Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: The Big Picture of California Wine

Part II: The Headliners

Part III: More Reds, Whites, Pinks, and Bubblies

Part IV: Enjoying California Wines

Part V: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: The Big Picture of California Wine

Chapter 1: Introducing California Wines

Covering All the Bases in Wine Production

The color and type spectrums

The wallet spectrum

The packaging spectrum

Leading the Market in Popularity

Golden Resources in the Golden State

California climate

Soil matters

The human factor

California’s Wine Timeline

Planting the seeds in the 18th century

The founder and other pioneers

Surviving Prohibition

Reinventing itself in the 1960s

Expanding in the late 20th and early 21st centuries

Chapter 2: What’s in the Bottle

The Grape Names the Wine

Varietal wine: A wine that is what it (mostly) is

Quality claims: What varietal does not imply

Wines without Varietal Names

Blends: Naming when the point is multiple grape varieties

Emulating European classics

Period pieces, generically speaking

The In-Crowd: California’s Major Varietal Wines


Sauvignon Blanc

Cabernet Sauvignon



Pinot Noir


Other California Varietal Wines



Even less-known varietals

Chapter 3: Decoding the Label

Label Terms and What They (Sorta) Mean

Regulated wine terms

Unregulated terms intended to influence you

Official Grape-Growing Areas

Europe’s tradition of viticultural areas

AVAs, America’s version of European tradition

Small, large, and overlapping AVAs

Chapter 4: California’s Major Wine Regions

Location Matters

Napa Valley: Wine Country’s Hollywood

Mapping Napa Valley

Napa’s key wines

Getting to and staying in Napa Valley

Sonoma County: Hardly an Also-ran!

An idyllic wine region

Sonoma’s signatures: Pinot Noir and Zinfandel

Sonoma’s wines: Something for everyone

More Key Wine Regions

Up the North Coast to Mendocino and Lake Counties

Down the Central Coast

Southern California

Inward and upward

Part II: The Headliners

Chapter 5: Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Chardonnay: The Wine That California Made Famous

