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An Introduction to California Wines

I am a retired quality engineer and am interested in food and wine from all over the world.

The Napa Valley

The Napa Valley

California Produces Massive Amounts of Wine

If California was a country, it would be the fourth-largest wine producer in the world behind France, Italy, and Spain. California produces 90% of all of the wine made in the United States, and two out of every three bottles of wine sold in America come from California.

In addition, California produces some of the best wines in the world and their less-expensive wines are among the best bargains available anywhere. Therefore, if you are a serious wine drinker or even a novice, you need to understand California wines.

When I started drinking wine in the mid-1960s, there were only about a dozen producers of quality table wines in California, and now there are more than 3300, which is approximately half of all of the wineries in America. There were no legally defined California wine regions then and now there are many. Wines were sold simply by the grape variety and the name of the winery or the producer. Nowadays, a new winery seems to spring up every day, and thanks to modern winemaking methods, most of them produce good wines.

The biggest problem with California wines, just like it is with French wines, is that a lot of people are buying red wine as an investment, driving up the prices to ridiculous levels. While the best California wines are nearly as good as the best French wines, they are way overpriced.

However, there are some excellent wines for less than $20 a bottle if you look around and plenty of nice wines for less than $10 especially at supermarkets and wine stores. I have even found some for less than $4 a bottle from little-known wineries. My recommendation is to try different inexpensive wines until you find some that you like.

I also suggest that you stay away from any that have an alcoholic content greater than 14% unless you like alcoholic, raisiny-tasting wines.

What Are the Most Important California Grape Varieties?

The most important red wine grapes are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, zinfandel and syrah (Shiraz in Australia). The most important white wine grapes are chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, French columbiad, and riesling. 

What Are the California Wine Regions?

There are twelve major California appellations:

  • Napa Valley
  • Sonoma County
  • Mendocino County
  • Marin County
  • Lake County
  • Monterey County
  • San Louis Obispo
  • Paso Robles
  • Santa Barbara
  • San Diego
  • Central Valley
  • Sierra Foothills

There are more than 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California. (They keep adding new ones.) 

Are California Vintages Worth It?

A lot of people used to say that California vintages didn’t matter—they are all same. That may have been true when California was producing mostly bulk wines like Gallo and Christian Brothers, and they were blended to taste the same from year to year. However, now with a lot of smaller wineries producing varietal wines from individual vineyards, you can taste the difference between vintages if you taste the same wines side by side from different years from the same vineyard.

Unlike France and Germany, you will not encounter any really bad vintages because California almost always gets enough sunshine to ripen the grapes. Sounds like a wine tasting is in order—different vintages of the exact same wine.

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One more thing: Very few if any California wines need to be aged before drinking so drink them now.

How to Read a California Wine Label

There is a lot to be learned when you know how to read a wine label.

As opposed to European wines, where the wine region comes before the grape variety, in California, the grape variety is the more important piece of information. However, there is still a great deal to be learned from where the grapes were grown. While there are officially designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California, a lot of wines simply state the county in which the grapes were grown or simply say California which means that 100 percent of the grapes were grown in California. The following list is an explanation of things you should look for in the order of importance when you do not have a specific vineyard in mind.

Wine Type/Grape Variety

  • California wines fall into one of two categories: Varietal (grape name) or generic (Red Table Wine, etc.).
  • Since 1983, varietal wines must contain at least 75 percent of their volume from their designated grape. If that seems low, please note that many of the world’s greatest wines come from a blend of different grape varieties, The finest Bordeaux wines are made from a blend of three or four different grapes and none of them exceed 90 percent cabernet sauvignon (usually a lot less).
  • Once you have decided on the grape variety, you should choose the producer.

Brand Name or Producer

  • Ultimately, this is your best guarantee of quality, but when you are just starting out, you don’t know who to trust.
  • The label must contain the brand name or producer or if nothing else, the name of the bottler.
  • Make a note of it when you find one that you like.

Appellation of Origin

  • If it says "California" on the label, 100 percent of the grapes used must be grown in California.
  • For officially designated "AVA"s, at least 85 percent of the grapes must come from that region (for example Napa Valley).
  • If the "vineyard is named, at least 95 percent of the grapes must be grown in that vineyard.
  • The term "Estate Bottled" means that 100 percent of the grapes were grown on land that the winery owns or controls.


  • As I mentioned before, California wines do vary from year to year but not nearly as much as European wines.
  • To get the best prices, buy the most recent vintages and drink them now.
  • Beware of any older vintages if your retailer does not store their wine properly or does not sell many bottles. I once discovered two bottles of 1959 Chateau Mouton Rothschild in a small store at an unusually low price. It was only about 10 years after the vintage, and this wine should last at least 25-30 years. I bought them both and later threw both of them out because they were badly oxidized due to poor storage conditions at the retailer. Buyer beware!

Alcohol Content

  • Wines with less than 14% alcohol are not required to list their alcohol content, but most of them do.
  • Be aware that their allowed tolerance is plus or minus 1.5 percent. They must, however, list their alcohol content if it is over 14% but now their allowed tolerance is only plus or minus 1%. Therefore this label information is only a guideline.
  • Beware of dry wines that have more than 14 percent alcohol because they tend to be overly sweet and raisiny tasting which I find unpleasant.

Overall Thoughts

In conclusion, if you are just starting out, I suggest that you start with inexpensive wine with the appellation "California". Explore different grape varieties until you find out which ones you like. Holding a wine tasting with some of your friends is an inexpensive way to do it.

Stick to the most recent vintages. The 2010s are available now and they are good. A personal favorite of mine is any of the 2010 Crane Lake wines which are available in Wisconsin for under $4.00 a bottle.

Their wines are fairly typical of the various grape varieties and their cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, Gewurztraminer and pinot grigio are quite good.

Map of California Wine Regions

Map of California Wine Regions

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