It is a little-known fact that the USA is the world’s fourth largest wine-producing country, behind France, Italy, and Spain. The country is responsible for one of the world’s most expensive wines (a six-litre 1992 Screaming Eagle sold in 2000 for a staggering $500,000, bucking the trend that wine had to be old to be expensive); just California alone is responsible for 250 million cases annually and makes up for 90% of the country’s production. So, if you have not considered California in your collection until now, you’re missing out.
A brief history of California wine
While vines are found in every state (yes, even Alaska), the Mediterranean climate of the “Golden State” aka California is the aptest for winemaking. Its history could almost (almost) rival France’s in that California has winemaking roots that stretch back to the 17th century, brought into the country by enterprising Franciscan missionaries.
Construction began in the late 19th century for a research centre (what is now the famous Davis campus at the University of California), and American wine was on a trajectory that would set the world alight.
However, prohibition struck and what were prized vineyards were ripped out and replaced with arable. It would take a group of enterprising young winemakers and another 50-plus years before Californian wine would get its mojo back.
One of those men is undoubtedly Robert Mondavi, a man who is credited not only for regenerating America’s fine wine industry but also for educating millions of Americans on the benefits of good wine. An advocate of planting star grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, that state has moved on since then, and now you can find varietals of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay as well as a number of Rhône varieties, too.
The specifics of California wine regions
The state can be divided into realistically just two regions, Napa Valley and Sonoma (there are eight other regions, but they have yet to produce a fine wine worth investing in. Curious collectors can of course pick up a bottle of Malibu Cabernet Sauvignon or San Diego Pinot Noir at any decent wine merchant).
Napa, north of San Francisco is of course home to many a famous winery (and stamping ground of Mondovi), while Sonoma, north of Napa offers a much slower slice of viticultural life.
Climate and geography
Northern California’s sunny climate is ideal for the Cabernet Sauvignon for which the state has become famous. The northern part of the state has distinct seasons and yes, even rainfall. Springs are traditionally cool, while summers are hot and dry and blessed with cooling Pacific Ocean breezes. These conditions are optimal for allowing the grapes to ripen to their full potential. The San Fransico Bay area’s famous fog keeps moisture in the air and helps the grapes keep from drying out under the hot sun.
Despite what the travel brochure may tell us, California is not all surfin’ USA. The Sunshine State also has a wide and varied topography of mountains and hills which give the region its unique terroir. Some regions have volcanic soil and limestone/clay soil which adds necessary hydration and aids in the ripening of the grapes.
North coast wine regions
Clearly the king of the Californian wine scene, Napa is the people’s choice when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Napa’s history began in 1840 when pioneers George Calvert Yount, John Patchett and Hamilton Walker Crabb introduced the first Vitis Vinifera grapes to the area. News spread and by 1861 Charles Krug had opened a winery, generating great interest (not to mention jobs) in the area. By the late 19th century, Napa had over 140 wineries, including the very famous Inglenook vineyard (founded in 1879). However, not having the savoir-faire nor the equipment of the Europeans, the early 20th century saw a turn in tides: a glut of grapes that nobody wanted, phylloxera that nobody knew how to combat and prohibition meant that just 10% of the original wineries were left, operating solely for sacramental wine purposes.
Recovery was slow; the Mondovi family purchased the ex-Krug winery, John Daniel Jr. resurrected Inglenook and, realising that they were much stronger together than alone, the seven key figures of the Valley created the Napa Valley Vintners (which now stands at 550 members). Napa’s status as a world leader was established when French judges awarded a Napa wine – a 1973 Stag’s Leap – at the Judgement de Paris in 1976, beating Bordeaux by a long shot. From then on, the only way was up for USA fine wine.
Napa may be the headline-grabbing valley of California, but you would be remiss to ignore Sonoma County when developing your fine wine portfolio. Located about an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma’s vast and varied terrain can only mean good things for the closet oenologist.
With 17 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) stretching across 20 miles, Sonoma’s valleys and microclimates mean it is possible to sip rosé at a hipster winemaker’s home, taste a Zinfandel while on a production warehouse tour, sample Chardonnay straight from the barrel in an underground cave, or enjoy Pinots during a private vertical tasting.