A brief history of California Chardonnay

The taste of California Chardonnay

For richer or for value

Where Chardonnay Grows in California

Cool, coastal classic regions

Warm regions for everyday Chardonnays

Top Chardonnay Producers

Sauvignon Blanc: Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

Some history on Sauvignon Blanc

Three styles of California Sauvignon Blanc

Taste trumps price

Regions for Sauvignon Blanc

Napa originals

Sonoma takes on Sauvignon

Top Sauvignon Blanc wines from other regions

Names to Trust in Sauvignon Blanc

Chapter 6: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Their Blends

Hailing the California Cab, a World-Class Red

A brief history of Cabernet

The taste of California Cabernet

Making a California original from a Bordeaux grape

Where the Cabernet Grows: Our Cabernet Recommendations

Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons

Sonoma Cabernets

Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet Sauvignons

Other California Cabernets

Merlot, Sometimes a Contender

Merlot’s up, down, and Sideways reputation

The taste of California Merlot

Regions That Excel with Merlot

Reliable Napa Valley Merlots

Other California Merlots

The Secret’s in the Bordeaux Blend

Combining strengths

Key brands of Bordeaux-style blends

Chapter 7: Pinot Noir

From Obscurity to Overnight Fame

California-Style Pinot Noir

The general style

Local styles

California’s Pinot Noir Regions

The classic regions

Hot new Pinot Noir regions

Sonoma Coast AVA

Pinot Noirs in other regions

Chapter 8: Zinfandel

Tracing California’s (Almost) Native Grape

What’s Special about Zinfandel

The Spectrum of Zin Styles

Zinfandel Country

Recommended Zinfandel Wines

Part III: More Reds, Whites, Pinks, and Bubblies

Chapter 9: Pinot Grigio, Rhône-Style Whites, and Other California Whites

Here a Grigio, There a Gris

The California face of Italy’s leading white

The taste of California Pinot Grigio/Gris

Recommended California Pinot Grigio/Gris wines

White Wines from Rhône Varieties

The taste of white Rhône varietals and blends

California white Rhône wines to try

More California White Wines



Chenin Blanc

Pinot Blanc

Chapter 10: Syrah, Petite Sirah, Other Varietal Reds, and Red Blends

California Syrah Comes of Age

Number five in production but growing

Syrah versus Shiraz

The taste of California Syrah

Today’s hotbeds of Syrah and Shiraz

Recommended Syrah wines

The Dark and Mysterious Petite Sirah

The great identity search

Petite Sirah’s ups and downs

The taste of Petite Sirah

Where Petite Sirah grows

Recommended Petite Sirah wines

California’s Red Rhône-style Blends

A range of styles

When in Rhône: The grapes in Rhône blends

Recommended California red Rhône blends

Cal-Ital: Italian Varieties in California

Cal-Ital red grape varieties

Recommended Cal-Ital red wines

Other Varietal Reds

Chapter 11: Bubbly, Rosé, and Dessert Wines

California’s Sparkling Wines

Characterizing California bubbly

French- and California-owned brands

Recommended sparkling wines

Pretty in Pink: California Rosés, Dry and Sweet

Serious, dry rosés

White Zinfandel and its blushing cousins

Sweet Dessert Wines

Part IV: Enjoying California Wines

Chapter 12: Pairing and Sharing California Wines

Matching Wines to Foods

Elements of the match

Try this with that: Wine pairings for specific foods

Aging and Collecting California Wines

How different varietal wines age

California wines that have aged well

Vintage Variations in California

Cool versus warm vintages

Our California vintage ratings

Chapter 13: Making a Winery Pilgrimage

Knowing What to Expect on the Winery Visit

The winery tour

The tasting room and shop

Do’s and Don’ts for Visitors

Discover something new

Embrace the etiquette of tasting and spitting

Beware the designated driver trap

Preparing for Your Visit

Gather specific info on winery visits

Know the restrictions on transporting your purchases

Part V: The Part of Tens

Chapter 14: Answers to Ten Common Questions about California Wine

What’s the Best California Wine?

Do Vintages Matter for California Wine?

Are Ratings Important in Buying California Wine?

How Long Should California Wines Age before I Drink Them?

Are the $100+ California Wines Worth the Price?

Do California Wines Age Well?

Are California Pinot Noirs as Good as Red Burgundy?

Are California Chardonnays Too Oaky?

Are California Rosés Sweet?

What’s the Story with California Merlots?

Chapter 15: Ten Top Travel Destinations and Attractions

Yountville, Napa Valley

The Ferry Building, San Francisco

Picnic Lunches in Wine Country

The Napa Valley Wine Train

Calistoga’s Hot Springs and Mud Baths

The Sierra Foothills

San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles

Santa Barbara

Healdsburg, Sonoma County

Mendocino, Anderson Valley

California Wine For Dummies®

by Ed McCarthy & Mary Ewing-Mulligan


About the Authors

Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan are two wine lovers who met at an Italian wine tasting in New York City’s Chinatown and subsequently merged their wine cellars and wine libraries when they married. California Wine For Dummies is the seventh wine book that they co-authored in the For Dummies series — including the best-selling Wine For Dummies and two of their favorites, French Wine For Dummies and Italian Wine For Dummies. They also wrote Wine Style: Using Your Senses to Explore and Enjoy Wine (Wiley) in 2005. Together, they have taught hundreds of wine classes, visited nearly every wine region in the world, run five marathons, and raised 12 cats. Along the way, they amassed more than a half a century of wine experience between them.

Mary is president of International Wine Center, a New York City school for wine professionals and serious wine lovers. As U.S. director of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the world’s leading wine-education organization, she works to make the courses she offers in New York available in more and more parts of the United States. She is also a freelance wine writer. Mary’s most impressive credential is that she was the first female Master of Wine (MW) in the United States and currently is one of only 26 MWs in the U.S. (with 277 MWs worldwide).

Ed, a New Yorker, graduated from the City University of New York with a master’s degree in psychology. He taught high school English in another life, while working part time in wine shops to satisfy his passion for wine and to subsidize his growing wine cellar. In 1999, Ed went solo as author of Champagne For Dummies, a topic on which he’s especially expert. He is contributing editor of Beverage Media, a trade publication. Both Ed and Mary are also columnists for the online wine magazine and are Certified Wine Educators.

When they aren’t writing, teaching, or visiting wine regions, Mary and Ed maintain a busy schedule of speaking, judging at wine competitions, and tasting as many new wines as possible. They admit to leading thoroughly unbalanced lives in which their only non-wine pursuits are hiking in the Berkshires and the Italian Alps. At home, they wind down to the tunes of k.d. Lang, Sarah Brightman, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young in the company of their feline roommates, Dolcetto, Max, Ponzi, and Pinot.

