California is a state that produces 90% of all wine in the US, and the vineyards in the north, in Sonoma and Napa, are among the most famous in the world. However, they do not have the only quality vineyards in the state. The wines from the younger southern California wineries are on an equal par to their cousins of the north.
The majority of southern California wine is produced in two areas, the vineyards of Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and those close to San Diego, 100 miles south of the city. Both areas have been deeply involved in the growth of the California wine industry, an industry that now ships over 450 million gallons of wine a year to the US and other countries.
Santa Barbara’s Vineyards
The costal mountains east-west positioning creates the valleys that open onto the Pacific Ocean. The flow of fog and breezes that result from this bit of serendipitous geography produce the perfect conditions for the world-class varieties of wine that are the pride of Santa Barbara. The moderate climate produces the most favorable conditions that grapes need for optimal sugar and acid levels. There are also several “micro-climates” near the Pacific Coast and the Pala Mesa mountains.
The fifty mile coast from Point Conception to Rincon forms the longest east-west shoreline on the west coast. The vines here grow on anything and everything, from the rolling hillsides to the exceptionally warm valleys, where summer temperatures often reach 100F or 38C. This climate allows the vintners to work throughout the four seasons: the pruning and weeding is done during the winter, new planting begins in the spring, canopy management in the summer and finally the annual harvest in the fall. This area has a comparable climate to the Rhône valley in France, and the winemakers have responded similarly. One particular vineyard is situated on a hillside 1,000 feet above sea level, with ideal northern exposure making it the perfect location for the Rhone varietals that are grown here.
There are an abundance of European grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese and Syrah. This diversity is made possible by the large number of micro-climates in the region. For example, the cool-climate Chardonnay does well because of the occasional snow on the mountains. In contrast, the heat-loving Syrah thrives in the warmer micro-climates. The winemakers also took on the bold challenge of growing the difficult Pinot Noir, a wine resonant with strawberry and herbal aspects.
While there were almost no vineyards in the county twenty-five years ago, today the wine industry is a $100 million dollar business. The Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valley alone grew to 8,000 acres under cultivation in the twenty years between 1975 and 1995. Between 1995 and 2000, the number jumped to 18,000. Today there are over 21,000 acres of these vineyards and half of the grapes are being shipped to winemakers outside of the county.
The cultural rivalry between northern and southern California is also reflected in the wine business. This is a young industry here; the majority of the southern vineyards didn’t exist 20 years ago. The first wines were produced in Temecula in 1971.
Twenty-two miles from the Pacific Ocean, the 1,400-foot Temecula plateau is situated between peaks of the Coastal Mountain range. The afternoon breeze blows the smog away, and the unique micro-climate in the area benefits from a higher solar intensity than Napa Valley.
The vineyards of Temecula are kept moist by large underground aquifers. The soil itself is high in decomposed granite. This helps drainage and keeps the soil free of Phylloxera, an invasive insect that destroyed large numbers of old European wine regions. It still remains a problem today.
Close by is Shadow Mountain vineyard. Located in the mountains above San Diego, this is the highest vinery in California at 4,400 feet above sea level.
All grapes grow in Temecula, including Chardonnay, White Rhône, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet and the Italian Nebbiolo, which is harvested as late as November. The region produces a wine with a fruity character, in contrast to the woodiness which found in other California vintages.
The religious men of the Mission of San Juan Capistrano were the first winemakers in southern California, and after 200 years, the industry is now in full-bloom. Due to the partnership between wine scientists and winemakers, the 1,800 acres of commercial vineyards of southern California are more successful than ever.