You can't go to California and completely ignore the big players, after all, they have had an important role in the region's rise to fame. Sometimes the stories behind these goliaths of the wine world are more humble than you might imagine too.
E. & J. Gallo – the largest family-run wine brand in the world
Vineyards at E. and J. Gallo, Sonoma
I expect that most of us are a little sniffy about wines from Gallo (the largest wine brand in the world), but this family-run company has gone through a huge transformation. Today 70% of the company's revenue comes from brands that did not exist within their portfolio 15 years ago, and their premium business has moved from less than 1% of its annual turnover to 30% in the last 20 years. We visited a few of the wineries they have bought that fall into this premium category (William Hill in Napa and J Vineyards in Sonoma). It looks as though Gallo have allowed the teams to retain the provenance and style of their wines but have helped with investment in the wineries and cellar door outlets. Almost all of the brands they have bought are California-based (with only one Washington winery); unusual for companies of this size not to be internationally spread. While we were visiting, a journalist in our group broke the news to our hosts that Gallo had just announced the purchase of another 30 brands from Constellation including Ravenswood and Clos du Bois which will add to the diversity of their portfolio.
E. & J. Gallo – the largest family-run wine brand in the world
The Origins of White Zin –so the story goes
This is something else we can get quite sniffy about! But often white zinfandel is a future wine drinker's first foray into wine and, if nothing else, it's hard not to be impressed by the growth of this relatively recent phenomenon. At an entertaining tasting in Trinchero winery we got the story of this wine's inception.
At the end of Prohibition, Mario Trinchero used all his savings to buy an abandoned winery in Napa and moved his young family from New York City and there he scraped a living for the next two and a half decades. They had so little money that they couldn't afford to re-paint the old winery signs and so they kept the Sutter Home name.
In 1972, the second Trinchero generation (Bob) started experimenting with a winemaking technique called 'saignée', draining some of the free-run juice from the zinfandel skins to create a very concentrated wine. Times were still hard for the family and so this juice could not be wasted, so it was fermented into 220 cases of a dry white wine.
In 1975, disaster struck and the fermentation of the 1974 vintage got stuck and could not be budged. They were left with an off-dry rosé which they could not afford to waste. Very quickly this wine gained a following and by 1987 Sutter Home White Zinfandel was the bestselling premium wine in the US selling over 4.5 million cases. In 1994, Wine Spectator magazine gave Bob Trinchero a distinguished service award for 'having introduced more Americans to wine on the table than anyone in history.'
Like it or loathe it, you have to admire the success of this wine, and who doesn't like a rags-to-riches tale?
Wildfires in California
Both Napa and Sonoma have suffered from wildfires in the past couple of years and we heard tales of great heroism and community spirit with individuals' quick-thinking saving multiple deaths and neighbours coming together to save properties. The reslience of the people we met was staggering as I can't imagine the terror they felt when flames were licking at their door. Despite the horror of the news pictures, many said that they were lucky for the outbreaks to have happened in the winelands rather than in more arable farming areas because the moist vineyards acted as firebreaks. This is now a way of life for Californians and they work with the Fire Service to undergo regular controlled burnings to reduce the amount of dry vegetative land-cover to form barriers for future fires.
I loved the scenery and wines of Sonoma. Because the region's topography and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean the wines have elegance and greater acidity and are generally lower in alcohol than the wines from the other regions. Pinot noir and chardonnay dominate the cooler vineyards but the warmer areas are home to some very famous zinfandels and cabernets (Ridge and new favourites Once and Future and Bedrock, to name just a couple).
Sonoma Temperature Range
Mountains separate the coast from the great Central Valley. This valley acts like an oven, where hot air rises and pulls cool air from the coast across the state. This effect creates California's unique climate of warm sunny days, and cooler nights along the coast, ideal for winegrowing.
Sonoma wine region, California - topographic diversity
The images show the big bank of fog that stays out over the cold Pacific ocean during a typical summer day. You can see that across Sonoma County all of the vineyards and regions are in the sunshine, but what you can't see is that on the coast there is a stiff, cold wind blowing as that cold air is drawn from the ocean.
Temperatures would be around 21°C or less at the coast to 32°C in the northeast corner of the county.
At about 5:00pm every evening, like clockwork, the cold wind starts to bring the fog with it and temperatures start to fall, because of the topography, the same areas get the cold air and fog first every evening.
You can see Green Valley, the coast, and part of Carneros already covered in fog while other areas stay sunny and hot.
By 9:00 pm most of the south and west parts of the county are covered by dense fog and temperatures have dropped to 12°C – 18°C, from a high of 28°C – 32°C earlier in the day.
Elevation, along with proximity to the ocean, determines how quickly a vineyard will be cooled by the fog.
Over the course of the night, the entire region is bathed in fog to some extent, cooling the vines and slowing the ripening process.
This creates the effect of putting the vines and grapes in the refrigerator overnight, lengthening the ripening period, which leads to more complex flavour development, lower sugars, and higher acidity.
The next morning, the fog begins to burn off and temperatures rise in the sunshine. The regions that were covered by fog last are the first to be in the sun.
Fog Management in MacMurray Vineyard (Russian River, Sonoma)
By early afternoon the fog has completely retreated, and Sonoma's vineyards are basking in warm, bright sunshine.
Even though on average Sonoma County is considered to have a moderate Mediterranean climate, during the height of the summer growing season when it is hot and humid in other regions, on the Sonoma Coast you will be wearing sweaters, scarves, and jackets.
Across many vineyards you will see large fans used to locally 'manage' the fog.
Historically, some of the region used to be below sea level and was reclaimed by the shifting of tectonic plates along the famous San Andreas Fault, as illustrated by the rock found in the J vineyards ( famous for its sparkling wines).
We had an amazing Sonoma masterclass from Elaine Chukan Brown which blew all of our socks off, my highlights were Hanzell Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley), Ryme Hers Vermentino (Los Carneros), Williams Selyem Allen Pinot Noir ( Russian River), Radio-Coteau Belay Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast), Once & Future Zinfandel (dry Creek Valley) and Ramey Rodgers Creek Syrah (Petaluma Gap - the first AVA defined by air movement not geography in 2018). All of these are definitely worthy treating yourself to.
Sonoma Masterclass wines
Elaine dashed from our class to fly to Oregon to give a class of the age-ability of Willamette pinot noir, which got me thinking… !
I think I'd sum up my trip with the following points;
- Lodi – definitely a region to watch for good-value wines and innovation
- Napa – thank you to our buyer Sarah Knowles for finding us some affordable options! Quite a task…
- Sonoma – the wines and scenery won my heart –pure elegance; pack a jumper for the afternoon!
And finally, thank goodness these beauties were spared the wildfires.
Where to go next?