California Wines

This course is an overview and introduction to California Wines and the regions that produce them.


Intro to CA Wine

California wines are the most well known wines from the United States and compose almost 90% of the total US wine production.  California produces so much wine that if it was an independent country, it would be the worlds 4th leading wine producer.  Wine and California have been together since the 18th century, when Spanish missionaries took root.  Every mission had their own vineyard to produce wine for religious purposes as well as personal use.  However, California did not achieve international recognition until 1976 when Californian wines defeated French wines in at the Judgment of Paris Wine Competition in both red and white wine categories

There are currently over 1200 wineries in operation ranging from extremely small to giant corporations. 

The big 3 corporations (E&J Gallo, Constellation, and The Wine Group) account for 64% of all wine produced in California.

Additionally, California has many diverse geologic regions, climates, and terroirs.

In total, there are more than 430,000 acres of vines and more than 100 AVA’s or American Viticultural Areas.

Discover CA Wine Country Video

Intro Fill in the Blank Quiz

is an alcoholic beverage made with fermented grapes. Technically, wine can be made with any fruit, but most wines are made with wine grapes.

are different than table grapes.  They are much smaller, they have seeds, and they are also sweeter than table grapes.

Grapevines take a year to grow grapes.  The harvest in the northern hemisphere is Aug.- Oct.

Vintage refers to the year when the grapes were harvested. 

(NV) wines are a blend of several harvests.

single-varietal wine is made with one grape variety

A is made by mixing several types of wines together

A temperate climate is where grapes grow best.  In North America, grapes grow from northern Mexico to southern Canada

Regions with make wines that taste more tart.

Regions with make wines that taste more ripe.

Fermentation Process

Wine Basics

Wine is an acidic alcoholic beverage made from fermenting fruit.  The primary association is wine grapes fermented in a controlled environment with a cultured yeast strain.

Terms commonly used to describe a wines primary features:

Sweetness- is derived from residual sugar. Residual sugar is leftover sweetness when not all the grape must is fermented into alcohol. Sweetness is a taste that ranges from bone-dry to very sweet. 

Acidity- Acids are the primary attribute that contribute to wine's tart and sour flavor.  Most acids in wine come from grapes. This includes: citric, malic and tartaric.  Like many fruits wines lies on the acid side of the pH scale, ranging from about 2.5 - 4.5 pH (7 = neutral)

Tanin- Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol found in plants.  Tannin is unique to red wine, since white ferments without skins. Tannins come from two sources: grape skins/seeds, and from new wooden barrels

Alcohol- in wine comes from yeast converting grape must (sugar) into ethanol.  Alcohol may also be added to a wine, which is called fortifying

Body- categorization of style from lightest to boldest.

Fermentation Video

Wine Basics Multi Choice 1

  • Body
  • Alcohol
  • Tanin
  • Red Wine
this is a naturally occurring compound in plants.  It is found in the skin of grapes or in oak barrels and gives a "mouth puckering" feeling.

Wine Basics Multi Choice 2

  • wine
  • beer
  • brandy
  • tequila
an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting fruit

Wine Basics Multi Choice 3

  • 2.5-4.5
  • 7-9
  • 2-4
  • 7.5-9.5
the acid level in wine ranges from 

Cold Soaking and Skin Contact

Winemakers often talk about maceration time (a.k.a. skin contact) and cold soaking. Both of these terms refer to how long the grape skins touch the juice while it turns into wine. Cold soaking is a process that happens before there’s alcohol in the mix. By keeping the grapes cold, the grape must is too cold for yeast to start fermenting. The theory of cold soaking is to carefully extract color and fruit flavors from the skins without extracting bitter tannin. The total time that grape skins touch a wine is maceration time.

White wines typically do not see any skin contact.  This reduces the chance of incorporating phenolic properties that are undesirable in delicate white wines.

Hot Fermentation vs Cold Fermentation

Fermentation temperature is another technique that changes resulting fruit flavors and color in a wine. A hot fermentation can get up to 80-100 °F (26-37 °C — nearly hot tub temperature) as the yeasts metabolize and produce alcohol. Warmer fermentations are usually used for red wines for increased color and tannin.

