By: Marlo Richardson
When one thinks of Napa Valley, the mind becomes filled with images of vineyards stretching towards the horizon, the scent of purposely-cultivated grape varietals, and the unique flavor profiles of each carefully-crafted wine. After all, finding the perfect balance between taste and quality is something that the region’s wines have become globally renowned for.
Last year, California was named the best state for vintage quality, which should come as no surprise considering that most sparkling wines are typically the first to be picked in California. The Golden State produces about 80% of the nation’s wine, making it the world’s fourth-largest wine-producing region and the most popular wine origin for high-frequency drinkers at 35%.
For winemakers, this recent growth should spark more than one proverbial lightbulb. The market for California wines is larger than ever, and with that growing market comes a rising demand from customers for wines that can quickly become their new favorite go-to drink. But in order to stand out from the swelling tide of competition, you will need to ensure that the wine you produce will be one that stays as fresh in the bottle as it does in the mind of your customers — you will need to create a wine that resembles California in a single glass.
Finding a Distinct California Taste
When one is seeking to not only create a quality wine true to what California embodies, but one that will create lasting memories, attention to every detail is key. For any new winemakers out there, this counts double. Wineries and vineyards in the Golden State hit a record $40 billion in sales in 2020, and international exports of their goods are only climbing as more and more people around the world seek out the flavors and aromas distinct to the region. The California wines primarily enjoyed include Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, Pinot Noir, assorted red blends, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
When you are a new winemaker looking to create something that resonates with California, it’s important to remember that your consumers are also likely looking towards other smaller wine brands in order to get a taste of their distinctly local flair. California has over 4,000 wineries, including the famous Napa Valley and Sonoma, where every seasoned sommelier should at least make one trip on their vino journey.
Many wine drinkers get comfortable with their favorite brand and style of wine, but the way to encourage them to try something new and different is to give them something familiar, yet unique. As a winemaker, your goal should be to put your own spin on the flavors you love in a wine. If there’s something you love about it, chances are someone else will love it, too.
The 5 Components of
California Wine Climate
The Golden State boasts a climate as unique to the region as it is diverse. Benefiting from the generally mild, Mediterranean-like climate — dry, warm summers followed by fairly mild winter and spring months — the grapes cultivated for wines in California are able to steadily grow throughout the majority of the year.
California’s natural geography cannot be overlooked for the role it plays in the state’s wine production. Thanks to the cool Pacific winds that naturally cool the west and northwest portions of the state, the grapes grown in California’s vineyards are able to retain a majority of their acidity, highlighted in the balanced, fresh taste of the wines they produce. And thanks to variations in both elevation and soil found throughout California, winemakers and vineyard owners are able to plan for the specific wines they want to make.
Balance and sustainability are arguably two of the most important components of quality wine, and California is no stranger to either component. The Golden State has long been a trailblazer in terms of sustainable environmental practices, prioritizing the health of its natural soils, water, and other resources — all of which shine through in its wines.
The trick to mastering this component with wine production, however, is understanding what elements of a specific wine balance well with others. For example, if a wine has identifiable characteristics that are clearly tied to a specific grape variety or region, that specific vino is explicitly expressive of that particular region. But if the flavor profile, acidity level, or aroma of that particular grape — say a Cabernet Savouignon — does not balance with the overall palate, the perceived quality of the wine will diminish amongst consumers.
Many wine drinkers have their favorite varietal of wine, but the great thing about a distinct grape or blend is that it is immediately recognizable to anyone who has tried it before. Even if one doesn’t describe themselves as a sommelier, or even a seasoned vino drinker, they can still taste and identify the grape’s distinct flavor profile.
Intricacy and Aromas
Ultimately, the flavor profile of any wine comes down to the varietal of grapes used in its production. If you are looking to create a vino that one could consider a simple blend, then your varietal should remain relatively unchanged. However, to make a more complex — and, perhaps, more memorable — concoction, various aromas and flavors should be added, including primary (water, alcohol, acid, sugar, and phenolic components), secondary, and tertiary flavor components.
Secondary components derive from the actual winemaking process, which includes fermentation and the aging process. These elements could include biscuit and yeasty, elements that appear from autolysis, an effect that occurs when the yeast dies off. Or a distinct popcorn aroma that is a common byproduct of malolactic fermentation in Chardonnays.
Tertiary components occur when the aging of the wine occurs in an ideal environment. For red wines, fresh ripe fruit used in production will, in the process, transform into stewed or dried fruit, not dissimilar to a raisin or fig. During this process, it is not uncommon to experience aromas occurring that are reminiscent of tobacco, earth, and even mushrooms.
For aged white wines in tertiary, these can commonly develop notes of dried apricot or orange marmalade, as well as Sherry-like notes of almonds and flavors similar to candied fruits. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas and more complex spice components such as nutmeg, ginger, or petrol.
It is essential to note that wines with tertiary aromas are not considered to be inherently “better” than wines with primary and secondary aromas. Sommeliers attracted to fruity, lighter tastes, for instance, are more likely to prefer a primary or secondary wine. Moreover, at least 90% of wines are made to be consumed young and fresh, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, while only a smaller percentage improves with aging.
When you think about the aromas of a wine, you usually hear about the more fruity or floral aromas. But depending on the varietal you use in making your wine, there are plenty of other flavors you can incorporate and bring out in the final product. The key, again, is to make it your own.
Perfecting the quality
The aging process can also significantly influence the flavor profile of a wine. For example, many California vineyards age their red blend in oak barrels, allowing the wine to absorb some of the oak’s distinct flavor. Oak aging, for instance, gives sommeliers flavors such as vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut — even coffee. Although the oakiness isn’t strong in the finished product, it’s noticeable enough to be a pleasant addition to the wine’s flavor profile, hence the tertiary element.
Securing the right flavors could be easier said than done, especially given the frequent lack of consistency that occurs throughout the distilling process. For those more new to the process, this can rightfully feel frustrating. If you find that the distinct California flavor you are looking for isn’t quite there yet, continue experimenting with the elements of the process you can control. There are so many different flavor profiles that you can create, so you have to find something that captures not only your own taste, but the taste your customers are after.
With home-distilling red wine, I should advise that achieving consistency in your wine’s flavor will perhaps be the most difficult challenge. Yes, you are bound to make mistakes, but remember that your customers are after consistency in the final product just as much as they are for its quality. If either component is found lacking, so will your future revenues!
The biggest challenge about having your own wine is that, once you have the product in your hand and people taste it and love it, they’re going to ask where they can buy it. When you’re just starting, it will probably be only online or in a handful of physical locations. The challenging part is getting the wine into the hands of more people so they can try it and enjoy it as we do.
Entrepreneurs hoping to get their foot in the door of the wine business should find a particular varietal or blend they are passionate about. Your consumers have an abundance of options when it comes to alcohol brands — especially wine. If you’re making wine just to make it, you will not be able to stand out as a smaller, independent brand. Find a wine that you are passionate about, and start there. Once you find success with that first varietal, you will be far better equipped to grow your business alongside your base of customers.
Marlo Richardson is a multi-entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of four Black-owned cannabis businesses in California. She is also the founder of the wine company, Braymar Wines and Business Bullish, a website, and resource that seeks to train people in the areas of financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Marlo is the owner of STAGE 21 bar in Culver City, CA, formally known as the Tattletale Room Tavern. She is also the president of Marlo Productions and produced two theatrical films and hosts a podcast that mentors people looking to start investing in cryptocurrency & the stock market.