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California - the name evokes contradictory expectations: Sin and the sacred, and always associated with more emotional tension and more luxurious possibilities than other places. I spent the month of April there.

Anyone who has visited northern California knows the austere western beauty of nature in the state. The mountains are connected with valleys in the interior, and these with hills which in turn merge into the rugged coast of the Pacific. It is no wonder that there are excellent conditions for viticulture in many locations.

On the whole, the climate is warm and dry in summer, so that the vines have few problems with excess rain and humidity, and are therefore largely spared the associated diseases and rot. Cool sea currents also influence temperatures in the warm inland valleys. The ripening season is therefore long, and the grapes can ripen optimally until late in the autumn.

What can you expect from Californian wines? In any case, wines that are mostly softer in character than their European counterparts. This is due to two factors: on the one hand, a long, warm ripening season that leads to rather moderate acidity, and on the other hand, a stylistic preference for softer wines in California.

Europeans often prefer higher acidity and even astringency, and prefer wines with a lot of bite. The preferences on the East Coast of the USA, by the way, a large market for wine, lie between these opposing preferences of Californians and Europeans. However, these clear taste images are not set in stone. It is interesting to observe the mutual influence that Europe and the West Coast have on each other. In some cases, European wines are now vinified softer and smoother and are ready to drink earlier, while Californians limit the formerly generous use of oak barrels and pay more attention to preserving the character of the grapes in the wine.

Old vines with head pruning in Sonoma County% California

Another noticeable characteristic of Californian wines is the sometimes significantly higher alcohol content compared to many other origins. There are generally two reasons for this: First, to support the development of the strongest possible flavours during the ripening period, the grapes are left to hang as long as possible in the autumn, which also increases the sugar content of the berries. In some cases, however, the high alcohol content is probably more intentional, and not just a pure side effect. When I asked a Californian producer why Californian producers always produce higher alcohol wines, he said, "We do it because we can." It seemed to me that he must have missed the point - why, for example, would you want a brandy-heavy 15% alcohol in a wine like a Viognier? You routinely find 14.5% alcohol in Chardonnays, and some Zinfandels have an alcohol concentration you'd expect to find more in a Port.

Where winemakers are concerned about rising alcohol levels, technical aids are sometimes used that actually remove some of the alcohol from the wine. This is done using processes such as reverse osmosis or the centrifugal cone column. Clark Smith, owner of Vinovation, one of two companies in the wine region that remove alcohol (the other is ConeTech), told a recent San Francisco Chronicle article on the subject that he and his competitor now remove alcohol from nearly half of all wines produced on California's North Coast. However, he said, most customers prefer to remain anonymous. Other winemakers claim that consumers generally prefer the full-bodied, powerful and fat style anyway and thus have to accept the warm, high-proof aspect as well.

Napa Valley near Rutherford in spring

Over the past fifty years, the wine industry in California has moved forward as haphazardly and erratically as many other things in this state. Perpetually threatened by natural disasters, Californians developed a lifestyle all their own, which may explain their high willingness to make risky investments, as well as their uninhibited belief in technology and progress, and their ability to push through even in the face of political stumbling blocks like Prohibition.

One of the most recent developments in the area is the use of biodynamic methods on some farms. Organic products are doing very well with consumers in California and are also becoming more popular overall in the US. Biodynamic principles are now, like homeopathy or the literary criticism of the eighties, a fundamentally French affair. Although the concept was initiated by the Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, today Nicolas Joly from the Loire Valley is the great spokesman and guru of the movement in the wine world. But even in California, those who practise biodynamic viticulture are quite missionary-minded. "You work with the invisible life sources that really exist out there, and you bring that spirit to the bottle," one winemaker said to me. That was before he showed me the new 2,800-square-foot underground cellar he had dug into the side of a mountain in Sonoma County at a cost of four million dollars.

Vino Venue% Wine Bar in San Francisco

The registered Napa Valley growing region, known here as the American Viticultural Area (or AVA for short), is about 35 miles long and 4 miles wide (just under 60 kilometres by 6 kilometres), and within these boundaries there are different climatic zones. For example, the north of the valley is warmer than the south. This is due to the cooling effect of San Pablo Bay, an extension of San Francisco Bay, which allows cool air from the Pacific to enter the interior. The Napa Valley has a varied geography with many different soil types, mountains on either side of a flat valley, and a multitude of hills and valleys in the interior that line the valley floor to the east. This is also one of the reasons why there are no less than 13 clearly defined growing regions within the Napa Valley AVA. It offers paradisiacal conditions for winegrowing, one lives comfortably and in wonderfully beautiful nature in close proximity to the big city of San Francisco. Farmland and vineyards border luxury villas, and tensions often arise. The land here is among the most expensive agricultural land in the world.

Entering the Napa Valley, one notices a large sign in front of a settlement of small bungalows east of Highway 29: "House prices start in the low $500,000s. (that is, starting at about 400,000 euros)."

The town of Napa is quite charming with its Victorian architecture. Visitors driving to the wine regions in the valley north of the town very often overlook the town itself. On the eastern edge flows the Napa River, which is more like a stream most of the time. Napa has some good restaurants, as well as the wine bar, "Bounty Hunter" on First Street, which is well worth a visit.

