by Tim Pawsey
Today, driven by sustainable viticulture, wine tourism and great value, [lesser-known] regions have now come to the fore. It’s well worth giving California’s regional labels and their origins a solid second look.
T he year was 1976—and celebrations for the bicentennial of American Independence were in full swing. At the now iconic Judgement of Paris blind tasting, a panel of French judges awarded first place to a Napa Valley Cabernet and a Napa Chardonnay, choosing them over premium Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. That launched the Golden State onto the global wine stage. Before that event, few wine buyers (especially in Europe) had taken New World wines seriously. The Judgement set off a wine- fuelled gold rush of sorts. It not only transformed the American industry almost overnight, but bolstered the fortunes of all New World wine regions. Napa (and neighbouring Sonoma) became industry darlings, synonymous with California wine. Lost in the shuffle, however, were the state’s lesser-known regions. Today, driven by sustainable viticulture, wine tourism and great value, those regions have now come to the fore. This means that it’s well worth giving California’s regional labels and their origins a solid second look. One area that’s blossomed beyond all expectations is the Central Coast,
stretching from San Francisco Bay down to Santa Barbara. Just inland from the coast and enjoying ideal conditions are more than 40 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that produce every conceivable style and variety. And in many cases, the winemaking roots and traditions in these areas run deep. To sip a piece of American wine lore, just pour a glass of Wente Cabernet or Chardonnay. The Wente family has been making wine continuously in the Livermore Valley (just south of San Francisco) for over five generations. Here too, there’s a French connection. CH Wente established Livermore’s first vineyard in 1883 and won a gold medal at the 1889 Paris Exposition. A quarter century later, the founder eventually planted Chardonnay, ideal for Livermore’s ocean-moderated climate. When his son Ernest convinced him to import Burgundian vines, they grafted the best plants together. The end result was the Wente clone, which now accounts for about three quarters of all American Chardonnay. In the mid-1960s, Jerry Lohr quit building homes to go back to his farming roots and grow grapes. After extensive research he landed not far
south of Livermore. Lohr planted in Arroyo Seco in the heart of Monterey County, where the soils were ideal, especially given the sandy loam and gravelly components, along with large river stones that formed over millennia. With a cooler climate fanned by ocean breezes, Lohr bet heavily on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When those varieties proved successful, he ventured further south, planting Bordeaux varieties in the relatively unknown, much warmer Paso Robles. Among those early Paso arrivals, the Hope family began growing Cabernet Sauvignon for then Caymus- owned Liberty School, which was eventually purchased by Austin Hope. Today Paso Robles is home to over 250 wineries. The remarkable diversity of varieties grown underscores a strong, individualist streak in Paso’s wine culture. Maybe it has something to do with the town’s founder, an uncle of notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James! Still heading south, near St. Luis Obispo, grocery magnate Jack Niven decided to put his money into Chardonnay, planting some 550 acres in the Edna Valley in 1973. Situated on a broad estuary, the valley benefits
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