In Search of the Best Wines in California

There are but a few enchanting places in the world such as the wine growing regions of California’s north coast. With its picturesque landscape of pure natural beauty and an unparalleled richness of terrain, coupled with a most enjoyable and temperate climate is a winemaker’s paradise and a culinary traveler’s dream come true.

In 1769, a Franciscan missionary known as Father Junipero Serra planted the first grape vineyard at the Mission San Diego de Alcala (present-day San Diego) so he would be able to produce sacramental and table wines for his church. As he and his friars moved north toward Sonoma to establish more missions, establishing what is now known as the 600-mile road called El Camino Real, he brought with him the cultivation of the mission grape, and the rest, as they say, is viticulture history.

Today, wine grapes are grown on over 600,000 acres of California’s most fertile land, in 49 of the state’s 58 counties. As the fourth largest wine producer in the world, trailing only behind the Old World winemaking countries of Italy, France, and Spain, there are now a total of 138 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas or AVAs in the state, each with its own history, unique soil, climate, and topography, and each one contributing to California’s extensive range of high quality wines and produce. Of the listed 5,900 California wine grape growers and 4,400 bonded wineries, most are family-owned enterprises and involve the participation and dedication of multiple generations working together hand in hand. Here, business decisions are made not only for the success of the local food and wine industry, but more importantly, for the long-term benefit of the land and the community.


While less than one percent of California land is planted with vineyards, wine is still one of the state’s top agricultural products with an estimated 230 million cases sold in 2015. The established California Sustainable Winegrowing Program has put in place a strong framework of socially responsible winemaking practices from “grass to glass.” A set of best and comprehensive practices with accreditation, this program guides California growers and vintners with ways to farm the land and produce wine in an environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially equitable manner that benefits families, employees, communities, and wildlife. Together the California wine community has successfully adopted the green winemaking and winegrowing program and has made California an industry model for other wine regions around the world. This strong commitment to environmentally sustainable agriculture is one of the main reasons why California is the most visited state in the U.S. for food and wine-related activities, and one that boasts 24 million visits to its wine growing areas each year.

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Supplementing its strong local market consumption, 90 percent of U.S. wine exports also come from California. In 2015, the total volume reached $1.61 billion, or 51.2 million cases, and set an all-time record for U.S. wine exports. After the European Union and Canada, Asian countries including Japan, China, South Korea, and Singapore are the largest importers of U.S. wine. The Philippines alone imported $11.7 million worth of wine in 2015, a hefty 36 percent increase over 2014 imports, and more than both Taiwan and Thailand. “California wines appeal to consumers across the globe who recognize the unique quality and excellent value of our wines,” says Robert Koch, California Wine Institute’s president and CEO. “Consumers are also attracted to California’s trendsetting lifestyle, innovative cuisine, beautiful wine country destinations, and emphasis on environmental responsibility—all of which are reflected in our wines.”


The forecast for California wines continues to look promising and the 2016 wine grape vintage promises to be a good one. With the harvest arriving early last year due to slightly warmer temperatures than the year prior, winegrowers yielded exceptional quality fruit from around the state as a result of an even growing season, cooler than average climate, and winter rains that helped nourish the soil and vines while alleviating any possibility of drought.

Arguably California’s most influential wine region, and definitely its most popular, the Napa Valley was California’s first AVA and was established in 1981. Situated 40 miles northeast of San Francisco and set between the Vaca mountain range to the east and the Mayacamas mountains to the west, this 30-mile-long by five-mile-wide valley is one of the smallest yet most diverse wine producing areas in the world and is home to over 100 different soil variations. It has been blessed with a near to perfect Mediterranean-like climate that is perfect for grape growing—a grace bestowed on only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface. Its diverse topography includes the flat valley floor where the county’s wine business is housed, as well as low sloping alluvial fans, narrow linear valleys, steep mountain slopes and ridges, and high plateaus. Warmer in the north and east and cooler in the south and west, the temperature naturally drops as the elevations increase.

Napa Valley’s first vineyards were planted in the 1850s. By 1861, the first commercial winery was opened by Charles Krug, and at the end of the century there were over 100 operating wineries, including today’s familiar names of Schramsberg, Beringer, and Inglenook. In the early 1900s, however, the industry’s rapid expansion took a few tumultuous turns. First, the surplus of grapes led prices to plummet. Soon after, the arrival of phylloxera (a grape-eating louse) left 80 percent of the valley’s vineyards in shambles. But the greatest challenge to the young wine industry was the government’s enactment of Prohibition in 1920 which banned the production and sales of alcoholic beverages. Over the next 15 years, most wineries closed their doors and only a handful continued to operate by producing sacramental wines for the church. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, wineries began to slowly recover, although many had shut down for good, and pioneer winemakers such as Louis Martini, Andre Tchelistcheff, and Robert Mondavi, Napa’s greatest cheerleader, made many great inroads in the improvement of how grapes were grown and how wine was made in California.


If a single event can be credited for putting Napa Valley and California wines on the world map, it would be the famous Paris tasting also known as the Judgment of Paris in 1976 that was organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurier. In this blind tasting competition, California cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines were put up head-to-head against the best red and white wines from France in a comparative review. In the end, the victors named in both categories were California bottles: Chateau Montelena chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon. International recognition and acceptance soon followed and wine exports began to increase. Less than a decade later, Robert Parker, the influential wine critic, awarded the 1985 Groth cabernet sauvignon a perfect score of 100 points.

As renowned as the Napa Valley is today, it may come as a surprise that only 4 percent of California’s wine grapes and .04 percent of the world’s wine grape harvest are grown here. In fact, only nine percent of Napa County’s 505,000 acres are planted with wine grapes under cultivation. Now home to 700 grape growers and approximately 500 physical wineries, 95 percent of which are family-owned, together they produce over 1,000 different wine brands. Making up approximately 40 percent of the total fruit grown in Napa, with 90 percent of its reputation resting on it, cabernet sauvignon is the heart and soul of the valley floor as the climate and the soil are particularly well suited to growing this varietal. Perhaps less austere than its elegant Bordeaux counterpart, this Napa style red wine tends to be fleshier, fruitier, and friendlier. With many makers now focusing on lighter, food-friendlier wines that emphasize structure and finesse over power and ripeness, the range of powerhouse cabernets is only getting better.

The most coveted bottles, including those from Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Robert Mondavi, Inglenook, and Staglin, tend to come from the AVAs of Oakville and Rutherford while other highly sought-after cabernet sauvignon wines include bottles from makers such as Grgich, Spotswoode, Raymond, Cakebread, and Merryvale from Saint Helena; Pahlmeyer in Atlas Peak, and Cain Five from the Cain Vineyard in Spring Mountain. While most of Napa’s AVAs are conducive for growing cabernet sauvignon, Napa is certainly not limited to this grape variety and many cab makers list chardonnay wines among their estate offerings. In Carneros, an AVA that is shared by both Napa Valley and Sonoma County, the cooler weather best lends itself to pinot noir and chardonnay and other varietals such as merlot, cabernet franc, and sauvignon blanc, and many are also successfully grown here.


Nestled in between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east, Sonoma County produces double the quantity of wines than its more famous neighbor, Napa Valley. The region is divided into 18 AVAs across 60,000 acres of vineyards with 500 registered wineries in operation. In total, there are over 60 types of grapes grown in Sonoma. This is largely due to the county’s varied topography made up of valleys and plains, mountains, forests, riverbeds, and ocean cliffs as well as to the number of soil types available (Sonoma has more soil types than France), and the proximity to the ocean coastline. All of these factors contribute to the numerous microclimates available here for grape growing that no other region in the U.S. can offer. Offering unparalleled wine growing conditions, it is easy to understand why many growers and producers consider Sonoma to be an ideal place in the world to live and to make wine.

The history of winemaking in Sonoma traces its roots back to 1812 when Russian colonists first planted grapes in Fort Ross along the county coast. By 1823, the Franciscan missions had found their way north, and Father Jose Altamira is credited with planting several thousand vines in the area. The first winery in Sonoma, Buena Vista, one that is still operational today, was opened in 1857 by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, also known as the father of the California wine industry. By 1919, there were as many as 256 wineries with 22,000 acres of wine production in Sonoma County. Unfortunately, by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, less than half of the Sonoma wineries had survived. During the post-war years leading up to the 1970s, Sonoma gained back its winemaking ground but it wasn’t until the 1980s, after the seminal Judgment of Paris, when Sonoma County shifted from being a dairy, grain, and fruit crop producer to a primarily wine grape-growing region.


While Napa Valley has built its culture around cabernet sauvignon, Sonoma is home to some of the best California chardonnay and pinot noir wines. The most premier bottles have traditionally come from the famed Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, where the cool coastal weather, early morning fog, and low overnight temperatures do wonders for the fruit without running the risk of frost. Some key players in the AVAs are Kendall-Jackson, Williams-Selyem, DeLoach, Merry Edwards, Ramey, Kosta Browne, Kistler, and Freeman Vineyards. In recent years, however, the 15-mile long Anderson Valley, once more known for growing cannabis than grapes, has become Sonoma’s new hot spot for pinot noir with many new and old producers setting up shop. And where there are high quality pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, there will always be topnotch sparkling wines as well. In Green Valley, the Sterling family-owned Iron Horse estate is one of California’s greatest sparkling producers. Warmer areas in the region such as the Alexander Valley have been said to be more appropriately suited for producing excellent cabernet sauvignon wines with many now rivaling the Napa Cab, such as Silver Oak, Seghesio, Ferarri-Carrano, and Rodney Strong, while the narrow Dry Creek Valley, just 16 miles long and two miles across, is home to premium food friendly and cellar-worthy zinfandel wines.

Harlan Estate

Bill Harlan is one of Napa Valley’s most revered winemakers. Thirty years ago, he set out to create a California first growth that could rival Bordeaux first-growth wine and by all accounts he has been successful in both quality and prestige. From the Oakville AVA in Napa Valley, Harlan Estate is one of the first “cult” wineries that gained fame in the 1990s and has received 100 points for five out of 21 vintages from esteemed wine critic Robert Parker. The estate produces a top wine, Harlan Estate, a second wine, The Maiden, and The Mascot made from the estate’s younger fruit. Premium Wine Exchange, Alegria Alta Building, 2294 Chino Roces Extension, Makati, 812.3823



Founded by Gustave Niebaum in 1879, Inglenook has been producing high quality wines in the Napa Valley for over a century and was one of the few Napa wineries to survive Prohibition. Its legendary fame was sealed with its 1941 vintage. In 1975, Francis and Eleanor Coppola purchased the estate and have spent the last 40 years restoring the vineyards and winery to its former illustrious heritage. Its flagship wines are the Rubicon, a red wine made from the estate’s best growncabernet fruit, and Blancaneux, a white Rhone-style blend of marsanne, rousanne, and viognier. Philippine Wine Merchants Compound, 2253 Aurora Boulevard, Pasay, 513.9473


This family-owned vineyard and winery in St. Helena is renowned for its exceptional cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc wines. Its four signature wines are the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc, Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon, and Field Book Syrah, all made from the fruit of its certified organic vineyard. Premium Wine Exchange

Robert Mondavi

Napa Valley’s loudest cheerleader and one of California’s most influential winemakers, Mondavi established his eponymous winery in 1966 at the To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville, California. Renowned for producing some of California’s finest cabernet sauvignon wine, his signature wine, Fumé Blanc crafted from sauvignon blanc grapes, is also one of the winery’s most popular bottles. He and his wife, Magrit, can be credited with creating the Napa lifestyle that encompasses the spirit of entertaining with good food and great wine.

Raymond Vineyards


One of the Boisset Collection of wineries owned by Burgundy winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset (husband to Gallo heiress Gina Gallo), Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena is one of Napa’s pioneering winemakers and has been awarded the American Winery of the Year (2012) by Wine Enthusiast magazine. The vineyard offers unique and exciting experiences with its one-of-a kind barrel tasting cellar, an interesting corridor of senses, multiple themed-dining and tasting rooms, and a winemaking laboratory. Happy Living, 2259 Chino Roces Extension, Makati, 895.6507

Deloach Vineyards

Located in the Russian River Valley, DeLoach is one of the pioneering producers of pinot noir, chardonnay, and zinfandel wines in Sonoma County. A 21-acre property that is farmed biodynamically, it has received Wine & Spirits magazine’s Wine of the Year award 12 times. Happy Living

Iron Horse Vineyards

Made from chardonnay and pinot noir grown on the family-owned vineyards in the heart of Green Valley in Sonoma Country, Iron Horse produces some of the world’s best sparkling wines. These elegant wines are reflective of their “sense of place” and are perfectly balanced with distinct tastes and texture. Today, Iron Horse produces 12 different cuvées including a blanc de blanc and a brut rosé.

Ramey Wine Cellars


Since 1996, David Ramey and his wife Carla have been committed to making award-winning wines from California’s north coast vineyards. Located in Healdsburg, California, Ramey is best known for its pinot noir and chardonnay, both made from fruit sourced from the region’s famed Russian River Valley. Itssyrah from the Sonoma Coast and cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley are also quite popular. Premium Wine Exchange

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Alicia Colby Sy
Alicia Colby Sy is the former Executive Editor of Town & Country Philippines.
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