Cold and cooler fermentations are usually practiced on white and rosé wines.  Cooler temperatures (from 42 – 50 °F, 6 – 10 °C ) help preserve delicate aromas in white wines. The reason for this is aroma compounds are volatile and are more likely to be lost at a higher temperature where reactions happen faster.

Pump Over vs Punch Down

Pumpovers can extract higher amounts of tannin in a wine depending on the frequency and force. Some pump over systems are basically wine sprinklers, offering a gentler extraction and some aggressively stir up the fermentation tank. For larger fermentation tanks in commercial operations, much needed oxygen comes through a pumpover device.

Punch Downs
Punch downs, on the other hand, are a very delicate way of stirring a wine. They keep skins from getting too extracted and little to no amount of added oxygen in the fermentation. Punch downs are typically done by hand and are more popular with non-interventionist winemaking.

Punchdown vs Pumpover Video

Steel vs Oak Aging

Oak aging does more than just add a vanilla flavor to wine. Oak increases a wine’s exposure to oxygen while it ages. Oxygen decreases tannin and can help a wine reach its optimal fruitiness. Wines aged for many years in oak develop nutty flavors.


Steel tanks are commonly used for zesty white wines like Pinot Gris, although it’s not uncommon to find steel tank aged red wines. Steel tanks limit the oxygen exposure to wine and keep wines fresher.

Steel vs Oak Video

Steel vs Oak Quiz

  • This white wine is the most popular to be aged in oak
  • This flavor is what most people think of when they taste something aged in oak
  • In a red wine a flavor that comes through from the oak is
  • White wines that are aged in oak are commonly described as


Terminology Quiz

  • Acidity
    Level of perceived sharpness
  • Aerobic
    Fermentation when oxygen is present (Primary)
  • Anerobic
    Fermentation when oxygen is absent (Secondary)
  • Brix
    a scale used to determine the level of sugar in unfermented liquids
  • Crush
    the English term for harvest
  • Color
    a key determinate in a wines age and quality
  • Corked
    undesirable aromas and flavors in wine often associated with wet cardboard or moldy basements

White Grape Varieties


Back in the 1960s, wines named Chardonnay hardly existed in California.  Today it is the best selling single varietal of any wine produced in the state. 

The Chardonnay grape has its ancestral roots in the Burgundy region of eastern France where it has been cultivated since the early 1100s.  It is one of the most versatile and iconic varieties in France.  Chardonnay is the variety used to produce Chablis, Champagne, Bourgone Blanc and several other iconic white wines.  Today, Chardonnay is the second most planted grape variety in the world; only to Airen (a little known Spanish varietal used in making brandy.)

The most famous pioneer of California Chardonnay was Robert Mondavi.  He opened his winery in 1966 and started producing premium varietal wines.  The wines were good and enjoyed many years of fruitful sales.  Many other producers in the area emulated the Mondavi family and started producing the same varietals.

The Chardonnay grape brings little aroma or flavor to its wines.  In cooler regions, the grapes tend to have hints of apple; in warmer regions, they give off tropical fruits, especially pineapple and lemon. California Chardonnays are typically grown in warm areas.

Due to the wines limited aroma and flavor winemakers in the area tend to ferment and age most of their Chards in oak barrels.  Other oaking practices include: planks, chips or oak powder (sawdust) added to stainless steel vats. (much cheaper than oak barrels)

Oak gives a toasty, spicy and or smoky aroma while producing a strong flavor of vanilla or butterscotch.  Oak also can give the wine some tannins, richness and texture.  Many California Chardonnays are also associated with having a higher alcohol content and therefore a perceived heat and viscosity on the palate.

Chardonnay is a very versatile grape but does best in cool climates.  California wine growers have planted it all over the state but have seen best results from cool coastal regions such as The Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley or Carneros.


Chardonnay Video


Riesling Grapes

Riesling wines rely on the high acidity that cool climate regions endow to give them backbone and to balance any sweetness they might have. Riesling can be completely dry but are often somewhat sweet.  Most of California is hotter and dryer than typical Riesling vineyards.   However, plantings of riesling are growing steadily.  

