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Why Does California Have a Great Wine Industry?

Nov 17th, 2021

California is the country’s premier location for wine and ranks fourth worldwide in overall wine production. From red wines to whites to sweets and beyond, sunny California is your one-stop-shop for some of the world’s best wines! 

Here’s what makes this region so ideal for viticulture, and how events in California’s distant past shaped the rolling hills and nutritious soils that grow such great grapes!

Why does California have great wine?

California vineyards are spread out all over the state and are generally divided into four regions. The Central Valley region, stretching 300 miles between the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, produces 75% of the state’s wine, including popular brands like Gallo, Franzia and other box and jug wines. The North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast regions stretch from the Oregon border to the Mexican border, with the majority of wineries housed in the section between San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

Just as with any crop, a vineyard’s physical location greatly influences its ability to produce a good harvest. And as it happens, California’s geography is near-perfect for grape growing and wine making! 

There are three major geographical features that contribute to the state’s excellent wine production: the climate, the coastline and the very ground itself.

California’s ideal geography for viticulture

California’s Mediterranean climate

California has a Mediterranean climate, meaning that it has distinct wet and dry seasons. There’s not much of a spring and not much of a fall, and the precipitation is very much restricted to one season. Most regions around the world that are known for viticulture have similar climates, like South Africa, Australia, Argentina, central Washington State and, of course, California. 

The wet season is usually in winter, but due to the latitude and regions this doesn’t necessarily mean it appears exclusively in the form of snow. The water soaks into the ground through the rain, sleet or snow and saturates the nutrient-rich soil that stores it for use all year long. 

The summers are what really make the Mediterranean climate so good for viticulture. Grapes are delicate when small and their flowers even more so, so even the lightest of rains can knock the buds and grapes off their vines. A dry summer means the vulnerable grapes can grow without disturbance, and the vines can avoid any rot or mold that comes with humidity. 

So dry weather is good, but California can also get pretty dang hot, and grapes don’t necessarily like scorching under triple-digit heat all day long. Thankfully, there’s another handy feature that helps with that!

The coastline

The coastline is what saves vineyards from being utterly demolished by California’s oppressive summer heat. 

Summers along the California coast can feature heavy fog that drifts in from the Pacific most mornings — especially along the Northern California coast. This fog not only provides a gentle deposit of moisture to delicate vines and grapes, but it also slows rising temperatures and shields baby grapes from the harsh sun. 

The fog doesn’t reach as far as the Central Valley, which is further inland and over the mountains, but cool breezes from the ocean still funnel through the foothills and ranges to the other side. These winds keep temperatures from rising too high, especially along the Central and South Coasts where there isn’t too much fog. 

The mountains and the soil

Finally, California’s mountain ranges and soil profiles create ideal conditions for vineyards to thrive. 

Wine grapes — and most crops in general — thrive in nutrient-rich soil, so areas that have long histories of geographical evolution generally have more going on in the soil. Places with volcanoes, for example, or places that have been shaped by floods or tectonic movement. 

California has a rich history of geological activity that occurred fairly recently, relative to Earth’s long history, at least. As recently as the Mesozoic era (250-60 million years ago, California was nearly completely covered by the Pacific Ocean and small seas that formed around the few mountain ranges that existed at the time. That period of Earth’s history saw great tectonic movement, as well as abundant reptile life and lush forests.

This, of course, was the period when the dinosaurs existed, so the reason there aren’t too many dinosaur fossils in California is because most of it was underwater! Fun fact. 

The Mesozoic era featured significant tectonic movement that triggered volcanic activity and earthquakes, all of which created a slew of new mountain ranges around the world, including the Sierra Nevada. Eventually, there was enough activity and mountain formation that all the water drained out of California and left it the solid ground we have today!

All that to say that all this activity left an impression on California’s soil. The water covering the state deposited sediment on the ocean floor, including decomposed organic matter and mineral debris. The volcanos that spewed magma from the depths of the Earth left regions heavy with rich, dark, aerated volcanic soil filled with minerals and nutrients. And as Tectonic plates folded the Earth’s crust into itself, layers of Earth’s soils that had been hidden for millions of years were now exposed to the surface.

All this means that California is covered with rich soil that makes for perfect agricultural activity. Fruit species thrive in this soil and climate, and the many citrus orchards and grape vineyards around the state attest to just that.

The perfect place for a vineyard to thrive

Today, over 90% of the United States' exported wine is from California, making it one of the best regions for wine you’ll find in the nation. There are at least 4,500 wineries in the state, more than the rest of the country combined! The next-largest producers of wine are Washington and Oregon, which both hover around 800 wineries.

So, if you live in our luxury Southern California apartments (or anywhere in California, honestly), then head to your nearest winery and reap the benefits of living in the heart of wine country! 

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/JillWellington

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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