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The wine grapes of Paso Robles in California are so good that they end up in a lot of Napa Valley wines, as well as those of other high-profile wine regions.
updated 10/6/2008 12:36:44 AM ET 2008-10-06T04:36:44

At a long table in the redwood grove at MacMurray Ranch Vineyards, Sonoma-based film producers Marc and Brenda Lhormer regaled dinner companions with reflections on their recently released movie “Bottle Shock.” The film lends Hollywood treatment to the 1976 blind tasting in Paris that shook the very foundation of the wine establishment when French judges scored California wines higher than their countrymen’s.

Although the story takes place entirely in Napa Valley and France, the Lhormers filmed primarily in California’s Sonoma County. Three-quarters of the outdoor scenes, including helicopter aerials, were shot on Kunde Estate Winery & Vineyards’ whopping 1,850 acres. (Kunde, in fact, has kept a boxing ring built for the film on a knoll overlooking much of the property.)

“Brenda gave our director Randy Miller a comprehensive tour of possible shooting locations in both Napa and Sonoma valleys,” Marc Lhormer says. “Ultimately, we all decided that Kunde’s property and Buena Vista property offered more of the sweeping and untrafficked beauty to portray 1976 Napa.”

That’s not to say Sonoma lags behind Napa when it comes to wine production. It just tends to be more spread out. Napa encompasses 485,120 acres, about 45,300 planted to vineyards, versus Sonoma’s 1,050,000 acres, about 60,300 planted to vineyards. But perhaps the best thing about these two wine regions is that they’re neighbors, making tasting-room tours of each possible in a single trip.

While the old world of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy is all about tradition, the new world is about innovation — with a loving but not suffocating nod to tradition, of course. In the U.S., from sea to shining sea, we have both established and up-and-coming wine regions that are producing fine wines from Albarino to Zinfandel.

Of course, weather stacks the odds heavily in California’s favor in terms of great wine-growing regions. According to the Napa Valley Vintners Association, if California were a nation, it would be the fourth leading wine-producing country in the world, right behind France, Italy and Spain. In addition to Napa and Sonoma counties, the Golden State has impressive wine-producing regions in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties. Of the 5,958 bonded wineries nationwide in 2007, 2,687 were in California.

While wealthy oenophiles pay top dollars for French wines, an Internet entrepreneur from Shanghai raised his paddle at this year’s Napa auction to spend $500,000 for six magnums of 1992 Screaming Eagle and dinner at the winery in Oakville, Calif. In case you’re wondering, a standard-size bottle of the latest-release 2005 vintage runs $750 and is only available to those on the winery’s mailing list.

People talk about Napa as the holy grail of U.S. wine regions for good reason, according to Jason Smith, a master sommelier and director of wine at Bellagio in Las Vegas. “They are really set up for travel and, of course, everyone knows the wines,” he says. Smith also favors Sonoma County — specifically the Russian River Valley — and its “small-town atmosphere.” He thinks of the wine industry there as more “farmers versus large production facilities,” with more hands-on producers, as well as stellar restaurants.

Looking to Southern California, Smith notes the beauty of the setting as well as the heightened popularity of pinot noir coming from Santa Barbara County, due in large part to that another wine-centric movie, “Sideways.” The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission even printed a “Sideways” wine country touring map showcasing the locations where scenes were filmed. And Los Olivos Café in Los Olivos offers a “Sideways” menu based on what the characters in the movie ate there in one of the movie’s key scenes.

Beyond California and also one of Smith’s favorite U.S. wine regions is Washington, particularly the Walla Walla and Columbia valleys. “That is Napa Valley 20 to 30 years ago,” he says, noting that he considers the entire state an underrated wine region. “People hear ‘Washington’ and they don’t know what to think,” he says. “They’re more comfortable with California.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Oregon has its own version of “Bottle Shock.” The state earned the wine world’s respect in the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades when The Eyrie Vineyard’s pinot noir beat France’s best labels. Most impressively, winemaking in the Beaver State is only a 40-year-old endeavor. Oregon’s pinot noirs are so well thought of that luxury glassmaker Reidel last year introduced a vessel specifically for them.

“What I look for are winemakers embracing their terroir, getting the most out of varietals that thrive wherever they are located,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, host of “The Thunder Show” on “In the past few years, I’ve loved a number of cabernet sauvignon-based wines from Washington State, especially Walla Walla [and] pinot noir and pinot gris from Oregon, and especially Willamette Valley.”

On the East Coast, Jason Smith suggests exploringNew York’s Hudson Valley. “I think you need to search out the wineries a little bit more,” he says, and the wines may also “need a little work.” But, “it’s absolutely gorgeous during fall when the leaves are changing.” Vaynerchuk agrees that the area has great potential. "I’ve been big on Rieslings from the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York,” he says, “and there is some great Cab Franc being made on Long Island.”

But, Vaynerchuk expands, “I believe there is the potential for every state to make world-class wines. Remember, 30 years ago, no one was interested in wine from California.”


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