California Riesling wines have fairly pronounced and complex aromas and flavors that include peach, apple and citrus notes.  They can also be floral and on occasion have minerality.  The wines are flavorful and rarely bone dry, even when they are labeled as dry Riesling

Napa, Mendocino and the Central Coast possess some of the best growing climates for Riesling stock. 

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is California's second most popular white wine, however it lags far behind Chardonnay in both production and sales.  One of the main reasons for Sauvignon Blancs failure to excel in sales is that in the early days of California wine making it lacked a distinct identity. In the 70s and 80s winemakers treated the two grapes very similarly, even planting them in the same plots.  Both wines were subjected to oak aging and as a result tasted strikingly similar.

Within the last decade producers have been identifying the best regions to plant the grape and have adopted a process of little or no oak in the fermentation and aging process. As a result it is slowly gaining a foothold in the marketplace.

A current flavor drawback for Sauvignon Blanc is that when made at higher alcohol concentrations (as is typically for most California styles) it tends to have a strange residual sweetness and an off putting bitter/raw flavor.

Sauvignon Blanc first arrived in California from France in the late 1870s.  It was first planted in the Livermore Valley, east of San Fran.  Robert Mondavi was the first producer to popularize it in the early 1970s.  He named his Fume Blanc, as a tribute to the Loire Valley's Pouilly Fume.  Today the two names coexist throughout California but most producers refer to it as Sauvignon.

In an effort to copy New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc (a light and refreshing production) California winemakers are picking their grapes late in the harvest season.  While this does away with the "green-ness" (raw and vegetal flavors) that come from under ripe grapes; they tend to possess too much sugar, giving the wine a very strong alcohol level for what should be something light and zesty. 

California Sauvignon Blanc's identity problems are exacerbated by the fact that three distinct styles of the single varietal exist in the region.

Vegetal/Herbaceous: this style tends to have aromas and flavors that exhibit freshly mown grass, spring herbs and/or items from the garden like peppers and asparagus. These wines are crisp and vibrant with high acidity.  This style is usually fermented in stainless steel and sees little to no oak.

Fruity: this style possess fruity aromas and flavors: pear, passion fruit, melon and fig are common descriptors. The wines are usually crisp and lively but sometimes soft.  They are fermented and aged mainly in stainless steel tanks and see little to no oak.  One way to push the fruity notes is to blend the wine with other varieties (particularly Semillon) or to over ripen the grapes so that they don't have any of the herbaceous qualities of underripe grapes.

Oaky: the more original style of Sauvignon Blanc in California.  Made very closely in style to Chardonnays. Typically wine makers barrel-age these wines which results in richly textured, somewhat fuller-bodied wine with toned down aromas and flavors but a notably presence of vanilla from the oak.



Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio grapes look more like Pinot Noir than a white varietal

The Pinot Gris grape is a direct mutation of the red Pinot Noir grape.  It is grown all over the world but its largest producers are France and Italy in Europe and the US, Australia and Chile in the New World.  

The Alsace region of France is given credit to producing the world's best Pinot Gris wines.  The northeastern regions of Italy make the world's most popular wines from this grape, and these are called Pinot Grigio. (meaning gray in Italian)

The grape gets it's name from the color of the grape skins which are typically closer in color to those of black (red) grapes than to the skins of most white grapes.

In the US both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are acceptable names for the grape.  Oregon predominately refers to their's as "Gris" where California is "Grigio". 

Pinot Grigio is the number one type of imported white wine in the U.S.  And it is the number two best selling type of white behind Chardonnay.

Lighter styles of Pinot Grigio are fairly pale in color and have no smoky or toasty aromas and flavors because they don't see any oak.  Although Italian versions are usually dry and crisp, Californian's tend to be fairly soft with a slightly rich texture and are rarely bone-dry.   The flavors and aromas of these wines are fruitier than you find in most Italian versions.  They usually don't show any particular fruit except a very vague apple or lemon note.

