Done now with the rough month at the day job, and it’s time to blog/study/imbibe in earnest.
So we’re on California. Land of sunshine, blondes on beaches, and surfer dudes. And incredible wines… along with lots of plonk. This post will remind me of California essentials: history and the AVA system. In a separate post, I’ll review the main regions and what they are known for.
History of Wine in California
The East Coast of the US was the first area where settlers created wines, unfortunately by initially using native species (vitis labrusca) that were not well suited to wine making. Then hybrid experimentation began – crossing grapes from two vitis species – resulting in a number of new grapes such as Alexander, Delaware and Concord. In the west, though, vitis vinifera (wine making) grapes had already arrived, moving north from the Spanish settlements in Argentina, Mexico, Texas, and then California. The Mission grape was popular.
The Gold Rush in 1849 caused the population of California to swell dramatically. Those who furnished the new arrivals with supplies, food and drink could make fortunes. At this time, the call was made for new vinifera cuttings to be brought back from Europe, to meet demand. Wineries have only grown in number since then, from the first commercial winery launching in 1833, to the more than 2,400 wineries in California today.
But it wasn’t always a smooth path. Phylloxera plagued the area in the late 1800’s, until it became understood that grafting vinifera cuttings onto native, phylloxera-immune labrusca or riparia rootstock meant the survival of the imported vines. And later of course, in the 1920’s, came Prohibition in the US, which resulted in not only vastly lower quantities of wine production (for “sacramental and medicinal purposes” only), but lower quality, too, since grapes that would withstand shipping better became favoured as home brewing took off.
Even when Prohibition was repealed, the wine industry in the US continued to founder during the Depression and then World War II. California production centered mainly on fortified wines and bulk blends that were generically labelled as “Chablis”, “Burgundy”, “Sherry”, etc.
Meanwhile, a young man named Robert Mondavi had been working for his family in running the Charles Krug Winery, but after a fight with his brother he left the company to found his own winery. Mondavi embraced a new idea, being promoted by US wine writer Frank Schoonmaker at the time, that wines should be labelled according to the type of grape in the bottle. Varietal labelling began to grow in popularity and prompted new wine labelling laws in the US.
The American Viticulture Area Appellation System
In 1978, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms developed regulations that identified wine growing regions based on climate and geographical features. This US system of wine growing and wine making classification is applied to all blended and varietal wines in the USA.
The basic appellation system ranges from a country-wide identifier (“American Appellation” or “United States Appellation”) through to AVAs that apply to a single winery. There are also some important rules regarding labelling:
- If an AVA appears on the label, at least 85% of the grapes must originate from that AVA (100% in California).
- If a grape variety is named on the label, at least 75% of the wine must be from that grape.
- If a single vineyard is named on the label, at least 95% of the wine must be from grapes from that vineyard.
- If a vintage is stated on the label, at least 95% of the wine must be from grapes from that year.
There are 110 AVA appellations in California, according to the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s list at http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/us_by_ava.pdf, last updated a week ago (August 23, 2010).
The next post will explore the main wine regions in California.