Californian Wine

California is the largest and most important wine region in the USA. It accounts for the southern two-thirds (850 miles or 1370 kilometers) of the country's west coast. (Oregon and Washington make up the rest.) The state also spans almost ten degrees of latitude. With mountains, valleys, plains and plateaux, California's topography is as complex as its climate, offering winegrowers a bewildering choice of terroir.

Californian wines only rose to global renown in the past few decades (notably after the Paris Judgment of 1976). However the state's viticultural history dates back more than 200 years. European vines were first planted here in the 18th Century, as settlers and missionaries made their way up and down the west coast. They brought with them the Mission grape – the vinifera variety also instrumental in establishing viniculture in Central and South America. Although very few Mission vines are to be found in California today, it remains a cornerstone of Californian wine.

Early spring in a California vineyard

The first half of the 20th Century brought war, Prohibition and the Great Depression to the United States. Collectively these suffocated the nation's wine industry. It wasn't until the significant social, cultural and economic developments that followed World War 2 that things began to change. In the 1970s, Californian wine industry leaders brought about renewed winemaking passion in other US states, in turn sparking the national wine renaissance. This period saw a proliferation of new, small-scale wineries throughout the country and the upscaling of longer-established operations. Momentum has continued into the 21st century.

Today, California hosts some of the world's largest wine companies. It is also home to a number of boutique wineries, some of which attract astronomical prices for their cult wines. Whether through mass production or single-vineyard artisanal winemaking, California produces 90 percent of American-made wine. It also supplies more than 60 percent of all wine consumed in the country. A record 211.9 million cases were produced in 2011.

The principal varieties grown in California are Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A wide range of traditional European (Vitis vinifera) vines also flourish, including Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah. Zinfandel can also be included in the list as it is genetically identical to Tribidrag in Croatia and Primitivo in Italy. Among white grape varieties Sauvignon Blanc is a distant second to Chardonnay. These are grafted to hardy American rootstocks which are resistant to phylloxera. Less well known are American/European hybrids producing wines mainly for local consumption.

Sparkling wines are produced in considerable volume. Many French Champagne houses have set up Califonia wineries. The most famous examples are Moet & Chandon's Domaine Chandon, Taittinger's Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley and Mumm Napa in the Napa Valley.

Soils and climates vary substantially throughout California. A complex combination of variables are in play. These include altitude, latitude and proximity to the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean. In summer, the cold inshore waters of the Pacific help to create a fog bank just off the coast. As the inland air warms and rises, cold fog is sucked in to fill the space. In extreme cases, fog has been known to travel as far as 100 miles (160km) inland, cooling and refreshing the land as it goes. Mountainous terrain between a vineyard and the Pacific limits the influence of a maritime climate. This relationship can vary widely across the state.

Generally, the cooler regions closer to the coast are better suited to cool climate grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further inland – where the climate is much hotter – some of California's most famous red wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel produces some outstanding examples throughout the state.

To sum up the complex climatology, topography and geology of such a large area is impossible. For specific information on each of California's wine regions and AVAs, please use the links to the left.

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Most Popular Californian Wine

Based on search frequency, updated monthly
Wine Name
Avg Price
Opus One, Napa Valley, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 10th 94 $415
SIP Moscato, California, USA Muscat 29th 87 $18
Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 36th 96 $3,996
Dominus Estate Christian Moueix, Napa Valley, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 45th 95 $279
Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 47th 91 $86
Harlan Estate, Napa Valley, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 58th 96 $1,327
Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia, Napa Valley, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 74th 94 $263
Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 81st 95 $900
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 88th 95 $261
Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 137th 93 $192
Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 165th 95 $334
Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 192nd 89 $141
Promontory, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 203rd 95 $829
Beaulieu Vineyard BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 215th 93 $137
Spottswoode Family Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 229th 95 $229
Beringer Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 230th 93 $159
Heitz Cellar Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 256th 93 $269
Robert Mondavi Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 260th 91 $149
Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 263rd 93 $156
Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 264th 92 $159
Silver Oak Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 267th 89 $89
Continuum Proprietary Red, Oakville, USA Bordeaux Blend Red 303rd 94 $259
Austin Hope Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 342nd 92 $50
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 'Artemis' Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA Cabernet Sauvignon 344th 89 $67
The Prisoner Wine Co. 'The Prisoner', Napa Valley, USA Cabernet - Syrah - Zinfandel 358th 90 $50
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To see how Wine-Searcher uses average pricing and professional wine critic scores on this page, please see Average Wine Prices and Wine Scores. To find out about popularity, please see Wine Ranks.
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