John Alban makes some of the most aromatically complex and explosively rich wines in the New World from traditional Rhone varieties. Since 1989 he's worked entirely with fruit from his own superb clonal material, planted on chalk-rich hillside vineyards in Edna Valley. This master of Rhone varieties makes a thick, chewy, dry Roussanne of remarkable aromatic complexity, with stone fruit and mineral elements supported but not overwhelmed by spicy oak. Other labels include Pandora, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, as well as several vineyard-designate bottlings. The wines have the exotic yet varietal-accurate character and creamy sweetness to provide immediate pleasure but have the balance and structure to age. Alban's barrel-fermented Viognier is also fragrant and rich.
Mendocino County, the northernmost of California's coastal regions established its wine identity in the 1970s. The majority of Mendocino's vines are cultivated in warm climates with the one noteworthy exception being the Anderson Valley, which runs southeast away from the Pacific and enjoys a cooling marine influence and longer growing season. Planted to cool-climate varieties, the Anderson Valley accounts for less than 10% of Mendocino's total wine production, but it is probably the county's best-known region, followed by the inland Redwood Valley.
Historically, the vast majority of Mendocino County grapes were Carignane and Colombard; grown in the Redwood Valley, they were destined to be consumed out of jugs. By the mid-1970s, however, Mendocino's reputation began to improve with the success of ripe, brawny Zinfandels, powerful Cabernets, and muscular Petite Sirahs. Today, Chardonnay is the most widely planted variety, followed by Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.