A Golden State of Mind – Special Feature

By Michael Godel and Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by California Wines Canada.

April marks California Wine Month in Canada and with it a series of events, armchair visits and virtual tastings are taking place along with the recent California VINTAGES release at the LCBO. For more information and our critics’ top picks, view David Lawrason’s Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES April 3rd. We’ve also sourced our top picks from a recent tasting at WineAlign (most wines are, or will be, available at the LCBO) which Michael will guide you through along with his California regional guide below. April is also the month of Earth Day which means that the green activities of California wine are afforded the spotlight herein.   

Sustainable winegrowing is a key practice in California’s development strategy. Having felt the effects of climate change quite intensely in many regions with a seemingly interminable drought and low rainfall levels (with a little relief at the end of the 10s), raging forest fires and extreme weather patterns, California is choosing to be a global leader in green (certified organic and biodynamic) and sustainable practices. As recently announced by Danielle Giroux, Director of California Wines Canada, 80% of wines made in California are now crafted in a certified sustainable winery. The key word here is “certified”. Arguably, sustainable winegrowing without certification is inconsequential. Measurable standards are important not only to consumers but for the purposes of accountability especially as there is no standard, global definition of sustainability.

Woolly Weeders

Outside of the practices espoused by certified organic and biodynamic winegrowers, sustainable certification governs a broader reach to include social and fiscal responsibilities. In order to make practices clear and transparent, the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) was introduced in 2010 that aims to encourage sustainable initiatives across the state. Not only does the certification benefit consumers and the environment but can also increase efficiency and lead to cost savings. The key pillars include water and energy efficiency, adopting Integrated Pest Management and complying with a system of crop protection materials, waste management, wildlife habitat protection, air quality protection, as well as maintaining fair and equitable practices with employees, neighbours and communities. The additional requirement of positive community engagement is a benefit of sustainable certifications like that of the CCSW. Most importantly, wineries must undergo an annual third-party audit to ensure they continue to meet a substantial list of required practices. For more information visit: https://www.sustainablewinegrowing.org

It may turn out that “being green” in California is not just the best, but the only choice in the face of climate change. Managing water deficiencies has been near the top of the list of greatest growing challenges in California for some time now. Returning to the time-honoured tradition of “dry farming” has become a practice adopted by a growing number of producers from Sonoma to Paso Robles and is a practice required in many of Europe’s finest wine growing regions. Dry farming requires the deep penetration of vine roots to reach soil moisture instead of relying on irrigation. California’s missionary settlers in the late 1700s relied on dry farming and so did most wineries before the 1970s when commercial production pressure led to the increase of water usage in grape farming. Lower yields and high concentration are a benefit of dry farming but low yields demand higher price points. Time will tell whether a California AVA becomes the first US AVA to require dry farming but if there is to be one, my bet is on northern California. Until that time, water management strategies are a necessary part of California’s sustainable growing practices.

Don’t miss these California Wine Events:

This year’s California wine activities will have to remain virtual for now in Ontario. Join Michael and me on April 24th for a virtual Golden State of Mind Cocktail Hour. VINTAGES will also be featuring a wine of the month from California on April 17th and again on May 15th so be sure to check in on WineAlign for our reviews. You can also join in on a series of webinars being run by California Wines Canada. Some great new California Wine Institute videos are also available at www.youtube.com/c/CaliforniaWineInstitute/videos.

California Regional Guide – American Viticultural Areas

When a U.S. winery wants to tell you the geographic pedigree of its wine, it uses a tag on its label called an Appellation of Origin. Appellations are defined either by political boundaries, such as the name of a county, state or country, or by federally-recognized regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

In order for a wine to be designated with an Appellation of Origin defined by a political boundary, such as a county name for example, federal law requires that 75 percent or more of grapes used to make the wine be from that appellation, and that the wine be fully finished within the state in which the county is located. A wine bearing “California” as an Appellation of Origin must, under state law, be made with 100% grapes that were grown and finished in the Golden State. View a list of California’s 58 counties and more detailed requirements for appellation use.

