The history of wines and wineries in California may go back a few hundred years, but the year that separates everything is 1976. That was the year the Battle of Paris wine tasting competition was held. Shocking the world was the fact that a California Cabernet Sauvignon bested wines from around the world, a feat that was repeated the following year with a California Chardonnay. Both of these wines were from Napa Valley, and this one-two punch of victory helped to establish California in general - and Napa specifically - as one of the leading wine regions in the world.
Thirty-nine years later, the attention of wine lovers from around the world now focuses on the state as a whole. With a total output that would rank it fourth internationally if it were its own country, California's unique geological structure allows it to have several distinct growing regions. There are over 130 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state, and the terroir can change so rapidly that there are several in the same area. In the Santa Barbara area, there are at least five separate regions, while up in Napa, there are no less than 14.
These AVAs help people who are looking for wines from a specific region find new vineyards and try new varietals they may not have heard of before, but it also serves as an example for just how diverse winemakers are allowed to be with the grapes they cultivate. The variety of regions means that winemakers can find areas that mimic other places around the world. California wineries may have made their name in the 1970's as a producer of Bordeaux and Rhone style wines, but now second and third generation wine makers are expanding the definition of what California wine is all about.
Today, classic Italian wines like Sangiovese and Chianti are being made in California wineries right down the road from where winemakers are growing Malbec and Torrentes, two grapes most commonly associated with South America. Shiraz, the grape that put Australian wine on the map, may be called Syrah when it comes from the Northern Hemisphere, but that does not stop California winemakers from creating award-winning vintages. The list of what international grapes are now being grown domestically goes on and on.
In a sense, it is just another turn of the cycle in the world of wine. People brought vine cuttings from Europe when they settled in America, and the vines these grew into were used to restart the vineyards of Europe after the Phylloxera blight in France in1863. In turn, these vines gave root to the vines used in South America and Australia. Now those grapes have found a new home, once again, in the wines and wineries of California.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been writing about the food and beverage industry for over 20 years.