Authors' Acknowledgments

This book would not be possible without the amazing team at Wiley. We thank Publisher Diane Steele, who along with Acquisitions Editor Stacy Kennedy engaged us and encouraged us to write California Wine For Dummies. And special thanks to our Project Editor, Chrissy Guthrie, for her patience with us and for her invaluable suggestions to improve the text — and make it all fit!

We thank our Technical Editor, fellow wine writer and esteemed California wine expert Alan Goldfarb, for his expertise. It’s a better, more accurate book because of you.

Special thanks to Steve Ettlinger, our agent and friend, who brought us to the For Dummies series in the first place and who is always there for us.

We thank all our friends in the wine business for your input and suggestions for this book; the book reviewers whose criticism of our previous books has been so generous; and our readers, who have encouraged us with your enthusiasm for our earlier books. We are inspired when we recall how many of you have told us that Wine For Dummies was the first wine book you ever read.

Mary gives special thanks to Linda Lawry and everyone else at International Wine Center who enabled her to have the time and peace of mind to work on this book. Thanks, also, to Elise McCarthy; E. J. McCarthy and his fiancée, Kim Espinosa; and Cindy McCarthy Tomarchio and her husband, David, for their encouragement and support. And thanks to Jason and Michael Tomarchio for the joy they bring us.

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions, Editorial, and Media Development

Senior Project Editor: Christina Guthrie

Acquisitions Editor: Stacy Kennedy

Senior Copy Editor: Danielle Voirol

Assistant Editor: Erin Calligan Mooney

Editorial Program Coordinator: Joe Niesen

Technical Editor: Alan Goldfarb

Senior Editorial Manager: Jennifer Ehrlich

Editorial Manager: Christine Meloy Beck

Editorial Assistants: David Lutton, Jennette ElNaggar

Art Coordinator: Alicia B. South

Cover Photos: © Gerald French/CORBIS

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Kristie Rees

Layout and Graphics: Samantha K. Allen, Reuben W. Davis, Christine Williams

Special Art: Interior maps by Lisa Reed

Proofreader: Nancy L. Reinhardt

Indexer: Potomac Indexing, LLC

Publishing and Editorial for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

Kristin Ferguson-Wagstaffe, Product Development Director, Consumer Dummies

Ensley Eikenburg, Associate Publisher, Travel

Kelly Regan, Editorial Director, Travel

Publishing for Technology Dummies

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher, Dummies Technology/General User

Composition Services

Gerry Fahey, Vice President of Production Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services


Do California wines need demystifying? At one time, we believed they didn’t. In a universe of wines with complicated foreign-language place names, California’s wines, named for their grape varieties, were a beacon of simplicity, welcoming uninitiated wine drinkers to the pleasures of wine.

These days, California wines are still welcoming (they don’t get to dominate wine consumption in the U.S. by being difficult to enjoy!), but the number of wineries in California has exploded to more than 2,000, and the map of wine regions has expanded to include pockets of vineyard land that were literally off the map only 15 years ago. What’s more, California now grows dozens of grape varieties beyond its traditional Big Six mainstays for fine wine.

California wine is still easy to understand, but scratch the surface, and you can discover a wealth of fascinating nuances. Nuances of climate, of grape varieties and clones (subvarieties), of vineyard soils and altitudes and proximity to the sea, of winemaking beliefs and goals — each of these enriches the landscape of California wine and the drinking pleasures that it holds.

California today is truly a land of opportunity for wine lovers. Come discover it with us.

About This Book

Over the past few years, we came to realize that a serious gap existed in our Wine For Dummies series — California! This gap is especially gaping when you consider that almost 70 percent of all the wine consumed in the U.S. is California wine. This book is our attempt to fill that gap and to help you complete your wine knowledge and increase your wine-drinking pleasure.

You probably drink California wine already, because wines from California are the top-selling wines in the U.S. Could you find other wines from California — other grape varieties, other tastes — that you might enjoy even more than what you already know? We bet you can. Will discovering the various wine regions that specialize in making your favorite type of wine increase your appreciation of the wine? We hope so. We hope that our passion and the passion of our favorite winemakers will become contagious so that you can find your own passion for California wines.

In every other For Dummies wine book that we’ve written, we took a geographic approach to the wines, moving from one wine region to the next and discussing the kinds of wines that you find in each. In California Wine For Dummies, however, we take a different approach. We move from grape variety to grape variety, because that’s the structure we’re accustomed to in approaching California wines. Within each grape-variety chapter, we discuss the regions of California that grow that variety and the signature each region gives to the taste of the wine.

