All the wine in California

The fifth biggest economy in the world is known for its technology, movie stars and wine. Liza B. Zimmerman looks at what the locals drink.


California, the largest producer of domestic wine in the US, often supports the home team. However, as made-in-California wine creeps up in price, the American economy fluctuates and consumers become more educated, imports are gaining better traction in the market. 

As the sixth largest economy in the world, the state has huge buying power, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE) in Palo Alto. With a GDP of $2.5tr, California is gaining ground on the United Kingdom as the fifth largest economy in world — and could overtake it this year. California also accounts for slightly more than one-eighth of the total US population of around 326m. California’s wine markets are centered on Southern California metro areas—such as Los Angeles and San Diego—where CCSCE says half of the state’s population lives, as well as the Bay Area, which accounts for one-fifth of residents. 

The wine market

California permits supermarket wine sales—as do roughly two-thirds of US markets—which make purchase patterns skew heavily towards domestic. Supermarket wines tend to be priced under $20.00 a bottle with a focus on private labels, as offered by big chains such as Costco and the German retailer ALDI, which has recently made major inroads in Southern California. 

The total volume of 9L cases of wine bought in California in 2015—according to Jon Moramarco, a partner in the Napa-based data analyst Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates—is valued at $63.1m. Of that $39.3m was sold through major retailers, such as Kroger, Walmart and Costco; $6.9m though other retailers; $12.6m at restaurant and hotels; and $4.3m through winery tasting rooms and direct to consumer. 

 In 2017, Moramarco estimates that 53.8m 9L cases were shipped to California, which accounts for 13.3 percent of all wine shipped in the US. Of these cases, 46.4m were Californian wines, which account for 86.3 percent of all wine shipped to California. In addition 3.5m—or 6.5 percent—of these cases were bulk imports bottled in the state, funnelled into domestic brands such as Franzia and Bota Box. 

California residents primarily drink local wines, with an astounding 80 percent of wines bought in the state having been produced in California, according to Barbara Insel, president and CEO of data research firm the Stonebridge Research Group. Given this purchasing bias, international wine choices have not been that abundant in California in past decades. 

“In contrast to the north-east, California sees a lot fewer direct imports,” says Christian Miller, the Berkley, California-based proprietor of data analyst Full Glass Research. However, major change has occurred and an interest in foreign value wines and a new enthusiasm for sommelier-endorsed varietals and regions is growing. 

The cash-rich 20- and 30-something tech community that has continued to migrate to the state is seen as a very open-minded wine-drinking demographic. Observers say their deep pockets and quest for new experiences is driving interest in old-school favorites such as Burgundy, eclectic rosés and grower Champagnes. 

Operators in California have long sparked national wine-drinking trends as they have always had greater access to more domestic, small-production wines. At Single Thread Farms—a prix fixe restaurant in Sonoma where dinner for one costs close to $300.00—head sommelier Evan Hufford confirms that California restaurants set the domestic wine trends for the rest of the country as they are an “open and dynamic market”.

Retail, and restaurant, buyers in California have also long had access to wines from many more sources than in other cities in the US. Operators buy directly from wineries, collectors, brokers and can have wine shipped from auction houses and out-of-state retailers by FedEx—36 states currently cannot. They can also work with wineries to make their own “house” brands. “We have access to not only the hits of the Old World, but all the unique and small-production wines that don’t make it to other markets,” adds Hufford. 

Since other markets, such as Las Vegas—where Hufford worked—tend to rely more heavily on purchases made through the three-tier system, they tend to be dominated by large national wholesalers. “What ends up on the lists is much more mainstream and generally from larger producers with the numbers to sell pallets to casinos,” he concludes. 

Supermarkets are much more wine-focused in California than other regions of the country, to both the state’s benefit and detriment in terms of the wine mix. While 30 percent of wine is sold in supermarkets through the US, in California it is double that amount, according to Insel.

As a direct result, most California cities have fewer fine-wine retailers than other markets like New York, where wine cannot be sold in supermarkets and wine stores can’t have multiple locations. So in California, the bulk of wine purchases is made at large grocers like Safeway and Albertsons, which tend to carry mainstream California wines and big-brand imports such as Antinori or Concha y Toro. The remaining 40 percent of wine bought in California is found at fine wine shops—which Insel estimates accounts for 25 percent of the market—then 15 percent at wine chains such as Total Wine & More. 

