Passport to California Wines

   A California history that speaks of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir translates to a California future that is alternative, unexpected and wide open

by Michael Godel

California Wines imagined as one of history’s most important and influential artists may help us to understand what that state has accomplished. As an artist, vitality and remaining vital is essential for relevance and for survival. That is achieved by being the first, the pioneer and the risk-taker, all of which is California. Many estates and producers have succeeded in bottling emotion, but how many have changed the way we understand wine?

Over the last decade or so, the wines from California have gone through transformations, changes in approach, style and have coalesced towards a collective, if diversified emergence. The big three of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir continue to anchor the Golden State’s excellence and will always frame the way we approach wine. We will also need to connect and re-connect with these varietal archetypes. In recent times the redefining of California wine has been instrumental towards championing the smaller winery experience and their marketing by focusing on off-the-beaten path grape varieties approached with an in-pocket resource of old-school combined with state-of-the-art winemaking methods. Producers big and small have been and are constantly reimagining what California can do and be, especially with respect to climate change and the recent challenges associated with extreme weather events. “California Sustainable” embraces the state’s sustainability program, something that trade and consumers will soon be able to experience hands on at trade shows equipped with new interactive stations. Through these adjustments the past so vividly projects to a future in which grape-growing, winemaking and marketing all fall in line.

Canada has been one of California’s most important markets and marketing focuses because quite frankly, Canadians love to drink California wines. The California Wine Fair has been rolling through Canada now for forty years running, acting as a  cross-country celebration of that state’s wine community. It began as a single-city event in Ottawa in 1980 and is now the largest annual wine tour across Canada. If there is a more successful regional tour, especially at this scale, it would be challenging to say.

“Given that we had to delay our annual California Wine Fair this spring, we are finding creative ways to bring our world-renowned Golden State sunshine into the homes and glasses of wine enthusiasts.” said Danielle Giroux, Canadian Director, California Wines. “California has always been known for innovation, positivity and resilience, and these characteristics are reflected in how our wines are crafted. Desirable traits during this moment in our lives.” Could there be a better time to purchase a case of California wine? Now there’s an opportunity for the region’s wines to be delivered to our doorsteps. A unique California Wine mixed case, a masterclass-in-a-box. Adds Giroux, “California Wines is proud to be able to showcase such an exciting selection of wines for Wine Align consumers with the added convenience of home delivery.”

The Passport to California Wine mixed case celebrates three main grape varieties of high quality for five of the region’s AVAs. Explore youthful freshness and subtle differences of chardonnay, classic pinot noir and bolder, fuller-bodied, more structured and cellar worthy cabernet sauvignon.

Wine Institute of California

Wine Institute is the voice for California wine representing more than 1,000 wineries and affiliated businesses from the beautiful and diverse wine regions throughout the state. The Canadian office coordinates a number of promotional activities every year designed to educate and inform media, trade and consumers about the quality and diversity of products available from the Golden State. The California Wine Fair celebrates its 42nd year history in 2021 and is the cornerstone of the Wine Institute’s Canadian activities. Each year, the Wine Fair visits a number of cities across Canada providing an opportunity for trade and consumers to sample the latest vintages and new products from California. This national wine tour also enables the Wine Institute to partner with local charitable organizations to raise funds in support of their programs. For more information on the Wine Institute of California, visit the website at and

California Wines Canada Resets Its Dates to Spring 2021: The “Newly Revamped California Wine Fair Tour” is continuing to monitor the COVID-19 situation in Canada and assessing the probability of hosting large scale events in 2021. They are optimistic for the future and have decided to cautiously move forward with dates for the 2021 California Wine Fair. The newly revised dates will now take place in four major markets throughout April 2021. Spring Wine Calendars may be pencilled with the following dates: 2021 CALIFORNIA WINE FAIR TOUR SCHEDULE There will be master classes in each city plus both trade and consumer tastings.

  • Monday, April 19 – Montréal, Quebec, Grand Quai du Port de Montréal (NEW LOCATION)
  • Tuesday, April 20 – Toronto, Ontario, Beanfield Centre, Exhibition Place (NEW LOCATION)
  • Monday, April 26 – Vancouver, British Columbia, Vancouver Convention Centre East
  • Wednesday, April 28 – Calgary, Alberta, Hudson

California Wildfires and Harvest Report 2019

The Kincade wildfire that started on Oct. 23, 2019 was limited to the northeastern part of Sonoma County in a non-residential rural area comprised mainly of grass and brush-land. The situation remained fluid for quite some time, but the vast majority of Sonoma County vineyards and wineries remained intact. Vineyards served as firebreaks due to their high moisture content, helping to save structures and homes, although there were some significant individual losses. Some Sonoma County destinations, including hotels, wineries and restaurants, were and, for obvious reasons in 2020, continue to be impacted.

