There are no two ways about it: California is big. As the third largest state in the country, it covers several distinct regions when it comes to temperature and environment. This is the reason why it is possible to go snow skiing and sunbathing on the same day with only a short drive between the mountains and the beach. It is also the reason why there are so many distinct wine growing regions in the state. To say that you want to buy a California wine is like saying you want to buy a four door car: it may be a great place to start, but there is a lot of narrowing down to do along the way.
As big as California is as a state, it would be almost as big if it were its own country. The amount of wine the wineries of California create would make it the fourth largest wine producing country in the world. By far, the most famous region in the state is Napa Valley. For the last 40 years, Napa wines, especially Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, have been the flagship ambassadors for the wines and wineries of California.
This does not mean that it is the only place where wine is made in the state, or even the oldest. A lot of why Napa became famous has a lot to do with population trends. With a coast that measures over 800 miles from Mexico to Oregon, the majority of people who first settled the state lived close to the ocean because of the abundant food stocks and nautical transportation. It would take a lot to make people move deep inland. In 1849, that was taken care of in the mountains east and northeast of San Francisco when gold was discovered.
Compare this to the southern regions of the state, specifically the Santa Barbara area, home now to some of the fastest growing small batch wineries in the state. The natural discovery in this region was oil instead of gold, and people could drill for it still within sight of the ocean. The valley areas only began to become densely settled after the turn of the 20th century as filmmaking moved west and the population exploded. Wineries that began to open followed the tried and true method of the time, quantity over quality. With smaller regions and more diverse terroirs, some winemakers explored different varietals, but most focused on table wines.
Today, what they lack in area the Santa Ynez wineries make up for in diversity. As well as making award-winning vintages of the seven noble grapes, many are also producing exceptional bottlings of lesser known varietals from around the world. There is a good reason why it is called California wine country, and that is because there are so many exciting regions within it to explore.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. http://www.wineclubworld.com