The Golden State of Wine

As Boisdale restaurants embrace E&J Gallo wines from the Golden State, Michael Karam explores the winemaking heritage of this great terroir

April 21 2020


Last year, Boisdale Life told the story of the famous ‘Judgment of Paris’, when, in 1976, the Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier held a blind tasting that would change the wine landscape forever. Spurrier pitted the best Californian Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays against the finest wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, and the Americans swept the board, in one morning destroying the hitherto unchallenged authority of French wine.

It was, Spurrier says, just a matter of time, though only a few knew the quality the Golden State was producing. Back then, Californian wine had a patchy history and struggled to achieve momentum. It started with Spanish monks in the 18th century, and things picked up following the Gold Rush. The first commercial winery opened in 1857, but California’s trajectory was interrupted by the double whammy of Phylloxera, the vine-destroying parasite, and Prohibition. Phylloxera was eventually overcome, but not before many vineyards were decimated; while the 14 years of Prohibition saw the number of wineries reduced from 800 to just 140. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the region began to recover, as the Judgment of Paris confirmed.

Since then, it hasn’t looked back. Today California is home to some 1,200 wineries, covering nearly 200,000 hectares in 107 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). It makes 80 per cent of US wine and is the world’s fourth largest wine producer, at roughly the equivalent of 3.6 billion bottles a year.

The wine nerds will tell you that California winemaking is highly affected by the presence of mountains and coastal influences. The state is geologically diverse, possessing both Mediterranean and Continental climates, while the numerous bays and the Pacific Ocean provide cooling winds and fog to temper the heat. Napa and Sonoma are warmer as they are surrounded by mountains, but the morning fog, which dissipates at around 11am, plays a major role in cooling the grapes, ensuring they retain acidity and develop complexity.

One of the biggest names in California wine – indeed in the world of wine – is E&J Gallo Winery. Founded after the end of Prohibition in 1933, E&J Gallo is now California’s largest exporter, with a portfolio of more than 80 wineries that represent a thrilling snapshot of the diverse terroirs. In September, Boisdale, in collaboration with Gallo, launched its California Collection Terrace, listing several wines from a blue-chip quartet of North Coast producers.

Thirty miles long with 17,401 hectares of vineyards, Napa Valley is one of the premium wine growing areas in the world, even if it only represents five per cent of California’s total wine production. Nearly all the wineries are family-owned, and the predominant philosophy is to produce high-quality wines – notably made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but also Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc – from low-yield harvests. Boisdale’s Napa duo from the Gallo portfolio represent all that is wonderful and diverse about this region.

California has both Mediterranean and Continental climates, producing exceptional grape harvests

Founded in 1933, Louis M Martini Cabernet Sauvignons are given wonderful body by the profound terroir expression in the winery’s vineyards in Cypress Ranch, Sun Lake and Sage Canyon. Boisdale’s wine list features older vintage ‘Cabs’ but the youthful 2016 vintage is bold and powerful. There is a small amount of Cabernet Franc and Merlot in the blend and the wine is aged for 21 months in American and French oak.

Dave Phinney, who created and then sold the cult wine, The Prisoner, now runs the Orin Swift winery, producing an eclectic range of dynamic Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone varietals and blends made with grapes sourced in Napa and across the state. The wines are also notable for their edgy labels. Boisdale has chosen the Rhone-inspired Abstract, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Petit Syrah, aged for eight months in French and American oak, and Machete, made again with Petit Sirah, Syrah and Grenache, aged for 10 months in French oak.

Climate is key in the Russian River Valley AVA, home to just under 100 wineries, where the night temperature can drop by up to 20 degrees Celsius from the daytime high. It is famed for its ability to produce high-quality, cool climate grapes such as Pinot Noir, though Chardonnay is the main grape, prized for its crisper profile, achieved due to the area’s cooler climes and longer growing season.

The MacMurray Ranch, run by Kate MacMurray, the daughter of the actor Fred MacMurray who bought the winery in 1941, is a classic Russian River Valley winery, producing outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnays and Pinot Gris. Boisdale has chosen Kate’s Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown at the Two Rock Vineyard (named after the two rocks that the Miwuk and Pomo people would pass through for luck on their journeys inland).

Judy Jordan founded J Vineyards & Winery in 1986 and Boisdale has selected two of Judy’s traditional sparkling wines: Brut Rosé made with 100 per cent Pinot Noir, and Cuvée 20 Brut, made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which scored 96 points at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards. All Judy’s grapes are hand-harvested in low yields to make some of the creamiest, most delicious sparkling wines in the US today.

Californian wine is all about endurance, dynamism and innovation; a respect for the past with an eye to the future – a philosophy that is captured perfectly in the four Gallo producers currently gracing the Boisdale wine lists. Nothing in California is static, as the French found out to their cost 43 years ago. Vive la différence, dude!

Louis Martini
The sensational 2016 Louis M Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon


Bulging with brooding black fruit, spice and bell peppers, with rounded fruit tones, soft tannins and great acidity.

Gaminess, dark red fruit and a pleasing hint of garrigue (shrubland), vanilla and sweet spice. It possesses soft tannins and excellent length.

Seismic acidity, with notes of citrus, acacia and white pepper. A wine that shows its best in cool climates.

Wonderfully balanced with a creamy profile defined by notes of white flowers, citrus, apples, brioche and almonds.

Creamy red fruit – primarily fresh strawberries and cherries – and meringue with a savoury nutty twist.

A plush symphony of black and fresh red fruit, ably supported by notes of liquorice and spice, with beautifully integrated tannins.

Aromas of cherry and red plum with pork meat and herbs. Balanced and integrated with exceptional acidity.