In 1922, Ernest and Julio Gallo’s parents bought a 20-acre vineyard ranch and farmhouse in Escalon, north of Modesto. The property grew Alicante Bouschet and Carignane and was successful enough during Prohibition, shipping grapes to home winemakers, that the family enterprise expanded. Already in Modesto was another prominent local grower by the last name of Franzia.
Gallo and Franzia continue to be the defining names and forces behind the state’s Central Valley, that powerhouse of grape growing without which California’s wine industry could not exist. Almost half of California’s total wine grapes are grown here.
The region extends for 400 miles, north to the farther reaches of the Sacramento Valley and south to Fresno County. But when most people think of the Central Valley, they think mostly of Modesto, of Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Two Buck Chuck.
Inland, the Central Valley is hot with rich, fertile soils and miles of uninterrupted landscape, the perfect place to farm for high yields and juicy ripeness. To the east it is bordered by the Sierra Nevada, while to the west the Northern and Southern Coast Ranges prevent the Pacific Ocean’s cool influence from meddling too much.
Where the ocean does enter is Lodi, which is why it has increasingly been taken out of most discussions about the Central Valley.
The Competition Increases
The area has boomed since the 1960s but in more recent years has seen increased competition on two fronts. One has been from the rise in consumer preference for many of California’s premium wine regions, with people willing to pay more for quality wines.
On the other hand, Central Valley growers are feeling increased price competition for their grapes from imports and wines from other parts of the United States, often made from less expensive fruit.
Still, demand remains, particularly for the oceans of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel the Central Valley can grow. Vintage 2012 was a record year for the region, which accounted for almost two million tons of wine grapes crushed, half of the state’s entire record yield.
And planting continues. According to numbers from the Allied Grape Growers, a wine grape cooperative with 600 grower members in California, in 2012 there were 520,000 bearing acres of wine grapes in the state with an estimated 30,000 of them new. The vast majority of those new plantings are in the San Joaquin Valley.
Chardonnay remains the largest single variety crushed in California, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot. Muscat of Alexandria, used primarily for Moscato production, also continues to rise, with tonnage crushed increasing 20 percent between 2011 and 2012. Fresno County accounts for most of it with 1,452 acres planted, half the state total.
Both Central Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet are in high demand for box wines.
Wide World of Grapes
The Central Valley is also where to find extensive plantings of French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Barbera, Syrah and Petite Sirah as well as Rubired, a U.C. Davis-developed hybrid of Alicante Ganzin and Tinta Cão; and Ruby Cabernet, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignane.
In addition to Gallo and Bronco, the Franzia family’s present-day concern, one of the valley’s biggest players is The Wine Group.
The second largest wine producer in the U.S. by volume (world’s third largest) after Gallo, it sells some 60 million of cases a year. The Wine Group owns the original Franzia brand, as well as Almaden, Big House,Concannon, Corbett Canyon, Cupcake, Fish Eye and Glen Ellen, among others. The company buys 25 percent of its grapes from the San Joaquin Valley alone.
Wine snobs would entirely dismiss Central Valley wines as generic and monolithic if it weren’t for Ficklin Vineyardsand Quady Winery, two small, family-run outfits in inland Madera County devoted to making dessert and Port-style wines.
Having produced his first Port in 1975, Andy Quady’s ability to make top-notch sweet and fortified wines from San Joaquin Valley fruit has served as a revelation to many—though he had to convince the area’s growers to take a chance with him on planting such varieties as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Madeira.
Dubbed the Muscat King in the 1980s, Quady made the fortified dessert wine Essensia from Orange Muscat grapes, an elixir fully balanced in acidity and sweetness and a now favorite ingredient of mixologists. So is Elysium, his dessert wine from Black Muscat grapes.
Meanwhile, the third-generation wine-maker Peter Ficklin nurtures Ficklin’s Old Vine Tinta Solera, blending his younger Port-style wines with old, some dating back to the winery’s earliest harvests in 1948. He also maintains the family’s 35 acres of traditional Port-grape varieties.
Moscato on the Rise
Nicki Minaj has one; so does Nelly. Drake and Kanye West have sung its praises, too. It’s Moscato, a category of sweet white wine that’s become the fastest growing wine variety in the country—with sales recently blowing up 73 percent from year to year. It’s not only rappers who are into the wine. Gallo has introduced five new Moscato wines recently.
The Wine Group is also among those bullish on the variety. “Moscato is where Generation Y will go for sweet wine, rather than with White Zin as the Boomers did,” Wine Group CEO David Kent said in 2010. “I really think Moscato will become as big a business as Pinot Grigio is right now, if not bigger.”
Box wines offer value and quality in lighter packaging than bottles. They have become a growing business for wineries, especially many of the bigger entities based in the Central Valley.
The Bota Box from DFV Wines based in Manteca has been especially popular, a line of wines in 3-liter and smaller Tetra-Pak boxes made from unbleached, recycled paper that are portable, shatterproof and recyclable. Equipped with a tap, the boxes are designed to keep the wine fresh for a month after opening.
DFV confronts the hesitation some have about box wines on the box itself, saying buck the stigma and embrace the box. Its selection of wines is vast—from Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Chardonnay to Merlot, Malbec, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Black Box is another frequently seen box wine; its Merlot and Pinot Grigio are especially popular, whileBandit’s little Tetra-Paks of Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are the ideal size to take for a picnic.
Central Valley’s Top Varieties
Planted throughout this warm region, the fruit tends to take on ripe tropical fruit characteristics, given shades of butter and toast from its time in oak.
Central Valley’s warmer climate produces full-bodied Zinfandels, some from older vines, rich and juicy in blackberry flavor, with a hit of acidity on the finish.
Medium-bodied with soft tannins and flavors of plum and berry, Merlot continues to be a widely planted red grape, its moderate acidity used to tame Cabernet.
Juicy, light and often made in sweet, pink or sparkling styles, this is the “It” grape of our time, a peach and pineapple-flavored quaff best served cold.
Refreshing and fairly crisp, people have taken to Pinot Grigio’s unfussy lightness of being, its array of melon and apple flavors and low acidity.