Fun Stuff about California’s Wine Scene


Visiting wine country doesn’t have to be all about wine…there are other fun things to see and do.  Here’s a quick round-up:

In Napa:

Visit a real castle at Castello di Amarosa — they’ve even got a moat…. Go to one of the world’s best wine/food bookshops at The Culinary Institute at Greystone (housed in the historic Christian Brothers winery) …  Drive up Howell Mtn. and experience living history at ghost wineries like Ladera …


…Take the kids to Coppola near Healdsburg, where they can swim in a pool (two pools actually, with a swim through feature), have poolside pizza and you can enjoy the wine — Coppola makes sure the pool isn’t overcrowded or noisy and you can rent a private cabin with shower and change room … Shop Sonoma Plaza.  Its neat, trendy stores offer all kind of goodies, wine-related and not … Drive out to the coast through Sebastopol and get the beautiful drift of “cool climate” Sonoma … Hang out in Healdsburg Square and watch farm hands, winery owners, tourists and toddlers under the generous shade of the huge trees …  Visit Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen for a great hike and a bit of history.

Santa Barbara

Explore the “Urban Wine Trail” in downtown Santa Barbara, more than 17 wineries plus restaurants.  The beach is a couple of blocks away with one of the best swimming spots, East Beach, just down Cabrillo Blvd.

Or, hop over to the harbor and walk on the quay for a spectacular view of this red-roofed slice of heaven…

Visit Lucas & Lewellen in downtown Solvang and explore all its Danish heritage and knick knacks, or take a ride at gorgeous Alisal Ranch to see Old California ranch country up close and personal … visit Santa Barbara’s Botanical Gardens in Mission Canyon, after you tour California’s most charming old mission — later, you can toast the missionaries for planting the Golden State’s first vines.

Have we missed anything? You bet we have!  Fill us in, would you?

The numbers — what the heck do they mean?

glass of cab

Brix, alcohol, T.A., pH … this is wine “by the numbers” — but what do these numbers mean?  What can they tell us about the wine in the bottle?

Brix:  This indicates the amount of concentrated grape sugars.  It’s an indicator of the ripeness of the grapes and is one tool winemakers use to determine when to pick (the other is taste, and some only go by that).  Most wine grapes are picked between 21˚ and 25˚ Brix.  Winemakers use a refractometer to measure  brix.

Each degree of brix equals one gram of sugar per 100 grams of grape juice.

Brix measurements are also used in the fruit juice, carbonated beverage, starch and sugar industries.  What do they use for beer? A system called Plato.

Why the name brix?  Because in the 1800s, a German inventor named A.F.W. Brix invented the technique.

What does brix mean to wine? The higher the brix, the riper the fruit so typically the wine will be more fruit forward.

Alcohol:  This number can also indicate how ripe the grapes were–the higher the alcohol, the riper the grapes. The higher alcohol of many wines in recent years may reflect warmer weather.

There’s been a lot of controversy swirling in the glass about the industry trend toward higher alcohol levels.  Some people say any wine over 15% alcohol is unpleasant to drink and doesn’t’ age well. Others scoff at these ideas. Consumers don’t seem to have a problem with big alcohol wines, since they keep buying them.

What does it mean in the glass?  In a blind tasting, most people cannot tell if a wine is high alcohol.

T.A. or Total Acidity:  This is a measurement of acidity by volume.  Actually, there are several kinds of acid and T.A. only measures one, tartaric.  T.A. ranges from 0.6 to 0.7 in most table wines.

T.A. is tied to the tartness of the wine.  The higher the T.A., the more “zip” to the mouthfeel.  If the acid is too low, the wine tastes flat.  Acidity is important if you’re looking for a wine to go well with food.

Did you know winemakers can legally add tartaric acid to a wine to increase its acidity?’

T.A. is very much related to climate.  Warmer climate wines tend toward too little acidity; cooler climate wines tend toward too much.

pH: This number is another indicator of acidity.  Specifically, it measure ripeness in relation to acidity.  The lower the pH, the crisper the wine.  The higher the pH, the more chance the wine has of growing bacteria.

3.0 to 3.4 is typical for whites; 3.3 to 3.6 for reds.

pH and T.A. relate to each other this way:  the higher the pH, the lower the acidity; the lower the pH, the higher the acidity.  So, if you’re looking for a wine to enjoy with a meal, you’d want a lower pH bottling.

It all adds up to great wine — we hope!


Drought Report – On the Frontlines with CWC winemakers


Wherever your vineyard is located in California this year, you’re thinking about water.  Drought conditions have affected every corner of the state, one way or the other.  Northern California growers are generally in fairly good shape, given that there were helpful spring rains and ground water is typically available.  Those in the south aren’t so lucky.  For example, the Paso Robles water table is dwindling as the drought continues.  Niels Udsen, a pioneer in Paso Robles winemaking and founder of Castoro Winery, said, “We are seeing the wells on the west side drop in production more than usual. The whole area just looks dry.”   In drought defense, his viticulture team is “keeping everything clean and not letting the weeds steal any water!”

In Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, according to Martin Ray winemaker Bill Batchelor, “Everyone is cautious about water use and eyeing the vines as they mature. It’s easier for vines to get stressed if water is withheld.  Growers have cut down the crop more aggressively so that each vine has fewer berries to ripen.  They’re also keeping an eye on heat spikes.”

Fortunately, winter was mild throughout California with little or no frost in wine country.  This gave vines a head start and partially explains why harvest this year is one of the earliest on record.  Wineries in Temecula began picking in late July.  In Napa, some started the first week of August.

