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California, on the West Coast, is a world all of its own. It is the most populous state in the United States and has the largest economic output. The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego in southern California each have more than a million people (Los Angeles, in fact, is the nation’s second largest city after New York). The San Jose and San Francisco metropolitan areas further north are also among the nation’s largest.

California is also physically large, third in area after Alaska and Texas, and hence has a great variety of landscapes and ecological regions. It has a long Pacific coastline, several ranges of coastal mountains, a vast interior valley, and many arid regions.

California has diverse industries. Southern California is known for Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but it also has a large aerospace presence. The area known as “Silicon Valley” between San Jose and San Francisco is a center of high-technology development and innovation. Computers and electronics are the state’s largest industrial export. With major ports like Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco and Oakland, California is also a major Pacific-rim transportation and logistic center.

The state is also an agricultural powerhouse. The Central Valley of the state, divided into the San Joaquin Valley to the south and the Sacramento Valley to the north, produce fruits and vegetables sold over the entire United States. California is now the largest dairy products producer in the nation. Though home to many large-scale industrial agricultural operations, California is also a center of small-scale artisanal food production. Modern California cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh, artisanal and natural ingredients, has had a real impact on American food culture.

A giant in many food areas, California has a near stranglehold on the production of wine in the United States: more than 90% of American production, at all levels of quality. The state’s size and varied topography give it climates and soils suitable for virtually every type of wine grape variety. Napa and Sonoma counties just north of the San Francisco Bay area are world famous for their quality wines, but many other areas from Mendocino to the north to the Sierra Foothills to the east to Lodi in the center, down through Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties to the south are producing wines of all types, many of them of top quality. The hot Central Valley is known for bulk wine production, but even here some high quality wines are produced. As with the food industry, a few immense companies produce wine on an industrial scale, while thousands of smaller operations make their own special contributions.

Culturally rich, California is also ethnically mixed. The state has a large Hispanic population, but as a Pacific-rim presence it also has large communities of Asian-Americans: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Thais, Filipinos and others. The large cities also have major African-American populations. California has attracted internal migration of Americans of all types for most of the twentieth century. It can sometimes be argued that California has its own distinct culture, but no one has ever been able to define it with any accuracy. The only sure thing is that it is big, it is varied, and it plays an important role in American life.

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