3 Landmark Moments in California Wine History

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Turning points.  They’re part of life and certainly part of California wine history.  Here are three worth considering:

  1. 1920 to 1933, Prohibition. Prohibition nearly ended California’s wine industry. Sure, some wineries survived by shipping grapes back east, since the law allowed some home winemaking.  But wineries shut down by the dozen.  Even worse, whole vineyards of premium grapes were ripped out and replaced with big yielding grape varieties of lesser quality.  It would take more than 30 years before California’s wine industry set out on the road to recovery.
  1. 1966 – Robert Mondavi started his own winery. Mondavi had worked at  Sunny St. Helena Winery in Napa and graduated from Stanford University with business savvy and a passion for wine.  Mondavi was a visionary. He convinced his father, Cesare, an Italian immigrant who began a wine business in Lodi, to buy Charles Krug Winery in Napa.  After Cesare’s death, Robert and his brother Peter fought over the direction of that winery and parted ways.  In 1966, at age 53, Robert built the first new winery in Napa Valley since the late 1930s.

He arrived at just the right moment for California wine.  His passion, belief that wine should be part of every day living and conviction that California wines could become world-class inspired a generation.

  1. 1980s-1990s Phylloxera in Napa Valley:  In the early 1990s, nearly 50,000 acres of wine grapes in Napa and northern California were ripped out and burned, due to a vine-sucking louse called Phylloxera.  But this bug had a silver lining:  it allowed wineries to replant vineyards, that were planted in the 1970s with the wrong grape varieties for the terroir.  This was an incredible stroke of good luck for Napa Valley.  The new vineyards with varieties suited to the terroir began an exciting new chapter in higher quality Napa winemaking.

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Is Wine More Fun than Beer? (Yes!)

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Pollsters say that wine and beer are running pretty much neck and neck popularity-wise.  We don’t get it — because wine is so much more FUN than beer.

Okay, call us biased. Because we are!

We’ve never seen a field of hops that looked as romantic as a vineyard, with the vines heavy with purple fruit in late summer, and leaves going to crimson during veraison in the fall.

We’ve never experienced a bottle of beer changing during the course of a meal.  The glass of wine you thought you new at the start of dinner might gradually reveal its full personality, an amazing transformation, so much so that what you thought was a nice wine turns out to be superlative.

No bottle of beer has ever inspired us to go to the beer country and travel around to where the hops are grown.  We’ve never seen beer inspire chefs to create whole dining experiences around it.  We’ve never seen anyone give someone an anniversary year beer as a gift.  Beer has never sparked heated discussions about vintages and the differences and between them and why this vintage is so much better than that, all conducted with tastings of wines from those vintages and sniffing, swirling and sipping the years.

Which is not to say, beer isn’t fun. We love beer.  It’s just that…wine’s better.

Agreed?

HOW TO CHOOSE A WINE THAT WILL AGE? IS PRICE THE SIGNAL?

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Some of us like older wine (and we’re talking reds here, since in California, whites rarely are made to age).  An older Cab or blend of Bordeaux varietals like Cab, Merlot and Cabernet Franc tends to be less fruity than youthful wine.  The flavors and aromas can become more complex over time, and if the wine was well-balanced in the beginning — meaning the tannins, fruit and acidity harmonize together– it will be later, too.

So, how do you tell if a wine is age-worthy? That’s a whole topic in itself that we’ll be exploring in Uncorked this January.  In the meantime, here’s a thought –if you’re looking for an ageable red, look at the price tag.

Very few reds under $40 are going to be worthy of aging.  Why?   Because producing a very long-lived red requires time, effort and money.  It’s costly to grow or buy beautifully balanced fruit.  Wineries need even more money for the high quality oak barrels where the wine will age, often two years or more.  Aging wine so long is expensive — inventory just sitting on the shelf.

So, the quick tip of the day about finding an ageworthy red is this:  start with the $40 and over reds (and a varietal known for ageability – but that’s another day).

Now, there’s no guarantee a $40 or more bottle will be ageable — but it’s just about certain that a $20 bottle won’t be.

 

What about you? Do you like age-worthy wines, and do you find they’re more expensive?

APPELLATIONS BY PERSONALITY

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We recently met someone who had just come back from Napa.  “How was it?” we asked.

“Awful!  There was traffic and the restaurants were noisy, and everything was expensive!”

Well, it just goes to show, you can’t please everybody.

It also shows that like people, appellations have personalities, and sometimes the person and the region just aren’t a match.

Is there a way to predict if you’ll enjoy a wine trip to Napa, the Sierra Foothills, Temecula, Santa Barbara or other appellations?

We think so.  Just by researching what each appellation offers, you can get a pretty good idea of the overall tone of the trip you might have, and then judge for yourself.

Here are quick takes on who might best enjoy the following appellations:

Napa:   People who want to experience the upper echelons love Napa.  The region is the top tier for California wine, so you’ll find famous wineries, prestigious restaurants, manicured wineries, gardens and cellars and status symbols everywhere, from cars to clothes and of course wine.  Romantics devoted to the wine country lifestyle are nuts about Napa, too.  So are wine lovers who like their touring simple:  hwy. 29 is a straight line with wineries galore, one after another.

