent back. At the same time, New Englanders other than Macondray began to import their prized grapes from home, and Zinfandel was prime among them—albeit as both table grape and wine grape.

The recognizable potential in California and in the West generally sparked interest in the construction of a transcontinental railroad as early as the mid-1840s. Statehood in California and Oregon and the subsequent discoveries of precious metals intensified that interest, not to mention that thousands of people were heading west by wagon train and long ocean journey. By the 1850s, a plan was realized, but the railroad was not completed until 1869. Until that time, the booming wine industry in Ohio and elsewhere supplied most of the wine for thirsty easterners. The establishment of the railroad would help change that equation forever.

By 1870, the basis for a California wine industry had been established. Grape varieties far more suited to fine table wine production had been introduced, and many of the areas that today are world famous for wine quality had seen their first plantings go in. Wine had very quickly progressed from religious use to thirst slaker for the mining community to commodity for sale first to a growing urban population and then to the rest of the country. California winemakers were able to compete with the established midwestern and eastern makers, and California very soon became the single largest wine-producing state—a status that has remained unchallenged to this day.

1870 TO 1919

With its base established, the California wine industry entered a long period of expansion. The Napa Valley slowly became the center for fine wine production. With Krug and Jacob Schram opening wineries in the 1860s and others planting grapes, Napa's place in history began to emerge. Among names we still recognize today, Beringer was started by the brothers Jacob and Frederick in 1875 and was followed by Captain Gustave Niebaum, who founded Inglenook in 1880, and by Georges de Latour with Beaulieu in 1900. At the same time, new regions were emerging. Spring Mountain was first planted about 1880, and the very significant grape-growing operations in the Livermore Valley were started by the likes of Karl Wente and James Concannon in the 1880s. Grapes were also planted in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Montebello Wine Company came into being in the 1880s as well. Today, Ridge Vineyards is the most important winery on Monte Bello Ridge. Grape growing and winemaking found homes all around the San Francisco Bay and in almost every friendly agricultural valley and flatlands from the southern reaches of Santa Clara Valley up to Santa Rosa and beyond. Mendocino County was not really opened up to grape growing until the 1900s despite limited attempts prior to that time.

California's population grew from 600,000 to 3,500,000, and San Francisco and Los Angeles each rushed past 500,000 in population as they became important financial and commercial centers in their own right. But there was trouble brewing as well, and the scourge of phylloxera, a root louse found in the East, reared its ugly head. During the 1870s, various native American grape varieties were taken to England for study, with the unintended consequence that phylloxera went along for the ride and became introduced to Europe, where it quickly attacked European grape varieties that had no built-in defense and thus died off. The disease waited a decade or so before it also decimated many of the fledgling vineyards of California. It wasn't until the closing years of the nineteenth century that scientists and growers learned that by grafting European vine material onto native American rootstock, the disease could be thwarted. It was then, and into the early decades of the twentieth century, that wine production flourished in America, and in California in particular. The growth of the California wine industry presaged the developments of a hundred years later, but it took many a twist and turn before the California industry would mature. California growers brought in disease-free vines and made wines similar to the ancient and prestigious offerings of France and elsewhere in Europe. In the early decades of the new century, California vintners were in the enviable position of exporting their product to Europe and Asia. In the period leading up to Prohibition, California wines were winning tasting competitions in Europe, a feat that would not be repeated for sixty years—because everything would change thanks to the moral imperatives of Prohibition.

1919 TO 1933

In 1920, the United States went dry—by law. What happened in reality is another story, but the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment one year earlier meant that as of January 17, 1920, the "manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors" was prohibited. To the wine industry, and indeed every sector of the economy that was involved in the prohibited activities, it mattered not that a third of the states has always been dry and that several others had joined their ranks during World War I for "patriotic reasons." The forces of the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and a host of social and industrial reformers had banded together and brought about the outlawing of alcohol. There were attempts after the ratification process had run its course to define the amendment as not applying to beer or wine, but Congress passed the Volstead Act, which said that the amendment specifically limited the level of alcohol in any potion to 0.5 percent.

