Wine expert Rick Longoria talked with Cooking Light about California wines and how the California wine industry has grown since the 1970s.
What can you say about the growth of the American wine industry since you started out in the 1970s?
There has been a tremendous growth. When I started in the wine business in 1974, there were 260 vineyards in California. Now there are 3,200. Thirty years ago, only 10 to 12 states had any kind of wine industry, now all 50 do.
European wines are typically named after regions. How are American wines named?
It wasn’t until the late 1950s, early 1960s that they started to rely on the grapes the wines were made from. And then, in order to protect the consumer, the ATTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] said wine has to contain at least 75% of the grape it was named after. That began the tradition that most American wines follow: Naming the wine after the grape.
Most French grapes are grown in cold weather. How does the California climate affect the wine’s flavor?
It’s a misconception that all of the wine regions in France are cool. As you go south, the climate is much warmer, and the wine changes accordingly. Here in California, we come very close to representing the climate of almost any region of France. We have areas here that are as cool as the cooler French wine regions. Where we are, in the Santa Rita Hills, is very close to the ocean and mimics northern France’s temperatures. As you go east, where it’s a bit warmer, those temperatures mimic the south of France, in the Rhone area, so you see the same grapes planted as you would in France.
How do the different climates in southern and northern California affect winemaking?
Climate in California is determined by proximity to the ocean, not necessarily whether you’re in northern or southern California. San Francisco Bay extends just to Napa so the maritime influence has a moderating effect on the vineyards that are in the southern part of Napa Valley. That region is called the Carneros region; it’s the coolest part of Napa valley. North, away from the bay influence, it gets warmer and warmer.
In the Santa Barbara area, climate gets warmer as you go east— away from the ocean. We’re cooler than the southern part of Napa Valley. We grow chardonnay and pinot noir very well in the cool coastal climate of the Santa Rita Hills.
One thing that does make a difference is rainfall; Northern California gets more rain than we do in the central coast and southern California. Rain can aversely affect the quality of the grapes.
Why did you choose to establish your vineyard in Santa Barbara?
It was all based on the climate. I got my start in Sonoma and got to know the climate there. I came to Santa Barbara County, and it was easy to notice the climate was different, and the wine quality was different. My preference was to work in Santa Barbara because I felt like the wines from here more resembled wines from France than northern California wines.
Which varietals do you think are distinct to the American wine industry?
One grape that California has that’s hardly found anywhere else is Zinfandel. It was brought by Spanish missionaries in the 1800s, but developed its own personality here in California.
Do you think American wine is similar to another country’s wines, say warmer weather places like Spain or South America?
Generally speaking, no. California wines have their own identity and personality that’s different than other countries. Sixty percent to 70 percent of wine is produced in the California Central Valley, which is warm. Warm climate grapes make a wine that’s fruitier and higher in alcohol. Those are the qualities that characterize California wine versus European wine.
Rick Longoria started Longoria Wines, an artisanal winery in Santa Barbara, in 1982 with his wife Diana. He has worked in the California wine business since the 1970s.