California wines announced back in October and then again in November that they expected no impact on the overall statewide 2019 wine-grape harvest. Wineries in the North Coast and around the state finished or were in the homestretch of the harvest prior to the fires. The 2019 California growing season presented vintners with wine-grapes of high quality and a large harvest just slightly smaller than 2018. The final report shows a long and cool growing season, moderate sugars, fresh acidities, complex flavours and yields of a high quality crop. Most of the states 3,900-plus wineries were not impacted by the fires and continued to operate as per normal. Still today the best way we can help California to continue is to share their wine story and to purchase wines from Sonoma County, especially Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and also from across the state. That is why the Canadian wine community showed so much love and support when their industry was hit so hard back in the fall of 2019.

History speaks for the future

Remembering our predecessors, recognizing their mistakes and assimilating what they taught us will help us effect real change to benefit those who come after us. This continuity of experience dispatches the essence of the California dialectic and if you understand varietals, growing conditions and economics, what you soak in may actually allow you to write down what will happen in the future, much like you might write down the history of the past. A California history that speaks of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir translates to a California future that is alternative, unexpected and wide open. During an immersive visit a few years back the established California stars showed up in droves and like any high quality engrossing preoccupation, that trip to Napa and Sonoma changed everything. Whatever I thought I knew or felt about the California wine industry at that time needed and today still needs to be rewritten. The $64K question persists. “Can European wine keep up with the fictionality of North American reality?”

Putting a finger on Napa Valley and Sonoma County’s long-term capabilities is not yet imprinted as a foregone conclusion but increasingly wines from the 1970’s and 1980’s are laid bare in longevity reveal. At so many estates, despite all the changes and re-plants, age-ability is still the goal, despite not knowing how long the wines can actually age. We drink wine to experience moments that do not occur in other situations, settings or with other beverages. When we taste older wines we look into the past and pause, for thought and for who might have had a hand in this glass, back then, for us to wonder about now. To dislike older wines is to arraign a censuring of the past and a refusal to let it testify on its own behalf. The dismissal of aged wine is an act of complacent idleness. It is spiteful, incurious and therefore inept. It may seem pedantic to harp on the anti-older wine curmudgeon but let’s face it. The act of self-moralizing without admitting to being a moralist is just not cool.

Napa Valley mustard

Napa Valley

In 1981 Napa Valley became the first California-designate American Viticultural Area to hold such a distinction. You have to pay a visit not only to comprehend its beauty but also its stature. In terms of size it is just 30 miles long and five miles across at its widest point, is planted to a mere five per cent for viticulture and represents just four per cent of California’s wine grape harvest. And it’s a mammoth in the global wine industry. Los Carneros is the largest AVA and the only appellation located at the crossroads of two major wine regions, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The area is influenced by the maritime breezes and fog from its southern border with the extension of the San Francisco Bay.

“Dirt is once again the sexy part of the business,” said writer Karen MacNeil. “Place is the core construct and inescapable construct.” The hills, slopes, ridges and valleys of the Valley are indeed intricate and the soil sets are as diverse as you are want to find anywhere. Napa Valley contains 33 soil series with more than 100 soil variations and half of the soil orders that exist within the world can be found in the Napa Valley. You need only spend a few days in Napa Valley to gain a basic understanding of what drives the machine. Immerse yourself into three or four structured tastings and hear the mantra repeated. Listen to the winemaker and the viticulturist talk about the growing seasons and intuit the very basic premise, the essential doctrine and the constitutive aspect on everyone’s mind. Ripeness.

Napa Valley’s chief concern, like the home’s comfort, efficiency, giving back to the grid and common sense, equates to ripeness. It’s what everyone is after. It’s what matters. If a grape completes its phenolic journey and achieves optimum ripeness, related to and specific to site, then the mission is complete. What follows is less important. Though the quest for ripeness is still easily assessed in 2020, especially because it could be argued that the last eight Napa vintages have seen to produce perfect fruit, there is something to be said for what happened back in the day. Napa Valley garnered attention long before the vines were this clean of disease and virus. Ripeness was a virtue and still is, but today’s definition has little or nothing to do with what passed for fulfillment in the 80’s and 90’s. Today’s wines are bigger, darker, deeper, higher in alcohol, hedonistic and lush. They are not this way because of stylistic divergence. They are this way because that’s what the weather and the vines are giving.

