What Does “California” on a Wine Label Really Mean?

California can be used as a statewide AVA and in wines bottled under it, the grapes can be sourced from a few different vineyards that may be lower in quality. We'll walk you through how to find excellent wines despite this confusing appellation.
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Our current issue, largely devoted to coverage of California wine, is a good place to review what the word “California” means on a bottle. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t necessarily mean much.

California can be used as an official statewide appellation or American Viticultural Area (AVA), a U.S.-government-regulated term that indicates where the grapes in that bottle (or box or can) were grown. As an AVA on a wine’s label, “California” means the grapes were almost certainly sourced from multiple counties throughout the state—it’s the lowest common denominator of AVAs.

“California” often, but by no means always, also means the grapes were sourced from some of the lower-quality, lower-priced vineyards in the state. If they didn’t come from these places, most wineries would put the name of a smaller, higher-quality, higher-priced growing district on the label. This could be a multiple-county AVA like Central Coast, a specific AVA like Napa Valley or a sub-AVA such as Sta. Rita Hills.

Some excellent wines are blended from good-quality coastal and mountain regions and must be labeled “California” because there’s no other legal term for their mix.

That’s not to say that grape growers in the San Joaquin River Valley, where more than 40% of the state’s wine grapes grow, are bad at their jobs. Most just don’t have the climate and terrain necessary to preserve good acidity and build enough healthy tannins and flavor compounds in the grapes to create classically styled and well-balanced dry wines.

To shop for wines with great quality in the premium price range, you don’t have to avoid the California AVA altogether, but be smart about it. Understand that some excellent wines are blended from good-quality coastal and mountain regions and must be labeled “California” because there’s no other legal term for their mix. A few wineries now simply state each county source on the label, like Verada Pinot Noir, which lists Monterey, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.

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When you do grab a California AVA wine, it’s always safe to stick with one that has an above-average track record for quality. Producers like Kendall-Jackson, Mirassou, Bogle, Bonterra, Korbel and Geyser Peak are safe bets, just to name a few.

But you don’t have to limit yourself to these legacy brands. Be sure to check the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide for reviews from this category, because we’re constantly combing the state for new discoveries, too. In the past 12 months, my colleagues and I have blind-tasted about 450 California AVA wines. Around a sixth of those scored 90-plus, and nearly a third of them garnered a Best Buy designation. For savvy customers, this legal AVA is hiding nothing except how good they are.

The Case for California

These three bottles make a forceful argument that California AVA wines can have personality and excitement, and they’re priced right for stocking up by the case.

Verada 2016 Tri-County Pinot Noir (Monterey County-Sonoma County-Santa Barbara County) $18, 91 points. This is a snappy yet flavorful wine with an expressive aroma of toasted oak, cranberry, cherry and black tea, and flavors that are just-ripe and centered around tasty black cherry. It is medium- to full-bodied, has moderate tannins, good acidity and a lingering finish. Editors’ Choice.

Alexander Valley Vineyards 2014 Temptation Zinfandel (California); $14, 90 points. This is a gutsy, spicy dry wine with intriguing black-pepper aromas, and beefy, lightly smoky flavors backed by plenty of blackberries. It has a firm texture suitable for the biggest proteins. Best Buy.

Pine Ridge 2016 Chenin Blanc-Viognier (California) $16, 89 point. Crisp and tangy, this light-bodied wine has a (pardon the pun) piny green-apple aroma, vivid apple and lime flavors and lively acidity. It will be especially good as an apéritif to whet the appetite.

Published on May 18, 2018
Topics: Wine Labels
About the Author
Jim Gordon
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

Jim Gordon has been covering the wine industry as an editor and reporter for more than 30 years. In 2006 he became editor of Wines & Vines, the media company for North American winemakers and grape growers. He directs the editorial content of Wines & Vines in the monthly print magazine, digital and social media. Gordon is also a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine and past director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. He was editor in chief for two books by publisher Dorling Kindersley of London: Opus Vino, and 1000 Great Everyday Wines. Gordon was managing editor of Wine Spectator for 12 years, and editor in chief of Wine Country Living magazine for four, during which time he helped create Wine Country Living TV for NBC station KNTV in San Jose. He lives in Napa, California. Email: jgordon@wineenthusiast.net.




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