California Dreaming: my Napa and Sonoma road trip, part one
This is the first in a series of pieces, written exclusively for this site, telling the story of my ‘road trip’ to California’s wine country in August ’18. I start with an introduction to grapes in the Golden State.
I’m in California, where size matters. Big enough to be one of the world’s largest economies in its own right, home to more than 40 million people, America’s most populous state has more inhabitants than Canada. It is also the USA’s garden, producing around half of its vegetables, fruit and nuts, and a whopping 90% of its wine. After Spain, Italy and France, California is also the world’s fourth biggest producer of wine, with something approaching 3,000 growers.
California is bit of a chameleon. Home to the world’s bulk business, it caters for the mass market with oceans of crowd-pleasing juice, but it also has a serious high end, with prices to rival the First Growths of Bordeaux and the celebrated climats of Burgundy.
Just as wine in California can’t easily be pigeon-holed, it’s also pretty tricky to cram into an itinerary. To say you’re on ‘a California wine trip’ is a bit like saying you’re on ‘a France wine trip’. Far better, to focus on a couple of regions, and get to know them well. I’ve chosen the most famous of them all, Napa, and its neighbour Sonoma.
… its reputation punches above its size …
The Napa Valley has an international reputation that puts it comfortably among the world’s most famous wine regions, so it’s perhaps surprising that it only accounts for 4% of the USA’s wine exports, and just 0.4% of the global market. The valley itself is just 30 miles long and 5 miles across, at its widest point, so its reputation punches above its size: at less than 19,000 hectares it is smaller than Burgundy and less than a fifth that of Bordeaux.
“Cabernet is king” goes the old Napa adage, and it certainly seems to rule right now, accounting for 50% of all production and commanding some of the highest bottle prices on the world market. In fact, Cabernet Sauvignon has prompted something resembling a gold rush in recent years, with other varieties either ripped up, or grafted, to make way for more. At the same time, it’s erstwhile Bordeaux companion Merlot has withered on the vine, now accounting for just 10% of production, firmly in decline. In third place among the reds, there’s a surprise: Pinot Noir. Very much in fashion, it’s not a natural fit for the heat, but has been finding favour at the bottom of the valley, where conditions are cooler.
… a real blast of fresh air …
Napa’s weather conditions really have to be experienced, to be believed. Temperatures regularly top 100 Fahrenheit at the height of summer and, on my visit, there was unbroken afternoon sunshine every afternoon. It’s what happens in the morning that makes it possible to grow grapes successfully. The Napa Valley sits just above the Bay of San Francisco, with that city’s famous microclimate providing a real blast of fresh air and cooling morning mist each day.
The diurnal range (the difference between temperatures during the day and at night) is not just great for the grapes, preserving essential acidity, but also for the people who live in Napa, managing without air conditioning to get a good night’s sleep. I packed for summer so shivered on my first morning, in T-shirt and shorts, until the mist burnt off and the thermometer soared. By midday, as I was roasting, the grapes were ripening.
Just over a fifth of Napa’s grapes are white, with Chardonnay the dominant grape, mostly planted down south near the bay. It too has suffered at the fickle hands of fashion, with the traditional oak heavy, rich ‘Carneros’ style giving way to some lighter, slightly leaner wines. Sauvignon also does well here, making it the fourth most planted grape and the second most popular white.
Think America and you inevitably think of corporations, commerce and cash, but the endearingly counter-intuitive Napa Valley throws up one more surprise: 95% of its wineries are family owned. One of the most famous names is Trefethen, the first stop on my itinerary …