Of course, we also name our favorite producers for each type of wine. Because California makes wines at every price level, from affordable to downright luxury pricing, we give our wine recommendations in specific price ranges — including top wines to try in the under-$15 category.

Conventions Used in This Book

Here are a few conventions you should be familiar with as you read this book:

New terms appear in italics and are followed by brief, easy-to-understand definitions.

Web addresses appear in a particular typeface called monofont.

Keywords in bulleted lists appear in boldface.

In pronunciations, the stressed syllable is italicized. (Note: French words technically don’t have stressed syllables.)

In making our specific wine recommendations throughout this book, we usually divide the wines into three price categories. We use the wines’ average retail prices as the basis for placing them in each category, to the extent that we’re able to determine that from Internet listings; in some stores, the wines cost more, and in restaurants, they tend to cost at least two to three times the retail price. The prices we use are based on the currently available vintages at the time of our writing this book; subsequent vintages and older wines can cost more.

The actual price ranges we use vary slightly from wine to wine, but here are the general categories:

Moderately priced: Wines that retail for less than $20

Moderate-plus: Wines that retail between $20 and $50

High-end: Wines that retail mainly between $50 and $100

We list the actual average retail prices for individual wines that cost over $100. In rare situations, when we recommend several wines over $100, we categorize them as Luxury wines. You’ll also see some sidebars naming some top-value wines that cost under $15.

Other “rules” that we apply in our listings of recommended wines include the following:

Within each price category, we alphabetize our recommended wines according to the names of the producers. Sometimes we list more than one recommended wine per producer.

After every wine, we indicate, in parentheses, the American Viticultural Area (AVA) or other location where the grapes grow; this might or might not be the same as the location of the winery.

When the name of a particular wine isn’t the name of a vineyard, we place the name of the wine in quotation marks.

We do not include small-production wines that are available only in California. (We do, however, recommend some small-production wines that have limited national distribution. We suggest that you check to help you find the retail stores where the wine is available and to comparison-shop for the lowest prices.)

Finally, any given lodging or meal prices might have changed since publication. Visit Web sites or contact the hotel or restaurant in question for the most up-to-date information.

What You’re Not to Read

Because we wrote this book, we obviously believe that every single bit of information will be useful to you. But you might not care to know the same level of detail as we care to give. The Technical Stuff icon marks details or background explanation that you can ignore, if you like, or come back to later when you have more time.

Likewise, our sidebars amount to color commentary on the text; you can skip over these gray boxes if you want to know just the facts. Some sidebars offer basic background information about wine specifically for readers who feel their wine basics could use some brushing up.

Foolish Assumptions

In writing this book, we had to make some assumptions about you, the reader. We assume that

You drink wine already or are interested in becoming a wine drinker.

You already know something about wine. But just in case you don’t, we use simple language and explain things clearly, and we include fundamental information such as what wine is and how to taste it. (For more thorough coverage of the basics, check out our other book, Wine For Dummies, 4th Edition [Wiley].)

You’re looking for more than a travel guide. You might also want information on California wine history, characteristics of wines from certain regions, or recommendations for specific wines. Of course, if you are looking for travel info, we do include some text from Frommer’s Portable California Wine Country, 5th Edition, by Erika Lenkert (Wiley), as well as some of our own suggestions for hotels, restaurants, and wine country attractions.

How This Book Is Organized

We divide this book into five parts, which we describe here. This part structure allows you easy access to the information you need, whether you want to know about California wine in general, the state’s most popular wines, or some of its more minor (but still excellent) players.

Part I: The Big Picture of California Wine

In this meaty section, we give you the lay of the land for California wines, both historically and geographically. We explain how California names its wines, how the state’s vast vineyard areas break down into specific regions known as AVAs, and how to recognize a wine’s AVA and other important phrases on a label.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of California wine today — the range of wines that California makes and how California’s geography makes the wines unique — and then it looks back in time to the origins of today’s wine scene in the Golden State. Chapter 2 reveals what a varietal is and what varietal wines represent (or don’t) in terms of quality; it also explains the exceptions, wines that are blends of various grape varieties. Finally, it provides snapshot descriptions of California’s main white and red grape varieties.

Chapter 3 in effect is a line-by-line explanation of the language of a California wine label. Chapter 4 gets down and dirty: It covers all the major wine regions of California, telling you what’s special about each, from the soil to the climate to the types of wine the region makes.