“California is the stand-out leader in supermarket wine sales, ringing up about $1.6bn in annual sales. That’s almost two times the amount sold in Florida, which sells the second-most wine in supermarkets,” according to a 2015 Nielsen press release. 

The sommelier revolution

Curiosity and a renewed focus on value continue to expand the California wine market. Residents have also started to embrace sommeliers’ advice in restaurants and by joining somm-led wine clubs. Two major films, SOMM and Somm: Into the Bottle, released in 2012 and 2015, have also encouraged greater trust in sommeliers. It is probably not a coincidence that both films profiled the lives of sommeliers who lived in San Francisco. 

With this new openness comes a stylistic shift in wine consumption. While for decades California consumers had been drinking higher-alcohol wines, they are beginning to seek out leaner vintages, both from California and abroad. “Overall, comparing alcohol levels to the 1990s and 2000s, we’re definitely seeing a trend downward,” said Hufford. 

Corporate wine spending has also slowed down, in keeping with the economic downturn since 2008. “The slower than expected economic recovery has mitigated the profligate spending of days past,” says Hufford. 

David Bowler, a New York City-based national importer, agrees: “The price of your average bottle of wine at retail is in direct proportion to how well the economy is doing.” 

Wine lists around the state are getting smaller and more manageable. “A very well-selected small list is a great thing,” says Paul Einbund, founder of the single-location the Morris restaurant in San Francisco, though he admits he still has some editing to do. Tonya Pitts, the sommelier at California restaurant One Market in San Francisco, recently trimmed her list from 1,000 to 500 selections. 

International trends

A love for grower Champagne and dry rosés has been exploding across the state. “The word is more slowing getting out that sparkling wines can be extremely serious and age-worthy and aren’t just for toasting a celebration,” says Hufford.

He points particularly to the hot category of small-production, grower Champagnes. They have long been sommelier favorites but savvy consumers are finally onboard, seeking out smaller producers. Hufford adds that he regularly gets requests for brands such as Egly-Ouriet and Paul Bara. Bowler says that there is a real interest in the in Pét-nat (or “naturally sparking”) category as well. 

“California is drinking Champagne: [both] grower-producer and older vintages of bigger houses,” says Pitts. “California is drinking white and red Burgundy. It seems that young and fresh is preferred for the white wines and at least 20 years-plus on Red Burgundy.” She is currently pouring 2009, 2010 and 2011 red Burgundies, which, she notes, are drinking beautifully. 

Lesser-known grapes are getting more play on lists too. Bowler says he sells a lot of wines from the Canary Islands in California, including producers such as Monje, Los Bermejos, Viñátigo and Tajinaste. “The prices are fair and the wines generally deliver a lot of flavour and interest for the price,” adds Bowler. “Italy’s Sicilian varietals of Frappato and Nero d’Avola are also selling well, as is French Gamay.” 

“While they still make up for a comparatively small chunk of the market, guests are absolutely interested in unique grape varieties,” says Single Thread’s Hufford. “When we put things like Validiguíe or Arneis into a pairing it’s often the wine of the night… because the flavour profile will often be unlike anything they have had before.” 

California operators are getting steadily more access to hard-to-get imports, adds Einbund. Some of his most popular wines include Northern Rhône Syrahs and Loire Valley reds. He adds that he has “been running a Hungarian white for a while that is very popular”. 

While sommeliers all over the country have long been fans, it took a few years for consumers to fall for dry rosés. “Rosé is absolutely having its moment,” says Hufford. The growing interest in the category among California drinkers embraces not only domestic versions but also classics from many regions of France, as well as countries like South Africa.

“Rosé is bigger now then ever,” confirms Einbund. “I’ve always listed a rosé by the glass but I fly through them at this point so that’s a new thing. They used to be sweet or an afterthought.”

With an influx of exciting new varietals, a passion for sparkling and a newfound love of rosé, California seems on track to become an ever more diverse wine market.


California at a glance

Sitting in the Pacific region, California is the most populous state of the US, with 39.5m residents. Its $2.6tr economy is the sixth largest in the world and one of the most dynamic global players, known for technology, innovation and popular culture, including film and television. It is, of course, also the US’s most significant wine growing state. The capital is Sacramento, and the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are global powerhouses, thanks to the proximity of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

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