John Bargetto, Director of Winemaking and third generation at Bargetto Family Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, says they are “continuing to practice deficit irrigation by using minimum water with drip irrigation, one of our sustainable practices.  The water table in Santa Cruz County continues to drop, but our well has pure water, with no salt water intrusion (7 miles from ocean).”  Bargetto starting irrigating its estate in January anticipating the drought.  The crop is proving “full and wonderful,” says John.  “God bless water and early irrigation!”

According to Bill Easton of Terre Rouge in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, the drought has not affected the vineyards much.  “The well water tables are running low so we need good winter rain,” he told us.  We asked what effect the drier conditions might have on the fruit.  “In drier years like 2014 and like 2004, grapes cluster size and general grape cluster morphology is smaller (smaller berries). The grapes have more concentrated flavor and intensity.”  Bill has harvested a small amount of fruit, but said “we should be rolling pretty good by mid-September.”

Pietro Buttitta, who with his father operates Rosa d’Oro Winery in Lake County (north of Napa), notes that rain in March “really helped our drought conditions.”  Even without a drought, Rosa d’Oro is already pushed to the wall water-wise because of its well situation.  “We don’t have a good reliable well, so we’ve planted on drought resistant rootstocks.  There are four or five of them from Italy and Spain.  The trade off is, they are more vigorous, so we have to do more handwork in the vineyard with canopy management.  You can’t control the vine as much.”

Control at this point doesn’t’ seem to be in the cards for California winemakers. This was underscored on Sunday with a 6.0 earthquake in the epicenter of wine country, Napa Valley.

Any of you notice any drought-related efforts on your visits to California wine country?


Wine Can Tell a Story — Are you listening?


There are plenty of people who enjoy wine without fanfare.  They uncork the wine, pour it and are happy if it tastes good. They’re even happy if it’s “not too bad”!

Then, there’s the rest of us.  We like to know where the wine came from.

Who made it?  Is it a family?  How many generations?  Why do they make wine? Did they grow the grapes themselves, or buy them?  Where are those vineyards, anyway?  In an appellation we’ve heard of?  Have they made this wine before?  Did they add other varietals to the wine, or is it a stand-alone 100% varietal?

These are stories wine tells us.

There’s nothing wrong with simply uncorking a bottle and enjoying, no questions asked.  But there’s something to learn when you question why one wine taste great and another wine doesn’t measure up.

As California winemaking and viticulture have come of age, Golden State wine has become better and better.   And its stories have become more interesting.

As the competition heats up among wineries, they are doing more and more to make a better wine each year.

The explosion of very small, artisan brands in California, often begun by passionate winemakers who buy all their grapes and own no winery facilities, has been a surprising and exhilarating phenomenon.

Yes, the big conglomerates dominate the market.  But for those of us on the lookout for better and better wine, the small family wineries and these adventurous new generation winemakers are creating some wonderful stories in the bottle.

What do you get when you pay more for wine?


Well, that depends on the wine.

But in an ideal world–and at The California Wine Club — our more expensive wines are handcrafted in every sense of the word.

What you get is artistry, expertise and years of experimentation in the vineyard and the cellar.  Uncork the wine, and experience decades of effort in understanding how the climate, soils and aspects of a certain vineyard can express themselves in a wine; meticulous viticulture representing the best practices based on years of effort; the knowledge of how a certain vineyard needs to be tended depending on the weather that year; decades of barrel trials in the cellar to determine the exact combination of oak that melds perfectly with this particular wine.

What about you?  What do you seek in wines that cost a bit more?

Wine Dogs … Now, Wine Trucks


Dog/wine lovers have their Wine Dogs of Napa and Wine Dogs of Sonoma books. Wine Dogs of Washington, too.

Well, step aside pups … the winery trucks are rolling in.

Wine Country Trucks of Napa & Sonoma Counties by Lisa A. Harris offers truly gorgeous photos of vintage trucks, working or not, at a variety of wineries.  And delightful commentary about each one.

There’s Mayo Family Winery’s 1931 Chevrolet pickup, gifted to Jeffrey Mayo at age 16 by his dad. Jeffrey lovingly restored it at his high school auto shop class.   It still has its original six-cylinder, 24-horsepower engine.

Or how about Old Yeller, the 1953 Chevrolet 3100 Series pickup that taught all the kids at Sonoma’s Beltane ranch to drive a stick shift, when it wasn’t acting as a prop for LL Bean, William Sonoma and NapaStyle.

Then there’s Gundlach Bundschu, the oldest family-owned winery in California with one of the oldest trucks,

a 1927 Chevrolet one-ton.  Jim Bundschu’s grandfather used it to deliver grapes, oats, hay and pears to market.   It helped Jim learn to drive in 1955, “when his father, Towle, instructed him to drive across a field littered with baled hay and to avoid the bales, which he mostly did.”

We hope you’re getting the picture–Lisa has a great fondness for trucks and has found a mother lode in wine country.

Know a guy you’d like to introduce to wine?

Here’s the perfect vehicle.



What Makes Great Sparklers?


That’s easy.  Methode champenoise, the incredibly labor intensive, time-consuming, traditional French technique for making fine Champagne.  Among many other steps, this involves a second fermentation and at least three to five years aging in the bottle before the final steps of wine making.

All this costs money which is why great sparkling wine is more expensive than sparklers made the “industrial” way.  Is there a real difference?  Try a methode champenoise sparkler next to one that’s not.   And let us know which you like best!