The terrain and climate of the wine country of Northern California will remind the traveler very much of rural France. sonoma valley vineyard But the scale is quite a bit smaller — Napa Valley is only 35 miles long and 5 miles wide, while Sonoma County covers 1,600 square miles along 60 miles of the coastline — with only a few hundred wineries. Mendocino County is farthest north with 30 wineries of its own, whose 3,500 square miles of cool climate helps create fine Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
These wineries have had a hard struggle over the past two centuries. Since Russian colonists first planted vines in 1812, through the founding of the wine industry by Spanish Franciscan monks in 1823, up through Prohibition to today, vintners have made determined efforts to produce wines that rival the best of France and Italy.
In the 1920s there were 256 wineries, but Prohibition reduced the number to less than 50. Fortunately, the wine region has recovered over the decades and is now thriving. In Sonoma County, approximately 150,000 tons of grapes are produced by 200 wineries, over half of which are less than 20 years old, on a mere 49,000 acres.
The temperate climate, with mild winters and warm to hot summers is perfect for growing a wide variety of native and imported wine grape species. The most common varieties grown here are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon with a healthy sprinkling of Zinfandel and Merlot.
From these grapes California wineries produced over 500 million gallons of wine in 2004 at a retail value of $15 billion, with the majority of that from Northern California. That is nearly three quarters of the total US production of 668 million gallons. The overall contribution of the California wine industry on the state’s economy has been estimated as high as $45 billion.
Second only to Disneyland as a tourist attraction, the Northern California wine country and vineyards form part of a business that attracts almost 15 million tourists per year.
This is no wonder since the area hosts the majority of California’s 96,500 acres of Chardonnay and almost 75 thousand acres of Cabernet Sauvignon to regularly produce award winning wines.
Whether one’s taste runs to the lower tannin, deep red Merlot with characteristics of black currant, or the spicy Syrah with characteristics of sweet plum and blackberry or the cherry and violet Pinot Noir, a lover of red wines will find something to please the palate from among California’s many offerings.
But those partial to white wines needn’t feel left out with the buttery Chardonnay or the delicate Riesling with hints of peaches and apricots compete favorably with those of France and Germany. And the California Pinot Grigio, light and dry, or the sweet, fruity Chenin Blanc is as crisp as any from France or Italy.
So for those seeking a European experience in a California setting, the Northern California wineries await with their sure to please offerings.