People who have gone to California might say it’s a place relaxed about everything yet serious about wine, from thriving winemaking technology to innovative sustainable farming.
The Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976 for the first time established California as the world’s leading wine producer. During the blind tasting, a white Chardonnay from Napa Valley (Chateau Montelena) overcame a Burgundy premier cru and a red Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) outplayed some Bordeaux first growths.
Today, California is the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, occupying 90 percent of US wine production, and China has become its No. 5 export market. California has maintained its growth in China despite the Chinese government’s anti-corruption action, according to Linsey Gallagher, director of International Marketing of California Wine Institute.
The value of California wine exports to China grew 6 percent in 2013, compared to the previous year, said Eric Pope, regional director of emerging markets at the Wine Institute.
Stephen Li, the top wine educator in China, thinks he knows the reason California has bucked the trend. “Probably it’s because compared with those Bordeaux first growths that are overvalued in China thanks to successful marketing, American wine is new and comparatively reasonable,” he said. “Hence it has less market bubble.”
The success of California more or less demonstrates a big difference between Old World and New World in the wine industry.
“People doing wine here (in California) are all experts. Most of them do it voluntary because they like it rather than inherit it so that they are willing to invest and dare to make experiment,” said Angelo Gaja, owner of Gaja winery, known as the king of Italian wine.
History, Chinese roots
The story of California wine starts in the 1850s, amid Gold Rush fever when lots of Europeans emigrated to America. Compared with mining and other industries, agriculture was open to most newcomers. Some started experimenting with viticulture in this new continent, something they didn’t have the chance to try in their conservative homeland.
Early well-known California wineries include Louise Martini and Ferrari-Carano, founded by Italians, and Beringer, established by a German family.
Chinese laborers made big contributions to building those first wineries and growing grapes in America, starting with Buena Vista — the first commercial winery in America, established by Hungarian aristocrat Agoston Harasztchy.
“Ho Po was responsible for supplying Harasztchy with his Chinese workforce, skilled laborers he brought in from Guangdong. By the 1880s, 80 percent of California wine and vineyard work was performed by Ho Po’s team,” wrote wine historian Charles L. Sullivan in his 2013 book “Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista.”
When looking around the wine cellar of these historical wineries such as Beringer and Buena Vista, bricks on the wall serve as a reminder of Chinese laborers with their waist-length pigtails digging the caves with shovels.
Nowadays, Chinese Americans are playing a more important role in the industry, no longer just serving as cellar workers or grape field workers. One is Wong Jun Tim, vice president of winemaking at Black Stallion Estate Winery in the Napa Valley.
California’s top wineries are being run by the second, third and fourth generations of the families that started them. They tend to have a “nothing is impossible” attitude, which means California wines go beyond inheriting the classic styles of Europe and delve into lots of innovation.
Robert Mondavi, the second generation of Italian immigrants who died six years ago at age 94, was among the most influential vintners in the world. He was among the first in the New World to put clear labels on bottles to indicate the varietal, a practice now required by law that makes it easier for consumers to approach wine drinking.
He was also a pioneer in reinterpreting Sauvignon Blanc by aging it in barrels and calling it “Fume Blanc.”
Kendall Jackson Wine Estates customizes the flavors brought by barrel aging, from caramel and vanilla to toffee and deep espresso, through precisely sourcing oak and roasting barrels. It has its own barrel-tracing system so the winery knows how each bottle of wine is aged.
A hot wine trend in America is sustainable green viticulture, also known as organic and biodynamic farming.
Sonoma County-based Benziger, known for its biodynamic wines, has a soil computer system that can precisely identify each layer’s soil type and monitor the water content underground every 15 minutes.
US President Barack Obama recently recognized Kendall Jackson, whose wineries all use solar energy to make wine, for its “commitment to increasing onsite solar generation.”
A big contributor to California’s innovation in winemaking is the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, says Master Sommelier Robert Bath at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.
Californian terroir, fog matters
Although the wineries like to innovate, most also owe much to their European heritage and emphasize their commitment to reflecting their land, or more precisely, terroir.
