“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Although he lived over 400 years ago, Galileo had a firm understanding of wine and its relationship to sunlight. The best grapes are created under the best conditions, and the sunlight is the primary force in their creation. There are very few places in the world that fit the bill for growing delicious grapes that get turned into delicious wine. So why is California so great at producing wine? Because of the sunlight, of course!
History of Wine
There are several important reasons why California has become the heart of wine country in the United States. The Spanish brought Mediterranean grapes with them and planted vineyards whenever they established a mission in the new world in the 18th century. With these vineyards in place, the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century brought more people interested in drinking wine to the region. After a long day of mining for gold, wine was important to the evenings of the gold miners.
Because of the climate and the location of the missionaries that were established, Sonoma and Napa counties became a hotbed of wine for California. Buena Vista Winery is known as the first winery and is currently the longest operating winery still in operation in the United States.
But wine growing was not always without its problems. Soon after Sonoma and Napa counties began producing a plethora of grapes and got rolling in the wine business, phylloxera, a bug like an aphid, decimated the grape crop in the late 19th century. And ironically, just as the Californians were re-building their foothold on the wine industry after the phylloxera troubles, Prohibition arrived, and with it smashed the dreams of the wineries. At this time a few wineries managed to survive by making grape juice and continuing to make wine for mass (which was not prohibited).
California winegrowers proved tenacious, and after these lean years, the California sunshine took over and it was full speed ahead for the California wine industry.
There are very few spots on the planet that have the perfect growing conditions for wine growing, and California is one of them. The distinct seasons, plus six months of sunshine and rain are important elements of grape growth. But there is such a thing as too much sun. So, during the six months of sunshine, which would be very hard on the vineyards, the Pacific Ocean offers cooling winds to offset the sun.
“Mediterranean climates, like that of Spain or Southern France (wine-growing capitals of the world), only make up two percent of the entire globe which is why Napa Valley is truly so special.” Mirroring the Mediterranean climates is vital for California to hang on to its status as a leader in wine.
According to the 2018 California Crush Report, “4,282 thousand tons were harvested in 2018. The majority were red grapes with 2,448 thousand tons and whites made up 1,834 thousand tons. California also has the largest number of wineries in the country, with 4,501 at last count.” Clearly, the wine industry is booming in California.
If you know anything about California, you know that the state does nothing on a small scale. And certainly, wine is no exception. According to the Wine Institute, “California wineries shipped 241.5 million nine-liter cases to the U.S. in 2019 with an estimated retail value of $43.6 billion.” This outpouring of wine is shipped to the rest of the United States, as well as around the world.
So what exactly is California producing? California is best known for its chardonnay and cabernet, and the Napa wines are well known even across the world. The Wine Institute breaks down the percentages of wines produced in California this way: Chardonnay, 18.6%; Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.1%; Red Blends, 10.7%.
Wine blends are popular because grapes from several regions can be enjoyed and come together to create a new explosion of flavor. California continues to build its repertoire of California blends.
With only two percent of the world able to grow grapes as California can, there is no doubt that this is a special place for wine. Galileo’s words ring true for California, its sunshine, and the wine that it produces. “Wine IS sunlight, held together by water.” Whether you enjoy chardonnay, cabernet, or a red blend, California will certainly please your palate for wine.