Richer styles of Pinot Grigio have substantial more texture and flavor than the lighter style. These complex wines exhibit flavors of apple, peach, orange or pear.  The flavors and scents are much easier to detect than the lighter styles. 

Warm climates are not ideal for growing Pinot Grigio because the grapes acidity can drop too far, resulting in heavy wines that aren't refreshing.  The large scale vineyards of the Central Valley are on the warm side, but they can produce Pinot Grigio at an inexpensive rate.  These cheap wines compete directly with the value-imported Italian versions.


White Wine Quiz

  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Gris/Grigio
  • Riesling
Rank the following in order of acreage planted in California

Red Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon

In the seventeenth century in southwestern France, an accidental breeding occurred between a red Cabernet Franc grape plant and a white Sauvignon Blanc grape plant and thus was born the most popular grape among American wine drinkers: Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape varietal known for its thick, durable skin, and the vine’s resistance to the elements. 

Bordeaux winemakers loved the grape’s healthy level of tannins, which meant the wine could evolve in the bottle for many years. They also discovered that it responded incredibly well to spending time in oak, as the oak brought out beautiful new flavors. The result was a wine that is full bodied with a medium acid level that is fantastic for drinking with food. 

Apart from its success in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon saw its reputation take off even further when it was planted in California. In 1976, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags’ Leap in the Napa Valley beat out the top Bordeaux Chateaus in the 1976 Judgement of Paris in a blind taste test.

As a wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its dark color, full-body and an alcohol content that is over 13.5%,. The wine is dry and has a healthy level of tannin, which is why your mouth dries out when you sip it.

Common flavors and aromas are tobacco, cassis, cherries and dark fruit. Many drinkers pick up a taste of green pepper.  Vanilla also comes from the wine aging in oak. 


Cabernet Sauvignon Harlan "Winery of the Year" Video



 Merlot also comes from the Bordeaux region of France.  Genetic testing of the varietal has shown that Merlot is an offspring of Cab Franc and therefore is directly related to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today Cabernet Sauvignon plantings worldwide are more widespread than Merlot but the gap is not much.  However in California Cabernet Sauvignon claims 62% more acreage than Merlot.

Merlot grapes are fairly easy to grow in California's climate and therefore is a very popular varietal with growers. Very few places in California possess the conditions to make seriously good wine. California Merlot has a flavor profile that the majority of wine drinkers gravitate towards, however wine experts tend to be very dismissive of the style.

The first varietal Merlot wines in California were not produced until the late 1960s when Sterling Vineyards and Louis M Martini Winery both produced a '68 vintage.

Merlot today is the #3 red grape variety in the state in terms of tons harvested.  Cabernet Sauvignon is #1 and Zinfandel #2.  Merlot became insanely popular during the 90s and saw sales grow of nearly 35% each year. Since then Merlot has slowed to a more reasonable level.

When properly constructed Merlots are a deeply colored red wine. A full bodied, dry wine with soft, velvety tannin and aromas and flavors of ripe, dark plums, a hint of chocolate and a slight toasty note of oak. Merlot fills your mouth with its fleshy texture and its plump fruity flavors, it has enough firmness to give it definition. Merlots that fall short of expectations tend to be less plump and may have aromas and flavors of tea or other herbs, they also are thinner and less velvety. However the deep color, full body and soft tannins still shine through.

About one-third of California's Merlot vineyards are in the very warm Central Valley, where conditions aren't optimal for this variety.  Another one-third(ish) is in Napa Valley and Sonoma County together.  The best California Merlots originate in these areas.  Merlot grows well in fairly cool climates such as Carneros and tends to excel there because it ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir single varietal wines are some of the most prized in the world.  Many of the best wines from Burgundy are made entirely from Pinot Noir and wines from various New World regions are hailed as being equally impressive.  Pinot Noir is one off the world's noble grape varieties and is capable of making great, complex, truly exciting red wine. It is also one of the most temperamental varieties.  Many talented winemakers have devoted their lives to making great wine from this challenging grape and only succeed on occasion. 

Finding the best place to plant Pinot Noir is very tricky, and usually the best locations have very erratic weather that is great some years and dismal in others.  The Pinot Noir growers in Burgundy seem to have a better handle on the grapes intricacies but they also have had hundreds of more years of experience working with them.

