Land of promise: California

Our team has spent the last week touring some of Napa and Sonoma’s best wineries, exploring the Golden State and what makes it so special. Sophie Thorpe considers why – three centuries after the Gold Rush – California remains a land of opportunity
Land of promise: California

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Think of the Golden State and you imagine sunshine, orange trees and top-tier surf. But this past week, I’ve seen crazy winds, dramatic (and welcome) rainstorms, below-zero temperatures and more snow than anyone in Napa has seen for 50 years.

In a similar way, it’s all too easy to shoehorn the region’s wines. Big Cabernet. Buttery Chardonnay. Those, like the sunshine and surf, are the clichés. But there’s much more than cliché to California, an area as large as many countries, and the wines made here. Over 1,000 miles from north to south, with vineyards sitting at altitudes of 50 to over 2,000 feet, cooling influences from the Pacific and San Pablo Bay, complex ancient soils (up to 140 million years old)… California is far from simple. And you’ll find everything from Arneis to Pinot, Grüner Veltliner to Schioppettino.

This week, we’ve been on the road, exploring Napa and Sonoma, talking to just a handful of the producers that have made California such a special place for wine-lovers. The scale of this landscape is grander, with a sense of space to breathe, the parcels of vines tucked in amongst hills and mountains, with the expanse of coastline just a short drive away. You can see why it was – and is – a land of promise.

A vine thriving in amongst the mustard seed, a widely planted cover crop that's flowering at the moment

While Napa and Sonoma are firmly established as fine wine regions today, their history is comparatively short. George Yount (who gives his name to Yountville) is thought to be the first person to plant grapes for wine in Napa in the 19th century, while Charles Krug was the valley’s first commercial winery, founded in 1861 – closely followed by names such as Schramsberg, Beringer and Inglenook. By 1889 there were over 140 wineries in the area. But phylloxera struck, then Prohibition, and the thriving industry’s expansion was sharply curbed. Producers that survived that difficult period found loopholes in the law, such as unofficial home-winemaking kits and sacramental wine.

After Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, it took time for the industry to find its feet. The Mondavi family – who bought Charles Krug – was integral to its development, but the focus wasn’t immediately on fine wine. Figures such as Georges de Latour, Louis M. Martini and André Tschelischeff started changing the story, but it was arguably Robert Mondavi – who struck out on his own to found the eponymous winery – who led Napa into a new era, championing it as a region that could compete with the Old World. Of course, the now legendary 1976 Judgement of Paris was the turning point. When California came out on top in Steven Spurrier’s blind tasting, the world took note. Soon the cult of Napa Cabernet was born, and as Parker’s scores swayed palates, prices soared.

But it’s unfair to think of that as the region’s story – for there is much more to uncover beyond the sheen of those 100-pointers. While of course some producers come with the polish you might associate with Napa, almost every winery we’ve visited has been fast to focus on the vineyard, whisking us out to walk or drive through the vines. As an agricultural state (grapes – both wine and table – are only the second biggest crop here, following the dairy industry, and with almonds only just behind), farming is at the heart of its culture.

The view across the Promontory vineyards, tucked behind a ridge in Oakville

And it’s ever more relevant, with the region at the forefront of climate change – as this week’s extraordinary weather conditions show. Drought is an ongoing challenge (although recent rains have replenished groundwater), and wildfires have stolen headlines – especially in the 2017 and 2020 vintages (expect much more from us on this soon) – ravaging vast swathes of land, the flames and the associated smoke taking both lives and livelihoods.

Despite these challenges, there’s such excitement here – with an electric vitality to the industry.

Land prices in Napa are enormous – over half a million dollars per acre for the best sites, and planting any additional land is almost impossible. But that isn’t stopping its evolution, with shifting farming, winemaking, varieties and styles as producers look to redefine modern Napa. Head west towards the Sonoma Coast, where the ocean breezes and fog are bone-chilling, and new frontiers are being forged. The skies here are moody, thick fog cloaking the view of this exposed area, but fields of sheep and cows are being replaced with vineyards as people push limits to create restrained styles, especially of Pinot and Chardonnay.

Tasting through the range at Peter Michael

We can’t thank producers who have swung open their doors to us enough. We’ve already had so many fascinating conversations about the trends and challenges in the region, about what people are doing in the vineyard and winery and why, and tasted some remarkable wines.

Hundreds of thousands of people headed west in the 19th century, drawn to this corner of the land of opportunity. Many didn’t find their fortune in the Gold Rush, but this is still a place that holds such promise.

Reinvention and revolution is the Californian way, powered by a uniquely American entrepreneurship. Forget the scramble for treasure, today the bold and the brave are creating their own destiny – and it’s filled with hope.

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Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.