Located between the Pacific Ocean and Napa, Sonoma silently produces almost twice as much wine as Napa yet generates not even half as many column inches. While there are no big-ticket wineries here, what Sonoma does incredibly well is producing a consistent level of excellent full-bodied red wine. Temperate and climate vary from sun-beaten plains to fog-laden hills, which accounts for the spectrum of wines available on the secondary market or with your fine wine retailer.
Established by Franciscan friars while on a mission in 1823, the Sonoma County wine industry was originally destined for communion wine. Suffering the same fate as its Napa neighbours during the early 20th century, the region’s winemaking declined to fewer than 50 wineries. Sonoma was slower to pick up the gauntlet laid down by Mondovi et al post-prohibition and even as late as 1960, there were under 50km2 of planted vineyards in the valley. However, as wine consumption grew in the 1970s, so did enterprising winemakers and by 1999 Sonoma Country had 180 registered wineries. In 2019 that figure stood at 250, over half of which have been established in the last 25 years.
However, devastating forest fires in the autumn of 2017 saw many estates and vineyards disappear entirely. Propelled by 60mph winds, the flames swallowed more than 2450,000 acres of land and claimed 43 lives. 1,200 wineries were damaged (although only under ten severely) which means reduced production for the years to come. The smoke will, of course, affect other Californian wineries, regardless of whether they were damaged by the fires or not. Several Sonoma County vineyards including Ancient Oak Cellars and Helena View Johnson were hit hard, worse than neighbouring Napa (although Stag’s Leap was affected), mainly due to Napa’s wetter soil that made it hard for the flames to stick.
Rebuilding has been an arduous process for the wineries, many of whom lost homes in the process. However, almost two years on and slowly but surely the wineries are getting back on their feet. Some have carried on producing with bought-in grapes and while others are commemorating the year with special cuvees which will, we suspect, turn out to be very investor friendly in years to come.
Grapes grown in California
If you say Californian wine, you probably automatically think of Cabernet Sauvignon. And while the grape is by far the champion of the region, there’s more to California than Cab Sav..
Other varieties include Merlot, Chardonnay Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, and Charbono for red wines and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Muscat, Viognier for white grapes but in general, Notable fine wine producers in California
There is no doubt that California has produced some star-studded vino over the past few years. Vindome loves Opus One, a Napa Valley wine that marked the first trans-Atlantic wine on our books. As the first American wine to feature on our Live Market, we knew we needed to get a great wine with an exceptional pedigree. And the Opus One 2018 ticked all the boxes. It earned a near-perfect 99/100 from James Suckling and 98/100 from Wine Advocate, which called it “a triumph.” The 2018 vintage marks the summit of Opus One’s “Golden Age” and is perhaps one of the finest bottles the vineyard has ever produced. Our advice is to add it to your portfolio as soon as you can, as we guarantee this wine will never disappoint.
Investors should also consider Dominus 2018 as a worthy addition to their portfolio. Scoring an incredible 100 points by James Suckling and Jeb Dunnuk, the 2018 vintage of Dominus is simply breathtaking. The Napa Valley estate is famously run by Bordeaux producer Christian Moueix, who has a stable of 16 wines under his umbrella, including the famous Château La Fleur Petrus in Pomerol and Château Bélair-Monange in Saint Emillion, so do not be surprised by Dominus’ greatness.
Napa Valley enjoyed a great vintage in 2018, particularly on the back of its nerve-wracking 2017 (where many vines were lost due to fires), but this wine is, without a doubt, the best vintage the region has seen for a long time. In Dominus, Moueix takes his vast and varied Bordeaux experience and distils it into the unicorn for all wine producers – a perfect point wine which serves as a reference for the entire Napa Valley.
This 2018 vintage deserves its well-documented praise. It is considered as “One of the best I have ever tasted” by Suckling while Lisa Perrotti-Brown of Wine Advocate predicts “a mind-blowing transformation over the next 30 years+”. Delicious if you want to drink it now but with its long, supple tannins, a beguiling sense of richness and beautiful tension, this wine will keep gaining in value and quality well into 2050. What a wine! One for both the cellar and portfolio.
Investors who wish to diversify should think very seriously about adding some new world wines to their portfolio.
If you want to discover more about the top wine regions in the world, then do not hesitate to check out our detailed article here!