California Pinot Noir's are a giant leap in flavor and intensity from the Pinot Noir in France and Germany, they are bigger, lush and more fruit-forward. Look for flavors ranging from sweet black cherry to black raspberry and secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, coca-cola and caramel.

In 2016, California crushed 253,995 tons of Pinot Noir, compared to more than 32,000 tons of Pinot Noir crushed in 1990, according to the California Grape Crush Reports. Clearly, Americans are expanding their preference for the fresh raspberry, plum, rose and spice flavors and aromas of Pinot Noir.


Syrah Vineyard

Syrah is a noble grape variety that can produce some serious, long-lived red wines. The aroma and flavor descriptors include blackberry, cassis, black pepper, smoke, as well as dry, dark and tannic.

Through DNA testing, Syrah has shown to be a cross of a black variety, Dureza, and a white variety, Mondeuse, both with origins in France’s Rhône region and earlier fabled origins in the Middle East. The grape is also known as Sirah, and in Australia and South Africa, it is called Shiraz. It should not be confused with Petite Sirah, which is altogether a different grape variety.

Although Syrah acreage has existed in California for some time, such as the pre-Prohibition plantings in Mendocino County, substantial plantings have occurred in the 1990s. Today, the most acreage is in San Luis Obispo County with 2,458 acres, followed by San Joaquin County, 1,946 acres and Sonoma County, 1,855 acres. Syrah’s grape crush of 114,298 tons in 2014 accounted for about three percent of the total state winegrape crush.


In recent history, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. DNA fingerprinting has confirmed that Italy’s Primitivo and Crljenak Kastelanski, an ancient Croatian variety, are genetically identical to Zinfandel grapes. However, differences in vine vigor and cluster size distinguish Zinfandel from its genetic twins, and further differences in cultivation, terroir and winemaking combine to give California Zinfandel its own particular flavor profile with a truly American name, history and style. On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately.

Studies indicate that the grape used for making California Zinfandel probably originated in Croatia. Historians believe that in the 1820s, a nursery owner brought Zinfandel cuttings that were Croatian in origin to the United States from an Austrian collection. The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832.

Zinfandel was introduced to California during the Gold Rush somewhere between 1852 and 1857 and became widely planted because it thrived so well in the state’s climate and soil. 

Today, Zinfandel is the third-leading winegrape variety in California, with more than 18,191 acres planted and 416,615 tons crushed in 2016, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. It is grown in 45 of California’s 58 counties. Although Zinfandel is a red winegrape, the majority of Zinfandel grapes is used to make a rosé (blush) wine called White Zinfandel. Promoted to the world by the state’s vintners for more than 130 years, Zinfandel has grown beyond cult status and is now internationally recognized due to the unique character and high quality wines that are produced only in the Golden State.

Popular descriptors for red Zinfandel include blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, as well as black pepper, cloves, anise and herbs.

Zinfandel Video

Red Wine Matching Quiz

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
    Common flavors and aromas are tobacco, cassis, cherries and dark fruit
  • Merlot
    full bodied, dry wine with soft, velvety tannin and aromas and flavors of ripe, dark plums, a hint of chocolate and a slight toasty note of oak
  • Pinot Noir
    flavors ranging from sweet black cherry to black raspberry and secondary aromas of vanilla, clove, coca-cola and caramel
  • Syrah
    aroma and flavor descriptors include blackberry, cassis, black pepper, smoke, as well as dry, dark and tannic
  • Zinfandel
    blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, as well as black pepper, cloves, anise and herbs

Regions: The North Coast

North Coast Overview

North Coast II

Napa Valley

Sonoma County


Lake Counties

Regions: The North-Central Coast

North Central Coast

Paso Robles

San Francisco Bay Area

San Benito County

Santa Cruz Mountains


Regions: The South Central Coast

San Luis Obispo

Santa Barbara

Regions: Quiz

Regions Map Quiz

  • Santa Cruz
  • Sonoma
  • Napa
  • Mendocino
  • Lake
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo