For a place that I love and am blessed to have the opportunity to visit at least once a quarter, it’s shocking that it’s taken me so long to get around to discussing the incredible wines coming out of Southern California. Now with the recent fires scorching through Ventura County and edging on the lush Santa Ynez growing region, it is time that we turn our attention to this cultural epicenter the continent.
First, how exactly do we define the geographic area of SoCal versus other large groupings like NorCal or the Central Valley? As it concerns our present vinicultural discussion, I would include several of the southernmost AVAs of the Central Coast north of the seaside town of Santa Barbara as well as a few countries sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Everyone has heard of the Santa Ynez Valley – of Sideways fame – but also included in this broad swath of geography of semi-arid valleys are, starting from the north and moving south, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria and the Santa Rita Hills, while on the other side of the Greater Los Angeles area and the Inland Empire you have the burgeoning areas of Temecula as well as San Pasqual Valley and Ramona Valley both within San Diego County.
Like their northern neighbors, these regions largely utilize the same varietals and growing techniques that have come to be representative of the state’s wine production. This means the fruit-forward, oft-jammy, New World ‘big Californian reds’ made from primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir as well as numerous well-oaked, buttery Chardonnays and dry yet brightly acidic Sauvignon blancs done in the “Fumé Blanc” style.
What’s remarkable about California is that once you look beyond the name recognition of Napa County and Sonoma County, this state still has an uncountable number of gems, especially in SoCal where the growing regions aren’t quite as established as those an hour’s drive from San Francisco. In practicality, this means that your dollar goes a bit further when sourcing from these areas, especially when compared to the two aforementioned counties where the average prices on good bottles are now reaching unobtainable levels to most consumers.
Many renowned bottles from NorCal are now garnering so much sticker stock that they are turning off customers from purchasing altogether. As the very name of the state carries with it so much inherent prestige and trust in its quality of production, sourcing lesser-known and more reasonably priced wines from SoCal will help to mitigate these types of concerns by offering patrons something that’s similar but only mildly different and still affordable.
Californian wines are all but a requirement for menus these days, at least within a North American context. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still surprise and delight by rounding out your wine list with some niche or esoteric offerings. And so, the Golden State is yours to rediscover!
And as a final aside, the elevated demand that has caused winemakers to develop newer areas like Temecula and San Diego County has in part extended in the breezy coastal communities and hot inland hills of Northwest Mexico south of Tijuana in Baja, offering yet another opportunity to excite your guests with something unexpected. With a climate that’s just a touch hotter and drier than the Californian coast, they’re starting to produce bottles that are on par with those made in the United States and often done in a more Old World style.