Part II: The Headliners

The four chapters in this part cover the six varietal wines that you most need to know about to be fluent in California wine: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. For each type of wine, we explain the various regions where the grapes for that wine grow, we describe the taste of the wine, we profile a few storied producers, and we name our recommended brands in several different price categories — including special-value wines under $15.

Part III: More Reds, Whites, Pinks, and Bubblies

Yes, there’s more — much more! California makes a tempting range of white and red wines from grape varieties that are more obscure than the main six covered in Part II, as well as fascinating blended white and red wines inspired by the wines of classic European wine regions. We cover those wines in this part of the book, along with California’s rosé (pink) wines, sparkling wines, and sweet dessert wines. In Chapter 9, you read about Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, white RhÔne-style wines, Riesling, and other white wines. Chapter 10 introduces you to Syrah/Shiraz, Petite Sirah, red Rhone-style blends, and Italian-inspired blends. And Chapter 11 covers California’s sparkling wines, rosé wines, and sweet wines.

Part IV: Enjoying California Wines

This part of the book brings all that information about California wines home — home to your table, your neighborhood wine shop, your guests at dinner, and your vacation plans. Chapter 12 reveals our secrets for pairing wine and food and tells you which California wines go best with which types of dishes. We also describe the ins and outs of California’s recent vintages and counsel you on when to drink which types of wine. Chapter 13 offers practical advice on visiting wineries and getting your souvenir bottles back home safely.

Part V: The Part of Tens

We put our heads together and prioritized all the questions that people ask about California wines so we could answer the ten top frequently asked questions for you in Chapter 14. Then we fantasized about our most romantic, inspiring, fun, not-to-be-missed travel experiences in California wine country and laid out our top ten picks for your consideration in Chapter 15.

Icons Used in This Book

We use icons throughout the book to emphasize certain points about wine. Also, we alert you to information that might be particularly interesting to you (or not).

Tip.epsThis bull’s-eye marks advice and information that will make you a wiser wine drinker.

Remember.epsYou don’t need to memorize everything you read in this book, but some issues in wine are so fundamental that you should keep them in mind every time you pull out a wine glass or pick up a bottle. We mark the essential information with this symbol.

TechnicalStuff.epsThis odd little guy is a bit like the 2-year-old who constantly insists on asking, “Why?” If you don’t have the same level of curiosity that he has, feel free to skip over the information that follows. Wine will still taste just as delicious.

snobalert.epsWine snobs practice all sorts of affectations designed to make other wine drinkers feel inferior. But you won’t be intimidated by their snobbery if you pay attention to the Snob Alert icons and see it for what it is. (And you can find out how to impersonate a wine snob!)

realdeal.epsTo our tastes, the wines we mark with this icon are bargains because we like them, we believe them to be of good quality, and their price is low compared to other wines of similar type, style, or quality.

worththesearch.epsUnfortunately, some of the finest, most intriguing, most delicious wines are made in very small quantities. These wines have limited distribution, and you can’t always get your hands on a bottle, even if you’re willing to pay the price. We mark such wines with this icon and hope that your search proves fruitful. (Tip: You might be able to find some leads at, a search engine that scours the price lists of thousands of retailers.)

frommerstraveltip.epsIn certain sections of the book, we add valuable travel info, including tips on restaurants, hotels, happening events, and so forth, from Frommer’s Portable California Wine Country, 5th Edition, by Erika Lenkert (Wiley).

Where to Go from Here

You can start reading anywhere in this book. Jump right into Chardonnay (Chapter 5) or Pinot Noir (Chapter 7) or whatever sounds inviting. But when you have a moment, read the opening chapters that explain the words you find on wine labels and name all California wine regions. If you’re fairly new to wine, these chapters will be all the more helpful. And don’t overlook our final chapters dealing with practical matters, such as pairing wine and food and traveling to wine country.

Part I

The Big Picture of California Wine

376072 pp0101.eps

In this part...

California is a big place, and the big picture of its wines is no small snapshot! The kinds of wine that California makes, the importance of these wines on the world stage, California’s major grape varieties and wines — right there, you have plenty of wine background to chew on (or more precisely, to slurp and swallow). But we don’t stop there. This is the part where you discover the meaning behind the names of California’s wines and the other words that appear on the wines’ labels, as well as follow the fascinating history of California wine from its origins to the present day. Most important of all, you can travel vicariously from one wine region to the next and discover what makes each one special.