If Bordeaux epitomizes a mono-worshipping culture then deconstructing Napa Valley reflects the effort of extricating monotheism out of a polytheistic context. But Napa is not Bordeaux and also avoids the affectation and mannerisms of monotheistic worship, something that is very specific to Bordeaux and even more so to other ancient wine-producing regions. In Napa there is great interest and time set aside for chardonnay but also some love pinot noir and zinfandel. That cabernet sauvignon leads with authoritarianism on a chilling scale is granted, nothing is inexpensive to grow and most markets expect to pay a premium for quality.

Cover crops in Sonoma

Sonoma County

No two wines from Sonoma County are the same. I believe that statement to ring expressly true and so should you. I once asked Greg MacDonald, VINTAGES Category Manager, New World Wines, North America (excluding Ontario) & South Africa, to explain where Sonoma stands in the current pantheon of California wines. “I would agree that many top wines from Sonoma can stand toe-to-toe with their Napa counterparts on quality and while many offer relative value, there are now iconic wines from Sonoma that can and do command similar top-tier price points. What Sonoma can still offer that Napa can’t anymore (for the most part), is wines at more approachable price points for everyday consumers – the sheer size of Sonoma County makes this possible.  This means it’s a win for both collectors and consumers. I don’t consider Sonoma an emerging region for California as a buyer – it’s arrived.”

So what is so special about Sonoma County? First look at its size. With approximately 75,000 planted acres only Bordeaux is bigger (much bigger) and Sonoma easily outgrows Napa Valley, New Zealand, Bourgogne and the Okanagan Valley. Nearly 500 wineries grow a multitude of varieties but there is some definitive concentration and specialization. In terms of hectares chardonnay is king, at 6,500 while pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon follow closely at roughly 5,400 each. The next four most planted grape varieties are zinfandel, merlot, sauvignon blanc and syrah.

Five distinct soils make up the multifarious terroir of Sonoma; Francisco Complex covers nearly half of the west and northern territories. Then we find Salinia, Glen Ellen Formation, Sonoma Volcanics and Wilson Grove Formation. The coolest spots and perfect for chardonnay are Green Valley and Carneros while it is the pinot noir appellations of Fort Ross-Seaview, Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley that bridge the gap to a moderate climate. In that mid-temperature category we see the merlot high ground of Chalk Hill and Bennet Valley.

Mapping a cru systematic out of Sonoma County is a massive and seemingly boundless undertaking. This wine country section of Northern California is one of the most complex regions in the world, with valleys, plains, ridges, slopes and mountains of every aspect. There are more single-vineyard wines pulled from vines dotting micro-climatic, highly specific sites than anywhere in the world. Or so it seems. Unlike Bourgogne, so many vintners farm and/or produce the only wine made from that specific parcel. The permutations of cru definition are multiplied 100-fold. The diagram is drawn with near-infinite numbers of circles and lines. The multeity of style and the illimitable viticultural approach illustrates how Sonoma’s 16 AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) are a study in variegation and variance. The multifarious geographical scope of coast, penetrating valleys and mountain ranch land conspire to design the impossibility of squeezing out clarity from a region in direct contrast to concepts that choose to exhort compounding synchronizations. Unearthing discoveries from idiosyncrasy to heterogeneity is what people want and it’s not just rambling wine journalists or thrill-seeking sommeliers who are looking for wine-contrariety nirvana. Craft is in. Small batch, low-production, around the corner from nowhere, never heard of that is what sells. And Sonoma has got more than enough answers to last for centuries.

Most important these days is what’s found inside and within these distinct regional territories. In Sonoma they like to call them “neighbourhoods,” micro-climates like Middle Ranch and Laguna Ridge in the Russian River Valley. These are akin to the Villages of Bourgogne so consumers can now begin to seek out varietal specificities with which to align from these hoods. Mimicry and loyalty to common ground agricultural practices are abided, shared and repeated. The tenets are all so similar; low yielding vines, organics, planting of cover crops and tilling those organics back into the earth. And finally it is the three by three vintages that forge the final act of cahoots.

