California is the third largest state in the U.S., and roughly three fourths the size of France. While Napa Valley and Sonoma are the most famous of the California wine regions, there are many more to explore. The state is home to 140 of the 242 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) in the United States, Napa and Sonoma make up about 40 of these. In other words, there are a lot of things to do in California.
The Carpe Travel California Wine Travel Guide has been designed to provide a look into visiting wine regions throughout the state of California – where to sip, where to stay and thing to do both among and beyond the vines.
Given its huge role in the wine world today, it may be a bit surprising to learn that California was late to the game in growing vines and producing wine. Wine had first made its way to North America in the 1520’s when Spanish colonizers planted the first European vinifera winegrapes in Mexico. In 1560, the first wine was produced in what is today Florida. And, in the 1620’s American colonies first began working to produce wine.
It wasn’t until 1769 when Father Junípero Serra established the first Spanish missions and the Spanish priests began planting vineyards around the missions to supply wine for Mass. They didn’t plant the California Cabernet we all know, but rather Mission grapes which were used to produce Angelica wine.
From here on winemaking in California grew as people began to head west. It was in 1849 when things really began to take off. The Gold Rush had brought thousands of people from around the world to the state in search of striking it rich. Many of these individuals were experienced winemakers and farmers from Europe who didn’t find gold in the hills, but rather excellent farmland and growing conditions for viticulture.
The industry thrived for more than 20 years, and then Phylloxera arrived in California. In the 1870’s this root-louse decimated vineyards throughout the state (and Europe). If that wasn’t enough suffering for the California winemakers, in 1919 National Prohibition took effect with the passing of the 18th Amendment, resulting in a 94 percent drop in wine production in California. (The other six percent was produced using loop-holes for the production of sacramental wine for the church and unfermented juice for small batches of home winemaking.)
It wasn’t until 1933 when the 21st Amendment took effect – doing away with National Prohibition – that winemaking in California could kick back up. But times, tastes and farmland had changed. Not to mention the majority of the vines and equipment had been destroyed.
Growth in wine production was slow in California; before National Prohibition there had been 700 bonded wineries in the state, by 1965 there were only 232. That all changed 11 years later following the “The Judgement of Paris”.
On June 7, 1976 California and French wines went head-to-head in a blind tasting wine competition in Paris. Two California wines took the top spots for both the red and white wines – beating out the world-renowned wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
- 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena
The Judgement of Paris marked the first time in 57 years – since National Prohibition – that wines from the United States received international acclaim.
California wines were thrust into the spotlight, igniting a surge in new wineries opening throughout the state, and the country. Over the next decade, wine production in California doubled.
In 1985 – 71 years after National Prohibition – California finally reached the number of bonded wineries that existed before Prohibition – 700. As of the end of 2018, there are currently more than 4,200 wineries in California.
California is the third largest state in the U.S., and roughly three fourths the size of France. Given its size – 770 miles (1,240 km) long and around 250 miles (400 km) wide, and diverse topography – you would think vineyards would thrive throughout the state. But, alas at least half of California is inhospitable for growing grapes.
When looking at the map of California, you will see the Coast Mountain Range running nearly the length of the state along the coast. This natural border keeps the areas by the Pacific Ocean cool, while on the other side of the mountains is warmer and drier.
With the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range on the eastern border of the state and the Coast Range on the left, the 300-mile-long stretch of land between the two has become an agricultural heaven, otherwise known as the Central Valley. This area produces 60 percent of all the agricultural products in California.
It’s in the Central Valley, the 50 miles along the coast, and the foothills of the Sierra where viticulture thrives in California. These areas make up 139 American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). At the end of 2018, there were 242 AVAs in the United States, reconfirming just how diverse – and amazing – the growing conditions are in California.