 

Sierra Foothills:  If you enjoy a somewhat rustic, welcoming vibe in a mountainous region where wineries

are very seldom near each other, consider the Sierra Foothills.  The appellation is huge, covering eight counties.  Western history buffs will be over the moon at places like Sutters Mill and Placerville.  You can even sip wine watching the frog-jumping contest in Calaveras County made famous by Mark Twain.  Aside from the history, the mountain-grown wines are distinctive and some of the scenery is quite beautiful. Hello, backpackers.

 

Temecula:  Those who like a leisurely but luxurious pace will appreciate Temecula, about an hour north of San Diego.  The ambiance is relaxed, influenced by nearby Mexico’s “manana” culture.  The valley makes it easy to visit wineries; they line each side of the road and are just minutes away from each other.  Temecula’s fabulous climate lends itself to outdoor concerts and outdoor dining.  Life is slower here.  Temecula offers a feeling of vacation that you don’t always find in other wine country.  If you like to smell the roses (at the end of each vineyard row), this is the place.

 

Santa Barbara:  Adventurous souls find a home in Santa Barbara wine country.   Unless you’re in the village of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley or in downtown Santa Barbara’s urban wine zone, wineries are not bunched together like fish in a tank.  This wine country spans more than 50 miles over a high mountain pass and embraces an incredible range of terroir from the hot Happy Canyon in the far east to the very cool (even in summer) Sta. Rita Hills in the west.  You’ll need your GPS (and bring a map–GPS may not always work), different changes of clothes and a Marco Polo-type personality for this wine country.

Ever had a mismatch with an appellation? Or the perfect match for you?

THREE WISHES … FOR YOUR WINE JOURNEY

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Each of us has our own wine journey, right?  Our paths with wine are as unique as we are.  As Fall heads toward Winter, we want to wish you three things for your lifetime wine journey:

  1. Enjoy the pour… and the people.  Enjoy the wine of course, but also the people — the friends you drink it with, the tasting room staff who pour it, your California Wine Club wine advisor who helps you make your order, the wine columnists who get you thinking, the winemakers you meet when you visit wine country…
  2.   Make wine a staycation.  Wine can bring out the best in any meal.  It can loosen conversation among people and be common ground to savor together.  A slow meal with wine at the end of the day, or even a glass with appetizers, is a staycation anyone can afford.
  3. Let it go. Wine corked?  This bottle not as good as the last?  Winery stopped producing your favorite blend?  Let it go and know there is always another wonderful wine experience waiting to uncork.

These are our wishes for you…but what do you hope for your wine journey?

THREE THINGS TO DO WITH LEFTOVER WINE

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Any of you ever experience this:  a great bottle of wine, with half leftover.  Your guests are gone, you can’t drink it up alone … what to do?

Here are three ways you can use up that wine:

  1. Pour the remainder in ice cube trays, freeze, and pull out when you need wine for cooking.
  1. Get the kind of canister of inert gas, sold at wine shops, and use it to negate oxygenation of your wine as it’s stored in the fridge.
  1. Get out your cookbooks or go online, and whip up some dishes that require wine. We love Recipe Girl’s “100 Recipes Using Leftover Red Wine” (www.recipegirl.com).  Google, and you’ll find many more.

THINK OF WHAT THEY DO!

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That bottle of artisan wine you enjoyed last night , the one from the guy who produces less than 5,000 cases a year…we know you know, but there really is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into it.

These small producers face innumerable challenges on their road to cork their wine.  They need to know about viticulture, winemaking, wine distribution, marketing, government regulations, consumer preferences … the list goes on.

Not so long ago, most people wanting to start a winery in California looked for vineyard land first. They planted a vineyard, then, as they gained capital, built a winery.

At least small winemakers today no longer are tied to that scenario.  Most of them begin their brands on a shoestring, using co-op wine facilities and buying their fruit from independent growers.

But while the capital outlay to begin a brand today is far less, the need for knowledge and the ability to wear many, many hats has increased.  A lone winemaker has to do it all – locate the good grapes, make the wine, and go out and sell it.

Some have advantages.  If it is a family business, a winemaker can focus on what he or she does best, and let other family members take care of the rest.  If a family vineyard exists, a winemaker might have a better grip on that part of the puzzle.

Also, winemakers with varied backgrounds in the wine business can have an edge. For example, Michael Quinn, who produces just 1,500 annual cases of mostly  premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for his Michael-Scott Wines, has the advantage of years of experience in several areas of the wine industry.

He gave us the scoop in an interview last week for our Aged Cabernet Serie.

He began his career at the age of 18 years old, as a Napa native working in the tasting room of Beringer Winery.  He later went across the street to Charles Krug, then learned viticulture for five years at Robert Mondavi.

After a stint as a vineyard manager, Michael explored the sales and marketing side.  He became a wine seller dealing with buyers, wine shops and restaurants over a huge area covering all of northern California to Lake Tahoe.

So, by the time he decided to start his own label, buyers had lined up to buy it–he presold his first vintage before it was even ready for tasting.

But even with his amazing background, Michael tells us,

a winemaker needs to wear all the hats all the time.  “You have to be ready for anything and everything,” he says.  “I’ve been doing it so long, so nothing surprises me.”  Michael emphasized that “you have to be flexible.  You have to be ready for the changes. Vintages that are panned by the media – you still must be able to sell your wine.  And there is competition. The big guys have more

money and more clout.  And then you sometimes have a battle getting paid for your wine.”

So, next time you sip an artisan blend, you might give a toast to the hard work that made it possible.