Sonoma County vines
Photo (c):

Russian River Valley
Established in 1983 there are 94 wineries and 13,896 vineyard acres in the Russian River Valley. The climate is sculpted by the regular intrusion of cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean a few miles to the west. The fog arrives in the evening, often dropping the temperature 35 to 40 degrees from its daytime high, and retreats to the ocean the following morning. This natural air-conditioning allows the grapes to develop full flavour maturity over an extended growing season.The cool nights and days that rarely get oppressively hot (above 26-28 degrees celsius) contribute to layers of oceanic fog that creep into Sonoma’s interior valleys through numerous spots like the Petaluma Gap. The Russian River, meandering through a lush valley of vineyards, provides a conduit pulling fog through Healdsburg and into the Alexander Valley, as well as forming its own appellation.
An example is Green Valley, a place defined by fog. Fog discourse and computerized, animated maps are front and centre on the AVA’s website. Green Valley is the first place where the fog comes in and the last place where it burns off, making it the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley. The soils are a combination of fractured sandstone and sandy loam creating Goldridge soil; ideal for cool climate grapes. Variety of soils foster diversity of wines throughout the valley. The RRV is also a place of single vineyard craft,” of vineyards with 100 year-old vines. Award-winning pinot noir and varietals you’ve never heard of. From alicante bouschet to zinfandel, the farmers grow exceptional fruit that showcases the diversity of the Russian River Valley’s neighbourhoods.
Paso Robles

Located on the Central Coast halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles mixes the fun-loving energy of Southern California with Northern California’s sophistication and innovation. A hot spot for Rhône varietals and blends, it hosts the annual Hospice du Rhône, the world’s liveliest gathering of international Rhône wine producers. Paso Robles was the largest un-subdivided AVA in California at approximately 614,000 acres. By contrast, the Napa Valley appellation (which includes sixteen AVA’s delineated within its bounds) is roughly one-third the area at 225,000 acres. Since the Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983, Paso Robles has grown to encompass 200+ wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres. This vineyard acreage is spread over a sprawling district roughly 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south.

Average rainfall varies from more than 30 inches a year in extreme western sections to less than 10 inches in areas farther east.  Elevations range from 700 feet to more than 2400 feet.  Soils differ dramatically in different parts of the AVA, from the highly calcareous hills out near us to sand, loam and alluvial soils in the Estrella River basin. The warmest parts of the AVA accumulate roughly 20% more heat (measured by growing degree days) than the coolest; the average year-to-date degree days in the Templeton Gap since 1997 is 2498, while in Shandon far out east it’s 2956. This difference in temperatures is enough to make the cooler parts of the AVA a Winkler Region II in the commonly used scale of heat summation developed at UC Davis, while the warmest sections are a Winkler Region IV.

In 2014 the 11 new sub-AVA’s were established; Districts of Adelaida, Creston, El Pomar, San Miguel, Templeton Gap, Paso Robles Estrella, Geneso and Willow, Paso Robles Highlands, San Juan Creek and Santa Margarita Ranch. These 11 sub-AVAs will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA’s will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.

Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara has long been a favourite hideaway for movie stars, from Charlie Chaplin to Jane Russell, Kevin Costner and Oprah Winfrey. It’s also a famous wine destination, immortalized in 2004 by the film Sideways, which celebrated the area’s signature pinot noir. SBC has been on the vine since 1782, now with seven AVAs and 200 wineries. Approximately 30 per cent of grapes grown in Santa Barbara are pinot noir. The AVAs of the County are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Inez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Los Olivos District, Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara County has a history of wine making and wine grape growing stretching back more than 200 years to before California was a state. From the Mission Era of early California through the Ranchero and Pueblo Era, struggling through Prohibition to the beginning of the modern era of wine making that started in the 60’s, Santa Barbara County continues to combine traditional, hand-made techniques, with the latest cutting-edge innovations in grape growing and wine making. As for the geological landscape, east-west mountain ranges (transverse) versus the usual north-south orientation of mountain ranges creates a dramatic effect on the climate with many micro-climates with Santa Barbara County, conducive to the successful growing of a range of different wine grape varieties. Wine is Santa Barbara County’s number one finished agricultural product, and the county’s wine grape crop is the second most valuable agricultural crop.

Good to go!


The Passport to California Wine mixed case celebrates three main grape varieties of high quality for five of the region’s AVAs. Explore youthful freshness and subtle differences of chardonnay, classic pinot noir and bolder, fuller-bodied, more structured and cellar worthy cabernet sauvignon.