California Love


Canadians are still big on Golden State wines

Quintessential bad-boy director and California stalwart Quentin Tarantino once quipped on screen: “The less a man makes declarative statements, the less apt he is to look foolish in retrospect.” Good advice for many who would assume to cast blanket judgment on California wines after sampling offerings of the Napa Valley’s largest industrial producers. And, what’s more, it’s good advice for those who, only a few short years ago, thought the Californian wine market was suffering a similar fate to its warm-climate brethren, the Australians, namely a market to saturated with inexpensive but ultimately uninspiring, fruit bomb juice, eroding the impression of quality and prestige.

Californians caught wind of the rumours and have worked diligently to shift the conversation. As a result, today sommeliers and diners alike will gladly find California wines are not the Robert Parker Jr. monolith of jammy Napa Cabs and Chardonnays oaked to the hilt; instead they represent a broad array of climates, winemaking styles and grape varietals.

At Far Niente in Toronto, Maja Balthus oversees an award winning wine cellar chock-full of Golden State bottles reflecting that diversity and has noted the shift in branding from the state. “The Wine Institute in California has been working to renew the image of California wines, away from just the big, mass-produced wines on one end, and the completely inaccessible cult-Cabernets on the other, to more of a small grower, approachable, boutique feel,” she says. The impression that California wine comes predominately from Napa Valley is also finally being broken down. “They have amazing variety of climates there, perfectly suited for a lot of different varietals, so they’re in a very fortunate position,” she says. “In the north the weather is cooler so it’s great for Pinot and Chardonnay and the southern parts of the Napa have Cabernet, Merlot wines full of character and finesse.”

On a wine list, rather than just striking a diner’s Napa chord, a smart sommelier will try to hit at least three Cali coordinates. “Certain regions are better known, and California wines are meant to be accessible crowd pleasers, so you have to keep that in mind, but along with Napa, Sonoma County Pinots are very popular, and Rhone varietals such as Grenache and Syrah from Paso Robles is an emerging trend as well,” says Balthus. And, after those three are taken care of, you needn’t stop there, as fabulous examples are also being produced in Mendocino and Santa Barbara. In fact, if Balthus were stuck on a desert island with wines from one area, she’d prefer to be trapped with California vino. “There’s just so much variety.  They can grow just about anything they want.”


If you need any more proof of the resurgent success of California wine, look no further than two recent reports from Ontario’s LCBO and B.C.’s Liquor Board, which show California wines passing Old World mainstays such as France and Italy for volume sales.

Over the past decade, California wine sales in the store’s specialty Vintages section, have grown dramatically, from approximately $20 million in 2001 to almost $70 million in 2011. With California accounting for 19.3 per cent of the 20.1-per-cent U.S. share, there is no doubt the wines from the Golden State are powering this trend. U.S. wines have increased from 14.3 per cent share in 2005/’06 to 20.1 per cent share in 2011 passing Italy and France for the first time.

In B.C., American wines also beat out their French and Italian counterparts in popularity, holding 19.7 per cent of sales by volume and 18.7 per cent in value, coming in a close second only to the Aussies in both areas. However, winemakers in California also managed to sell slightly more wine into that market in 2010, while Australian wine sales were down almost nine per cent.

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