For decades, sommeliers and restaurateurs have counted on the blue-chip status appeal of California wines and customers have an abiding love of — and faith in — wines from the Golden State.
The choices are prolific given there are more than 4,800 wineries growing more than 110 varieties of wine grapes. California accounts for up to 90 per cent of the wines made in the U.S. and ranks as the number-four wine producer in the world, after Italy, France and Spain.
While growth has levelled from two years ago — largely in response to exchange rates — loyalty to California wines is well entrenched, according to Rick Slomka, Canadian director of the California Wine Institute in Brampton, Ont. “California wines are the number-1 import category in Canada by value.”
The stellar performers continue to be Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. However, red blends have become popular, Slomka notes. The most popular wine-making regions by far continue to be Sonoma and Napa. “But you have other regions coming on strong like Paso Robles on the central coast and Santa Barbara.”
Steve Edwards, general manager and sommelier for Viaggio Hospitality Group in Vancouver, says he loves to include wines from the most prolific regions in California when putting together a wine program. “Within those, I hit different price points for each category.” He notes customers still want the “big” wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. “It is the mainstay, especially with Americans coming up to visit. If you want to ensure you have a complete wine list, part of that also has to include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot.”
At The Fairmont Royal York’s Epic Restaurant & Lounge, California wines are the number-1 seller, says Joseph Safian, manager and sommelier. “After that comes Italy and Australia.” Despite the fact they are priced higher than Italian and Ontario wines, he says it’s the quality, popularity and savvy marketing efforts that place them at the top of guests’ lists.
Again, Cabernet Sauvignon is the top seller, while Chardonnay tops sales for whites. Safian also has an admiration for Zinfandels, which he believes are under-appreciated. “North America produces some great Zinfandels.”
One growing trend is a “notable sweetness” that applies to both red and white wines, says John Szabo, partner and principal critic with WineAlign.com. “Wines with notable residual sugar, like Apothic from Gallo and Meiomi Pinot Noir, are selling like hotcakes.” Szabo has also observed a reactionary wave of excitement over wines outside of the main known regions, including Mendocino, Lake County and Santa Barbara. “That’s where you’ll find some of the cool kids that get people excited. The wines are leaner, lighter, drier, fresher, less woody and more food friendly. If you want to be progressive and lead the charge, you may want to include those on your list.”
Ultimately, the long-standing popularity of California wines comes down to consistency, Safian says.
“That’s why wine lovers put them in the [top] spot. You always know what to expect. That’s why customers stay with them.”
Written by Denise Deveau