In addition to providing Eliot Ness with a stream of cases, Prohibition created new levels of subterfuge among winemakers and average citizens, the former making medicinal and sacramental wines and the latter becoming expert garage winemakers. Bootlegging flourished. Bathtub gin became a popular drink, and the Roaring Twenties, with its uproarious ways, made the cocktail more popular than ever before. Grape prices went through the roof for varieties that could be shipped, but other varieties fell out of favor. Working within the provisions of the law that allowed home winemakers to produce up to two hundred gallons a year for home consumption, large businesses sprung up to ship and distribute grapes across the country. Crowds lining up to receive boxcars full of grapes in the fall became the order of the day. In the world of unintended consequences, grape acreage increased during Prohibition by almost 100 percent.

Despite the many ways in which people skirted the law, both legally and illegally, Prohibition all but destroyed the production side of California's wine industry. Production in wineries fell dramatically—some measures suggest by as much as 95 percent. Businesses closed, and tanks went empty, rotted, or dried out. By the time the country recognized that a monster of illegality and violence had been created and allowed the industry to open its doors again, both the wine industry and the public had changed. And it did not help that Repeal came in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Repeal arrived at the end of 1933, the result of a recognition that consumers did indeed want to use alcoholic beverages without a criminal stigma. But the industry was unready for the impact of Repeal. Demand for wine grew but failed to reach the levels of two decades earlier, and home winemakers remained a major buyer of wine grapes for decades. Much of the wine that was produced turned out to be inferior, and the industry went through a period of readjustment. The sales of fortified wines exceeded the sales of tables wine in the post-Prohibition era, and it took thirty-five years for varietal table wines to outsell fortified wines again. Prohibition had shaken the winemaking industry to its roots, and it would take another revolution to turn it back in the direction with which it had flirted at the turn of the century—namely, as an industry that could produce wines of high quality.

1933 TO 1966

During the middle years of the twentieth century, winemaking grew first in quantity and then in quality. In the late 1930s, Beaulieu Vineyards' George de Latour had introduced—with the help of noted winemaker André Tchelistcheff—new techniques such as cold fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and aging wine in small French oak barrels. Brother Timothy built the Christian Brothers into a leading winemaker after Prohibition. Wineries like Krug, Martini, Inglenook, Simi, and Sebastiani all survived, and they and others frequently produced wines of great quality. However, quality was not really in vogue except among a small band of dedicated collectors. The most intriguing figure during this era was the iconoclast Martin Ray, who got his start at Paul Masson and later went on to found his own winery. Insisting on using the techniques of the best Old World wineries, but not always able to find consistency, Ray made some of the legendary wines of the era as well as some of the most expensive vinegar. Still, it was Martin Ray, as much as anybody else working in the post-Prohibition era, who made it possible for others to imagine a fine wine world in California.

In the 1950s, with winemaking still mostly done in old wood vats, without temperature control, and almost never using small barrels for aging, the industry saw the emergence of a few pioneers who would set the stage for the wine boom that would follow. James Zellerbach, a San Francisco financier with a taste for the wines of Burgundy, bought land high in the eastern hills of the Sonoma Valley and began to produce both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay using modern techniques, including fermentation in stainless steel and aging in oak barrels imported from France. At the same time, advertising executive Fred McCrea bought land in the Napa Valley hills for a summer retreat. He soon added grapes, and over the years, Stony Hill Chardonnay became one of the most sought-after wines made in California. Lee Stewart was yet another 1950s pioneer. His Souverain winery evolved over time to become a producer of very high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon—so much so that by the time the wine boom hit, his winery was already a household name to collectors.


Excerpted from The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries by Charles E. Olken, Joseph Furstenthal. Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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From the Publisher
"An essential reference book for those interested in America's most important producer of wine."—Chow

"Those planning a visit to CA wine country might just find it an indispensable and time-saving reference."—1 Wine Dude

"I still have, use and enjoy my 1982 edition. Charlie is the dean of California wine writers!"

Steve Heimoff

"Supplies what the websites don't: objective, blind-tasting notes and expert opinions on the wines. A very helpful guide."—Miami Herald

"Simply indispensable if you want to know the who's who of California wineries. "—Santa Barbara News-Press

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The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine and Wineries 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have yet to find a good guide to California wines. Extensive info on ratings of years for different areas and different wines. This book gives good information about the vineries and their winemakers, but does not go into details about the different wines they make year by year. H Lewis