I've tasted many exceptional wines on this trip, but trying to find a decent wine for less than twenty dollars is like looking for the legendary gold treasure. The trend in the Napa Valley can best be described as a kind of eco-capitalism. Every wine producer tells you that he loves his land even more than his neighbour does - and how much more than a hundred dollars a bottle he can get for his wine. This is probably necessary to pay the mortgage as well as the architects' fees for the new displays of architectural wealth, complete with carefully landscaped, beautiful gardens and parks. Everyone also claims they can sell every drop of wine they can produce. A chance conversation with an accountant who works for a firm that represents many wineries in Northern California convinced me that this is a very tough business.

A waitress at a rather posh winery on the Silverado Trail in Napa explained it this way, "In this valley, image, appearances are everything." I don't doubt her statement. Some wineries in the Napa Valley look like Saddam Hussein's palaces before the war, complete with a long line of luxury automobiles out front, even on a cloudy, rainy Saturday in April.

Vineyards at Quintessa Winery in Napa Valley

Of course, the thorny issue of terroir also comes up in California. It seems like everyone wants a piece of it. However, at a conference held in California in March (Terroir 2006: A discussion between geoscientists and winemakers), no agreement could be reached on a definition of the French term. It is striking that the word is nevertheless used frequently, as in this example from an essay on the Napa Valley by wine journalist Gerald Boyd. "It's as important to understand why grapes do well in one terroir and not in another to understand wine as it is to understand an author's background to understand the inner core of a novel." When I asked a plant pathologist at the University of California at Daviscampus if a vine could actually pick up flavour components from geologically diverse soils (e.g. limestone, clay, shale, etc.), as most wine writers assume it could, and as advocates of the French idea advocate in various variations, she just said matter-of-factly "No, that's all bullshit."

Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards

Paul Draper, cellar master and managing director of Ridge Vineyards, told me he hates the term "terroir" because it has now degenerated into a mere marketing term. However, he firmly believes that "great wines should clearly express their origin". His vineyards are located high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco. Standing at the Ridge winery building, you can see San Francisco Bay in one direction and the Pacific Ocean across the San Andreas Fault in the other. Mr Draper says he can tell the individual characteristics of his wines from the different vineyard sites every year. He and his team in the cellar use the wines from these different plots to put together the red Bordeaux cuvée Ridge Monte Bello. This wine beat out the French competition from Bordeaux at the famous "Judgement of Paris" tasting back in 1976, and was the absolute favourite with both the British and American juries when the tasting was repeated recently to mark the thirtieth anniversary. I got to taste the 2005 Ridge Monte Bello from the cask, and it was superb.

Driving south on Highway 101 through the Salinas Valley, you pass the small town of Soledad, known for its production of broccoli and lettuce salad, and for its "reformatory", or prison. To the right, you can see the lower layers at the foot of the Santa Lucia mountain range. These layers, fan-shaped piles of sediment at the base of the mountains, make up part of the AVA known as the Santa Lucia Highlands. As I drove south, I could hardly take my eyes off this panorama. This part of the Santa Lucia Highlands is a fan of alluvial soils, with textbook easterly exposure, perfect for growing vines. Here, a number of grape growers are now earning a good reputation for their Pinot Noir. Further south in this area, in the Arroyo Seco AVA, this geological precision is again partially lost.

Darioush% Napa Valley Winery Visitor Centre

On the other side rises the Gabilan mountain range, defining the eastern boundary of the Salina Valley. Far from California's favourite tourist wine trails, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) into the mountains, east of the small town of Hollister, Cienega Road leads up into the Diablo Mountains, where the Calera Wine Company winery is located. The view to the east, as seen from the Calera Wine Company offices, includes part of the Diablo Mountains, which separate California's Central Coast from the Central Valley. The Central Valley produces most of the cheap wine drunk in the US, as well as plenty of table grapes and sultanas.

Josh Jensen is a Californian and owner of the Calera Wine Company. He graduated from the elite Yale University, and went on to get a Masters degree in Anthropology from Oxford University. There, incidentally, he was also a member of the rowing team that defeated the Cambridge team in the famous 1967 boat race. He then went to Burgundy, where he worked first at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, and then at Domaine Dujac.

Josh Jensen from the Calera Wine Company

In France, he learned that the best Pinot Noirs grow in chalky soil. Upon returning to California, he studied the geological maps of the California Bureau of Mines, and came across Mt. Harlan, one of the few limestone sites in California, 1,000 feet (300 metres) higher than the winery.

Jensen told me that all the big wine companies like Louis Martini, Almaden, and Christian Brothers had produced Pinot Noir in the early seventies. However, they made them according to the same standard recipe for red wines as all other wines, just like a Cabernet Sauvignon. He told us that the thinner-skinned Pinot Noir looked more like a rosé after this treatment. Then some Petit Syrah or Alicante Bouschet was added, for the darker colour. Jensen compared this wine to the Pinot Noir produced nearby at Dick Graf's Chalone estate, which he thought was pretty good at the moment. In 1979, in what he describes as the "bad old days of California wine", he started producing a lighter, more elegant style of French-style Pinot Noir at Calera (which means lime kiln in Spanish).

Santa Lucia Highlands

Today, Pinot Noir is increasingly popular with consumers, and larger and larger quantities are being produced in California. Many of these new Pinot Noir wines have little in common with the light, elegant Pinot Noirs from the cool growing regions of Europe, but are closer in style to the bulky, full-bodied Californian Cabernet Sauvignons. When I asked Jensen what he thought of this trend, he said he was considering writing "a polemic against these musclemen among the Pinot Noirs".

I am sure that it is not only in California that many wines can be described as "musclemen". But California, which is known in many ways for its cultural extremes, is one of the few places where musclemen are highly honoured and respected on the one hand - but also totally put down on the other.

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