In California wine’s early days, Riesling looked to be one of the state’s most promising white varieties. The grape endured periods ranging from favor to near extinction. In 1921, California had about 801 hectares (1,980 acres) planted to Riesling; by 1960, that had declined to 115 hectares (285 acres); 16 years later, in 1976, it had bounced back to 3,500 hectares (8,650 acres). 

Riesling is thought to be an offspring of Gouais Blanc (also a parent of Chardonnay) and an unknown father (some claim that it might be Savagnin), and believed to have originated in Germany’s Rheingau region. The first documented mention of Riesling is a March 13, 1435 entry in the cellar log of Count Katzenelnbogen at Rüsselsheim, when one Klaus Kleinfish purchased six Riesling vines for the sum of 22 solidi. And for all the Riesling lovers out there, and in commemoration, March 13 is globally celebrated as Riesling Day.

California Riesling Timeline

After being brought to the USA by European immigrants, Agoston Haraszthy planted Riesling at his Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County

Riesling vines also introduced to Sonoma by Emil Dresel from his hometown of Geisenheim, Germany

German immigrant Francis Stock planted Riesling in San Jose and supplied cuttings to George Belden Crane in St. Helena, Napa Valley. Riesling was also planted in the Potter Valley, Anderson Valley, Redwood Valley and McDowell Valley districts of Mendocino County at around the same time.

Riesling is planted in Santa Clara County by Charles LeFranc

Wines made from German varieties, particularly Riesling, were what first brought some measure of fame to the fledgling California wine industry. During those years it became common to refer to the true Riesling grape as “Johannisberg Riesling”

Napa Valley’s Stony Hill winery plants Riesling. To date, much of their Riesling still comes from the fruit of those original vines.

Much of the growth in popularity of California premium table wines was generated by young, fruity, slightly sweet White Riesling (and Chenin Blanc). During these decades, Riesling was regarded as one of the state’s top four wine varieties, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and  Chardonnay.

Initial plantings of Riesling in Santa Maria Valley at the Nielson Vineyard (now part of the Byron property). Soon after, in 1968, the variety was planted at Rancho Sisquoc. Other early plantings included Firestone, Tepusquet (now part of Cambria), Curtis Vineyard’s Area 51 (now owned by Andrew Murray), Sanford & Benedict, Zaca Mesa, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, Babcock, Koehler, White Hills, and Gainey.  Of these, Sisquoc, Lafond, Lucas & Lewellen, White Hills, Firestone, Curtis, Koehler, and Gainey still have Riesling under vine. More recent plantings include Coquelicot, Camp 4, La Presa, Brander’s Los Olivos Vineyard, and Fess Parker’s Rodney’s Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley; Ampelos in the Sta. Rita Hills; Riverbench in Santa Maria Valley; and Kick-On Ranch (formerly known as Careaga Canyon) in western Los Alamos Valley.

Riesling became harder to sell in the broader market and has never really recovered. It has made only slow and modest progress in the face of Chardonnay’s dominant position as the white grape variety of which most American wine drinkers are aware.

Chateau Montelena releases its first wine -- a White Riesling

Smith Madrone plants and produces Riesling in Napa Valley, with first release being in 1977

The state hits its all-time peak total bearing acreage for Riesling at 4,152 hectares (10,261 acres), with growth most likely driven by Gallo's interest in the grape as a blending varietal

Ted Bennett plants first Riesling at Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley, a benchmark for this grape in Mendocino County

The BATF declared that the designation “Johannisberg Riesling” could no longer appear on American-made wine after January 1999. On appeal by the industry, this was pushed back to 2006, to allow winemakers more time to make the transition

Graham Tatomer makes Rieslings in Santa Barbara County from Kick-On vineyard, resetting the bar for Riesling in Santa Barbara County

Riesling plantings stood at 3,659 acres (3,647 bearing and 11 non-bearing acres), i.e. 1480.74 hectares (1,475.89 bearing and 4.45 non-bearing hectares) through year-end 2020, representing 0.0078 % of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.

As of 2004, Riesling has been estimated to be the world’s twentieth most widely grown variety. Nevertheless, it is usually included in the top three most appreciated white wine varieties along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s especially celebrated for being highly terroir-expressive. California Riesling is underappreciated and misunderstood. In the mid 1980s, as noted above, emerging interest in Chardonnay, on its way to becoming California’s pre-eminent white grape variety, had an impact on the trajectory of Riesling’s growth. The impending dominance of Chardonnay not only affected Riesling but all white wine grapes. Case in point: as Riesling plantings began to decline in favor of Chardonnay, beginning in 1981, Chardonnay continued to accelerate to a staggering 36,127.09 hectares (89,272 bearing acres) in 2000; over the same period, Riesling declined to 757 hectares (1,873 bearing acres). And though this number has since increased, it still remains quite low. But using the classic “less is more” axiom, this greater correction of supply has equated to what is under vine being grown in the best places, and at a higher quality level, with distinctive California Rieslings now made in areas by several producers with well-established reputations.

For more history and evolution of the Riesling grape, check out Cornell’s “An Introduction to California Riesling” and “Winegrapes of UC Davis: Riesling.”