California wines have always been a mystery to me. And I always had thought that in order to drink a good California wine, I would have to spend a lot of money. I recently attended a wine tasting seminar conducted by California Wine Institute director for Asia, Christopher Beros, and discovered that while it is true that the cult wines (particularly from Napa Valley) sought after by serious collectors command prohibitive prices, there are many great California wines that are more accessible.

Napa Valley was California’s first AVA, established in 1981. AVA stands for American Viticulture Area-approved by the government and based on an identifiable area, but unlike the Appelationd’ Origine Controlee of France, winemakers can plant the kind of grapes they want and make the kinds of wines they want. Its first vineyards were planted in the 1850s.

In the 1970s, serious wine drinkers looked only to Europe and the Old World for their wines, and American winemakers were considered brash upstarts. That was until an event known as the Judgement of Paris put Napa Valley and California wines on the map. In 1976, during a blind tasting competition organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurier, California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines were put up against the best red and white wines from France. In a complete upset, both categories were won by California wines—Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. The story of the Paris tasting was recently made into a movie: Bottle Shock.

 Although Napa Valley is still the most famous, California has 138 AVAs, with a diverse selection of quality wines, because within each AVA lies a unique characteristic that doesn’t occur anywhere else. These characteristics give the wines that defined and distinct sense of place that all great wines have.

Most California wineries and vineyards are primarily family owned, and California vintners and growers have long been environmental stewards with a commitment to sustainable wine growing and accountability. In fact, the California Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers introduced the Code of Sustainable Wine growing in 2002, participated in by 2,100 wineries and vineyards, covering about 75 percent of the state’s vineyard acres. That’s welcome news for people who are concerned about the environmental impact of the wines they drink.

These are some of the wines I took note of during the wine tasting:

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Fume Blanc 2016  

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Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc is a white wine with a slightly savory quality 

There’s a great story behind this wine. Fumé Blanc refers to Sauvignon Blanc made in the United States, that has typically gone through some oak barrel aging. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sauvignon Blanc had a bad reputation among wine drinkers as being badly made. Robert Mondavi had the chance to produce a good Sauvignon Blanc, so he decided to make it in the style of the Pouilly Fumé region in France. His wine was dry-fermented and aged in oak barrels, giving it a distinctive smoky quality. He didn’t want to label it Sauvignon Blanc (although that’s what it was) because he wanted to sell his wine, so he labeled it Fumé Blanc. Other wineries started to do the same thing, and today, although California Sauvignon Blancs have a good reputation, some of the older wineries  still use the Fumé Blanc label. Mondavi’s 2016 vintage is round and rich, with a hint of sourdough bread at the finish. It has notes of green pepper, citrus, herbs, and of course, that slightly smoky quality.

Joel Gott Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2016 

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Joel Gott Chardonnay is a good wine to pair with food

 Fifth-generation vintner Joel Gott is known for producing food-friendly wines at affordable prices. I’m not a fan of overly buttery and oaky California Chardonnays, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It was very aromatic with citrus, vanilla,  and honey. On the palate, it was fresh tasting, with some minerality, and a little hint of saltiness that probably comes from the marine climate of the Central Coast area.

Frei Brothers Sonoma Reserve Merlot 2016   

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Frei Brothers Merlot is a soft ft, easy-drinking red wine

This is a fruit-forward wine made from 35-year-old vines. The rich subsoil in the vineyards allows the Merlot grapes to develop ripe flavors. The wine is blended with five percent Petite Syrah, which gives additional tannic structure to the soft, velvety characteristics of Merlot grapes. The 2016 vintage is fresh on the palate with a soft mouthfeel, and concentrated blackberry and licorice flavors. Hints of oak and coffee give it more depth of flavor. Some tannin rounds it out and gives it more structure. Pair this with a cheese platter as it should work well with aged cheddars and hard, nutty cheeses.

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2016   

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Louis M. Martini Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon has rich, concentrated flavors

Napa Valley’s reputation for wine was built on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Louis M. Martini Winery was built in 1933, the first after Prohibition ended. Its Cabernet Sauvignon has all the elements of a good Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon— ripe black fruits like blackcurrant and black cherry, complex layers of flavor, freshness, well-integrated tannins, oak, good overall balance, and aging potential. The 2016 vintage has structured tannins, a long finish, and concentrated flavors of ripe plums and blackcurrants, oakiness, and dried herbs. At an alcohol level of 15.1 percent it is a big, bold wine.

Precision Wine Company 2015 Method Zinfandel Blend  

The Precision Wine Companys Zinfandel blend is a good match for steak - California Wines, They’re Undeniable

The Precision Wine Company’s Zinfandel blend is a good match for steak

Thought to be unique to California until the 1990s, when it was discovered that it was genetically identical to the Puglia grape of Italy, the Zinfandel grape is almost a cliché. Long considered a workhorse grape that churned out high yields, winemakers began to make white Zinfandel, a low-alcohol, sweet rosé that became a grocery store favorite. But when made with care, Zinfandel is fruity, spicy, and one of the most versatile, food friendly red wines around. Precision Wine Company only uses 40 percent Zinfandel in its blend, the balance composed of equal parts Syrah and Petite Sirah, but the wine’s characteristics lean towards Zinfandel. Zinfandels are known to have a high alcohol content, and this one hits the 14.5 percent mark. The 2015 vintage is big and juicy, with lots of ripe black fruits and spice rounded out with balanced tannins. It starts out watery, but soon shows off its fruit forward flavor. It is, I am told, the perfect wine for steak.

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