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Winemaking in California

Winemaking in California is believed to have begun when the first vineyard in California was planted by Father Junipero Serra in 1769, at the Mission San Diego de Alcala, although vines had been planted as early as the 17th century by the Spanish missionaries.

More and more Spanish missionaries from Mexico found the Californian climate ideal for winemaking, and it was not long before many more missions were involved in the cultivation of vines appropriately named Mission grapes. Some was for personal drinking and some was intended for the sacrament. The first commercial vineyard in Napa valley was established by Charles Krug in St. Helena in 1861.

During the late 19th century the quality of Californian wines steadily improved with better quality grapes and rivaled the eastern wines, giving rise to competition between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of America. The Inglenook Winery in Napa County, belonging to Captain Gustav Niebaum, was the first to produce excellent Bordeaux type wines, so excellent in fact that they were awarded gold medals at the Paris World honest in 1889.

Winemaking in California continued to improved, with the influx of immigrants to the west bringing European vines and winemaking techniques with them, and it wasn’t long before California had a fully commercial wine industry that was better than anything the eastern states could produce.

It survived a phylloxia infestation late in the 1800s and also survived Prohibition, but only just. At the end of Prohibition in 1933, many winemakers had nearly forgotten how to make wine, but others were ready to start, although it was not until the 1960s that California was once again making wines of excellent quality. In fact it was when Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi became one of the first to take up wine writer Frank Schoonmaker’s thought of using the grape varietal name on the mark, rather than the area, that helped California wines to turn the corner.

From then on people were buying Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Merlot rather than Napa Valley or Sonoma wine. This made it simpler for wine drinkers to identify the type of wines they liked, and so made it simpler for them to buy what they wanted. From that point on in the 1960s, the Californian wine industry has continued to grow and to flourish.

International sales have increased by nearly 20% every year since the 1980s and there are now over 1300 wineries in the state. California was the first new wine producing area to compete with Europe on quality rather than quantity. Much of that had to do with the understanding Californian winemakers developed of the importance of the vineyard and the grape, and the benefits of communication and collaboration between the viticulturalists and the vintners.

Californian winemakers are fantastic innovators, and their work has resulted in some of the fantastic wines of the world. Wines such as the George de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon from the Beaulieu Vineyard are a match for anything that France can produce, and the sparkling Domain Chandon is made using traditional techniques by the French Moet Chandon that chose to start producing in Napa Valley in the 1970s. The most well-known Californian wine the world is that of winemaker Robert Mondavi, founded in 1966.

The excellence of the Californian wines was proved at the well-known ‘Judgment of Paris’ in 1976, where ten reds and ten whites of France and California were tasted by eleven judges, none knowing which were which. The results amazed the judges, positions 1,3 and 4 for white wines being held by Californian wines, and 1 and 5 for red wines.

The French wine experts complained that the wines were too young, and that the French wines would improve with againg, so the tests were repeated in 1978, with 98 testers evaluating the Chardonnays and 99 tasting the Cabernet Sauvignons. In this repeat with the now more aged wines, the Californian wines held the top three positiions in each category. The Paris tasting was repeated 30 years later with the reds, in 2006, and this time the Californian cabernet Sauvignons held the top five places!

This indicates how winemaking in Califormia has improved over the years, an improvement due largely to a melding of modern science and traditional methods to the winemaking process. While the French have been stuck in the ancient traditions, the Americans have been more open to experiment and the introduction of modern techniques to somplement, not replace, the ancient traditions of the winemaking industry.

California now produces around 90% of the wine produced in the USA, and of that over 20% is Chardonnay. That is the favorite wine in the USA, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is hard to see California lose its position as one of the top four wine growing areas in the world, with only Italy, France and Spain ahead of it.

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