Distinctive microclimates dot the northern California wine landscape, none more famously than the cool fog rolling in from San Francisco Bay.
“Newly formed whitish fog filtering through the harp strings of the Golden Gate Bridge and then puffing out its chest as though pleased with its dramatic entrance; but the only applause is the quiet lapping of the waves as they disappear under the silent mass,” Herb Caen wrote in his 1949 book “Baghdad by the Bay.”
Most of the best wineries in California lie along a belt of valleys just inland from its coastline in the northern half of the state. The coastal valleys feature a Mediterranean climate with abundant sunshine and dry warm summer. The fog acts as a natural air conditioner, protecting the vines from being burned by sunshine during the day while bringing cool nights to ensure a long growing season.
The locally distinctive Great Valley Sequence and Franciscan Assemblage gives soil type diversity and personality, highlighted by sand, clay, volcanic ash, river-run gravel, seabed soil and granite, each contributing to distinctive minerality.
The North Coast appellation, gathering the famous Napa Valley and Sonoma, is its star producing area. Napa, comparatively warmer, is known for its red varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel and whites, represented by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Wine styles are fruity, bold and straightforward. Some of the most expensive and rare wines in Napa Valley have been given perfect 100 scores by renowned critic Robert Parker. They are considered cult wines, usually Cabernets with an average production of just 600 cases a year. These wines are not available to the public but are sold to winery club members and enthusiastic wine collectors. Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate are examples.
Sonoma, although just 16 miles away, has a cooler climate, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are highlights.
Although Cabernet is probably the most widely planted grape variety in California, Pinot Noir has attracted much attention in recent years, especially after the release of the 2004 film “Sideways,” which glorified the varietal.
A quote from the film clearly shows California vintners’ understanding of the variety:
“It’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere, thrive even when it’s neglected. … Pinot needs constant care and attention. … Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Shanghai Daily visits some of the most interesting wineries in California.
Benziger Family Winery
Mike Benziger, owner of the winery in Sonoma County, believes that biodynamic wine, the hottest wine concept during the past five years, is not simply a marketing tool, but truly a faith as serious as religion.
“I don’t want to make a flawless wine that seems impossible but an honest wine reflecting the nature,” said Benziger, whose arms are covered with tattoos showing his commitment to biodynamics.
Benziger is the only winery in California to put biodynamic certification on its wine label. It is also one of the first practicing biodynamic farming, having started in the middle 1990s.
Biodynamic wine is made from grapes based on very rigorous organic farming, viewing the farm as a cohesive interconnected living system with limited manual intervention and philosophical elements thrown in.
Autumn is probably the most beautiful season here. Vines with colorful leaves from golden yellow to bright maple red stand on terraced fields dug by early Chinese laborers, shredded with various wild grasses and white flowers. Two Scottish Highland cows, with long curved horns, munch on grass placidly. On the other side, two sheep wander among the vines. Benziger has even designed two row distances for vines, one for people and another for animals walking through.
“They are good replacements for machines and herbicides. Cow has the best digestive system so that they are responsible for producing compose and yeast. Sheep is good at digging earth, which helps the soil to breath,” said Benziger.
That white flower according to him, always blossoms during full moon nights, producing a smell that attracts bats to eat mosquitoes.
Benziger also covers crops to provide homes for spiders, damsel bugs and ladybugs to eat leafhoppers and mites damaging vines.
“We rely on good bugs to keep the bad bugs under control,” he said.
A constructed wetland is Benziger’s proudest corner, which he calls “organic cleaning like people’s kidneys.” Here wastewater is naturally filtered through several ponds.
After the solids in water are removed, water is pumped into a pond, in which gravel and sand function as filters. The water is further purified by beds of reeds and other plants. Finally it can be used to irrigate vineyards and landscapes.
His property covers 85 acres, with only 42 used to plant grapes and the rest used for gardens, woodlands and wildlife corridors.
Benziger believes that good wine should be only be made from quality grapes, which cannot live without a healthy environment.