If a wine is designated with the name of an American Viticultural Area (AVA), federal regulations require that 85 percent or more of the wine is derived from grapes grown within the boundaries of that TTB-established AVA and that the wine is fully finished within the state or one of the states in which the AVA is located. Certain states have stricter standards for use of the name of an Appellation/AVA on wine labels.

A golden state of mind.

Napa Valley

Every Napa Valley producer should own own a 40 year-old calendar because it was 1981 when that most famous and influential of all wine producing regions became the first California-designate American Viticultural Area to lay claim to such a title. Napa is the most famous American district to fuse beauty, power and stature. Those 30 by five miles may pump out less than five per cent of California’s grape harvest but as the maritime breezes blow and the fog rolls in from San Francisco Bay, Napa Valley’s success is in the dirt. 

Napa Valley’s 33 sets of soil series with 100 variations combined with its ability to achieve optimum ripeness surely sets it apart from anywhere else in the state and in fact, the world. Ripeness was always the 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. Varietally speaking it may seem that Napa plays favourites but a soft spot in winemaker’s hearts goes beyond cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Much love is given pinot noir and zinfandel, among others. 

Vineyard in the hilly Napa Valley area.

Sonoma County

Sonoma County’s place in the California wine-growing pantheon is most impressive, if nothing else but by its sheer size. There are approximately 75,000 planted acres, nearly 500 wineries and great varietal diversity. Chardonnay leads with 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. Many top Sonoma wines can walk confidently astride their Napa counterparts but their speciality is price points and multiplicity, in poly-varietal wines and also blends. Words and phrases like approachable, amenable and quality to price ratio apply to Sonoma, in part due to the AVA and sub AVA’s collective economy of soul and scale.

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 Bennett Valley.

Mapping a cru systematic out of Sonoma County and there seem to be more single-vineyard wines pulled from vines dotting micro-climatic, highly specific sites than anywhere in the world. Sonoma’s 16 AVA’s are a study in variegation and variance. Unearthing discoveries has been the joy of these last five decades, especially in Sonoma’s “neighbourhoods,” micro-climates akin to the Villages of Bourgogne. The commonalities are low yielding vines, organics, cover crops and taking care of the earth.

Vineyard in Sonoma County.

Paso Robles

Paso Robles Wine Country is centrally located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California’s Central Coast. The Paso Robles American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) is home to more than 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres. The AVA enjoys a greater day-to-night temperature swing than any other appellation in California, distinct microclimates, diverse soils, and a long growing season, Paso Robles is a unique wine region blessed with optimal growing conditions for producing premium and ultra-premium wines. More than 60 wine grape varieties are grown in Paso Robles, ranging from cabernet sauvignon and merlot to syrah, viognier and roussanne. Zinfandel is widely grown and is the area’s heritage grape variety.

Winemaking and wine grape growing was introduced in 1790 by the Franciscan Friars at the Asistencia located on the Santa Margarita Ranch. In 1828 the name was recorded as El Paso de Robles, “The Pass of the Oaks,” but is commonly shortened today to Paso Robles. The 556,765-acre Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983 and in 2007 members of an independent AVA Committee submitted the single largest AVA petition to TTB proposing to add 11 districts within the Paso Robles AVA.

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.

Paso Robles

Livermore Valley

Livermore Valley’s wine country is just a few miles off the California coast, directly east of the San Francisco Bay. There are 29 member wineries all located 30-40 miles from San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, surrounded by the towns of Dublin, Sunol, Pleasanton and Livermore. Robert Livermore planted his first wine grapes back in the 1840s and in 1883 Carl H. Wente & James Concannon founded the first wineries in the Livermore Valley. Then nearly 100 years later the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association was formed, in 1981. The following year the Livermore Valley American Viticultural Area was formed.

