California: The Wine World’s American Upstart

Considering its relative youth, the California wine country should not even be a contender when it comes to fine, investment quality wine production. But indeed, its tenacity and dedication have made this American upstart an up-and-coming rival to be reckoned with. Couple these attributes with the region’s natural gifts of climate, soil and geography, and you have the perfect environment to support a strong, viable and competitive wine producing force.

California holds particular interest for the wine community for the nearly unbelievable number of grape varieties it regularly – and successfully – nurtures and harvests. Over 100 varieties bless the state, and as a result, the local vintners have refined ways to create both purist-favored classics and equally robust mixtures. Looking for a Pinot Noir with a Burgundy twist? Or perhaps a Bordeaux-style blend? Look no further than the Golden State.

California’s landscape is another treasure. From rolling hills and rugged coastlines to sheltered interior valleys, the state can boast of a stunning and vibrant terrior to which almost every kind of grape in existence can adapt and flourish. In areas where the level of sunshine and absence of winter mimic the Mediterranean, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are comfortable and plentiful. Cool-climate grapes, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are equally abundant in coastal regions where fog, sea breezes and milder temperatures create the ideal home.

So when did California become a winemaking hub? Similar to many European viniculture scenarios, a religious order played an integral part. In the case of California, it was Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra who, in the late 1700s, planted the state’s first working vineyard at the Catholic Mission San Juan Capistrano, located in what’s now known as southern Orange County. Before his death in 1784, Father Junipero, affectionately nicknamed the “Father of California Wine,” had founded nine missions altogether, each of which became home to productive and hearty vineyards. These were initially planted with the Mission grape vines, taken from Mexico and believed to be a descendant of Sardinia’s Monica grape. This varietal dominated California’s wine production until the mid- to-late 1800s.

What happened in 1830, however, proved to be a turning point for the region. Jean Louis Vignes of Bordeaux, a Frenchman, made the leap across the pond and began to import French vines into what is now greater Los Angeles. This introduction of superior quality vines decreased the Mission grape’s presence and standing as it increased experimentation with other European varietals. As one would expect, expansion followed, as did a tremendous growth in California wine production.

This continuous flow of production and appreciation hit a wall during the 1920s and early 1030s as the effects of Prohibition impacted the region. Lasting several decades, the locals fought back, and by the early 1960s brought about a renaissance in fine wine production. Refined technology entered the landscape, improving the quality and taste of end products, including French-inspired oak barrels which produced softer tannins and more inviting juice.

Can a California Chardonnay, for example, really compare to its European counterparts? That depends. While the region is still in development mode, it shows impressive promise for a future that is bright not only for the wine aficionado but also the wine investor. It might be worth considering getting in on the ground floor to ensure that important investments are in place before California surpasses its own expectations.

Screaming Eagle and Opus One

Among the most notable Californian wine estates are Screaming Eagle and Opus One, both located in Napa Valley’s Oakville. Screaming Eagle produces single-grape wines which have developed nothing short of a cult following. The huge demand for them, along with the very small production quantities dictated, has prompted some truly astonishing price tags, with certain twelve-bottle cases trading at over $30,000. Opus One, which is part-owned by the illustrious Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A. company, is a newer favorite among wine investors. With all wines released after 2000 scoring above 90 Parker points, and all vintages, even dating back to the 1980s, selling for below the $5000 dollar mark, this is an estate to watch closely and carefully.

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