Address: 1883 London Ranch Rd, Glen Ellen, CA 95442
The elegant country house in Napa Valley is more than a winery. It’s also a theater, laboratory and school. The founder, Roy Raymond, started the winery in 1970 after 37 years of working for Beringer, one of the first and most famous wineries in America. The winery has 300 acres of estate vineyards throughout Napa. It’s known for its signature Cabernet Sauvignon, elegant with beautiful balance, finesse and complexity.
The first thing that greets people there is not a fancy tasting room or busy fermentation workshop but a 1.5-acre garden named “Theater of Nature.”
The theater is divided into five acts, starting with the soil and compost. Act Two features the grapevine and trellis system, showcasing some of the most popular vine varieties such as Chardonnay and Merlot. Acts Three and Four introduce the impact of animals and people on the environment of the vineyard. Act Five integrates all the elements together.
Walking across the corridor, visitors see a wine cellar different from any other in the world, featuring crystal decor to highlight the role of glass and decanting in wine drinking.
Finally, anyone can be a winemaker for a day. After you slip into an astronaut-like uniform, the winery gives you four wine samples, varied in grape variety and oak aging. Then you do the winemaking job, blending to clearly understand how different grape varieties contribute acidity and tannins. Visitors are challenged to make a balanced wine. Finally the “winemakers” bottle, cork and capsule their own wines, create their own labels and bring them home.
Address: 849 Zinfandel Lane, St. Helena, CA 94574
Impressive California wines:
Black Stallion Bucephalus 2010
Deep, concentrated and complex aromas, juicy fruitiness on the palate and beautiful balance make this wine distinctive. The red blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petite Verdot is aged in new French oak for 24 months. The aromas of blackberry, cassis, plum, spice and subtle hints of lavender integrate nicely with notes of cocoa, spice and coffee. The bold, full-bodied wine is balanced by ripe, powerful tannins and complemented by a long finish.
Quintessa Red Wine Blend 2011
The red made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon has a beautiful ruby red color, inviting aromas of licorice and black fruits, lifted by notes of violet. Pure and juicy fruitiness on tongue together with fine silky tannin, create pleasant balance.
Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard, Carneros 2011
The beautiful white is made by Ram’s Gate, a small boutique winery in Sonoma dedicated to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The 2011 vintage Chardonnay is a good example of power balanced with subtlety. Buttery, rich caramel and popcorn nose is brought by its aging in French oak for 11 months. Creamy, fatty texture in the mouth is balanced by high acidity and concentrated and vibrant flavors of stone fruits.
California’s wine scene is complemented by its well-developed hospitality industry. According to Visit California, China is on a path to becoming the top market for visitors. It’s now third, behind Canada and Mexico. A nice vacation in this area involves not just enjoying the beautiful wine but also impressive landscape, appetizing cuisine and small but chic local boutique hotels.
If you like hiking and cycling, explore the Napa Valley Vine Trail, a 47-mile path throughout the wine region from Vallejo’s Ferry Terminal to the foot of Mount St. Helena in Calistoga. You can start the day at Clif Family Winery at VeloVino, offering bike rentals and locals’ favorite winery routes.
Fans of the movie “Sideways” may want to go hundreds of kilometers south to Santa Barbara, where the film’s main back scene is recommended. Cyclists can apply for a full-day wine country bake tour from Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
If you like riding, Fremont Older, a 763-acre open space bordered by Garrod Farms Stables, is recommended. Lush green hillsides are home to coyotes, bobcats, deer and various birds.
Where to stay:
• Napa River Inn
The warm and cozy inn is located in a historical building called Historic Napa Mill, built in 1884 by Captain Albert Hatt. It was once used for storing wines and fertilizers. Each room provides guests with wine-scented shampoo and shower gel.
Address: 500 Main St, Napa, CA 94559
• Hotel Healdsburg
It’s located in the center of Healdsburg, a historic and quiet small town in Sonoma County with streets full of art galleries, wine shops and restaurants. The modern designed hotel has its wine-themed spa, pool and fine restaurants.