The Livermore Valley has an east-west orientation, making it unique among northern California wine-growing regions. It is 15 miles long (east to west), 10 miles wide (north to south), and surrounded by coastal range mountains and foothills. The climate, an east-west orientation of the valley, allows the coastal fog and marine breezes to come in from the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, cool the valley’s warm air, resulting in warm days, cool nights and ideal conditions for producing fully-ripened, balanced fruit. Soils are primarily gravel with excellent drainage, a soil type that reduces the vines’ vigour and increases flavour concentration in the grapes.

Vineyard views from the Livermore Valley.

WineAlign Critics’ Buyer’s Guide to California Wines 

(Editor’s note: the wine’s availability is listed in bold)

Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut Sparkling, Sonoma County
$34.95, Mark Anthony Wines and Spirits – VINTAGES Release April 3
Michael Godel – Plenty of energy, buzz, excitement and vitality. More creaminess and sugars but they nicely foil the crisp sharpness and ultimately balance out the whole affair. A creative wine that shows really good length and dresses for all-around success.
John Szabo – This is a fine and balanced, toasty and bready, traditional method sparkling from Ferrer, one of the best releases in recent times. I like the crunchy acids, the green apple fruit, the even-keeled and essentially dry palate. Fine length. Enjoy now.

Kendall Jackson Chardonnay Vintner’s Reserve 2018, California
$21.95, Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc. – LCBO VINTAGES Essentials
David Lawrason
This perennially popular California chardonnay shows good complexity, depth and balance for the money. As has always been the case there is a sweeter edge that some like, but many less expensive California chardonnays are now in this camp, and this continues to bring it off well. I particularly like the aromatic complexity with ripe pineapple, vanilla fudge, hazelnut, cream corn and moderate barrel toast. It is medium weight, smooth and fresh with some heat and sweetness on the finish. The length is excellent.

La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County
$34.95, Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc. – LCBO VINTAGES Essentials
David Lawrason
Here’s a very friendly, easy going pinot that flirts with sweetness but stays onside, and shows typical California pinot character. Expect generous red cherry/strawberry fruit nicely inflected with barrel toast, vanillin and brown spice. It is medium bodied, quite supple and smooth with vaguely chalky tannin. Alcohol nicely checked at 13.5%, the length is very good to excellent.
Michael Godel
– A well-priced option for Sonoma pinot noir and not just because first impressions tell you that grape, place and tradition are all present and accounted for. In fact 2018 is a firm and almost more serious vintage for this perennial repeater, a consistently proper and exemplary wine that does not often show this tension filled side. There is more earth and cola involved, darkening fruit and not yet transfer of power tannic urgency. All are in line, pieces working together, setting up for an optimum near future, Sonoma Coast pinot noir experience.


Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017, Sonoma County
$29.95, Mark Anthony Wines and Spirits – LCBO VINTAGES Essentials
David Lawrason
This is a soft, smooth and quite ripe pinot with its fair share of barrel. The nose shows strawberry jam, cranberry, fine toast, vanilla gentle herbs and spice. It is medium bodied, smooth, a touch sweet and warming. A very California feel here. Very good length with a spicy finish.
Sara d’Amato
– The brightness of this pinot noir is juxtaposed with a creamy texture on the palate. Undeniably satisfying, this Russian River Valley incarnation features a luxurious texture but also showcases the refreshing nature of the variety. Due to a fine balance, the high alcohol is managed very well. There is delicacy and varietal character here and most importantly regional distinctiveness. Finishes on a mouth-watering note.

Wente Beyer Ranch Zinfandel 2017, California
$21.95, Authentic Wines & Spirits Merchants – VINTAGES Release March 20th
David Lawrason
– The Beyer Ranch is on Wente’s home turf in the Livermore Valley. This has a very typical zin nose of ripe, jammy mulberry/brambly fruit, with some exotic florality, oak spice and vanillin. It is medium bodied, fairly sweet, smooth and a bit hot on the finish. Tannins are very soft. The length is very good to excellent.
John Szabo
– Big aromatics feature menthol and eucalyptus off the top, with underlying strawberry pie and cherry compote on the palate with a vaguely sweet impression. Tannins are soft and supple, acids modest but adequate, indeed firming up and sharpening the back end. I like the round, mouth filling, creamy texture, and the surprisingly long finish and complexity in the category – there’s genuine depth on offer. 14.5% alc. declared is quite well integrated. Solid, representative wine all in all. 

Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Sonoma County
$24.95, Mark Anthony Wines and Spirits – LCBO VINTAGES Essentials ($3 off until April 25, reg price $27.95)
John Szabo
– Attractive, fruity-spicy cabernet here from reliable Rodney Strong vineyards, with juicy acids and moderate tannins offering a satisfactory bit of grip, as well as integrated wood. Overall, this is nicely composed, high quality wine in the price category, with good to very good length, indeed over-delivering.
Michael Godel
– The Rodney Strong cabernet sauvignon is a strong, large and experienced brand with this 2018 doing well to keep the faith and continuum going. Not the most powerful vintage but that is a plus in a tart, tang-full and energetic wine with no lack of youthful exuberance. A fresh and awakening kind of cabernet sauvignon to sink your teeth into and pair with the gastronomy equivalent, as in one whole BBQ’d chicken served alongside grilled vegetables; peppers, zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms.


Wente Wetmore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Livermore Valley
$34.95, Authentic Wines & Spirits Merchants – VINTAGES Release July 24th
Sara d’Amato
– Featuring excellent concentration, a great degree of freshness and velvety tannins. More angular than expected, bright and flavourful. Unexpectedly California but does show some of the cooler characteristics including the big diurnal shift that Livermore Valley, at the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay tends to show.
Michael Godel
– Wente’s zinfandel is labelled California but their cabernet sauvignon receives the home base Livermore Valley only a few miles off the California coast, directly east of the San Francisco Bay. Definite marine feel running through, call it mineral, a salty streak or a kelp creep but something surely cuts across the richness of fruit and generosity of wood. Fantastic value in any case for this level of complexity and richness.    

Treana Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, Paso Robles
$39.95, Mark Anthony Wines and Spirits – VINTAGES Release Oct 21st
John Szabo
– Deeply coloured, thick and glycerous, generously oak-influenced, this is full-throttle, dense and hyper-concentrated wine, the product of super-ripe grapes to be sure. Tannins are smooth and velvety – there are no rough edges here to be sure, while palate-numbing alcohol and low acids add to the creamy-easy texture. Length, depth and complexity are ultimately modest – this is a spoonful of blackberry jam with chocolate shavings, but the appeal should be wide.
Sara d’Amato
– A rich and tantalizing cabernet sauvignon, velvety and rich, satisfying and accessible. The tannins are ripe enough to allow for immediate enjoyment but the concentration of fruit is enough to keep this cabernet going for another half decade in cellar. The oak spice ion the palate is nicely harmonized and the length is very good. 

Freemark Abbey Merlot 2017, Napa Valley
$54.95, Breakthru Beverage Canada Inc. – VINTAGES Release April 3rd
John Szabo
– 2017 is a ripe, dense and concentrated vintage for Freemark’s merlot, a blend of mountain and valley floor fruit, but definitely showing the structure and tannin of the former. Wood is present but of high quality and well integrated, while typically dark fruit, plum and blackberry-cherry dominate the profile. A big, structured and chewy wine all in all, still 2-4 years away from prime enjoyment. Solid stuff.
Sara d’Amato
– A very representative merlot from Napa Valley with plush velvety tannins and brimming with ripe red and black fruit. The structure is very good and although some bottle aged character is notable such as earth, leather and dates, there is a good deal of youthfully fresh fruit still available . Mouth-filling and warm on the finish but with dialled back oak treatment.
Michael Godel
– Takes some time to get on track but once the fruit emerges above the sweet grains of wood and tannin there is a blooming that occurs. A fulsome and notably concentrated merlot to be frank and so very sure, red, black and blue berries, dreamy at times but mostly sure, structured and confident. A veritable example of what upper echelon Napa Valley merlot can be.


This feature was commissioned by California Wines Canada.