The Rise Of American Wine

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A GENERATION AGO THE United States was little more than an afterthought in the world of wine. America certainly had a long history of grape growing and winemaking, but that history hardly mattered. Nor did the wine itself much matter. Large producers, led by E & J Gallo, made gallons of innocuous jug wine, but only a handful of small, largely unknown American wineries produced anything resembling fine wine from Europe. Then, seemingly overnight, American wine took a huge leap in both quality and prestige. The country that had been an afterthought suddenly became an obsession. All at once the world discovered American wine, and all at once America discovered that it had the potential to make wines that could compete with the world’s best. This is the story of those two discoveries— first the story of why it took so long for the United States to produce truly great wine and then the story of how America was able to rise so quickly to its current position of prominence, if not preeminence, in the world of wine.

 

As with most discoveries, the story be- gins with a crucial moment of realization, an eye-opening instant filled with the awareness of new possibility. In this case the moment came twenty years ago, in Paris, where a young Englishman named Stephen Spurrier ran a wine school called L’Arcadé mie du Vin. In May of 1976 Spurrier invited some of the most respected French wine experts of the day to a formal tasting of prestigious classified-growth Bordeaux and grand cru white Burgundy. Spurrier included a number of California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays in the tasting—in part because of his admiration for these then-obscure wines and in part because of his characteristically British desire to deflate Gallic pretension. This was not the first head-to-head comparison of French and American wines, but it was the first competitive tasting to be held in France with French professionals serving as judges. And it was blind, meaning that the judges had to evaluate and rank the wines without knowing which were which. To everyone’s surprise, including Spurrier’s, the winning wines turned out to be American—the red a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet and the white a Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley. (In second place came two very famous French wines, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 and Domaine Roulot 1973 Meursault-Charmes.) The press, which Spurrier had been sure to invite to the tasting, jumped on the story. In France the reaction reflected anger and disbelief, but in America it was pure glee. Writing in The New York Times , Frank Priai noted that Europeans frequently had denigrated American wines by denigrating American tastes. “What,” he asked rhetorically, “can they say now?” Time magazine put the case more succinctly: “Last week in Paris the unthinkable happened—California defeated all Gaul.”

NORTH American labrusca grapes were delicious to eat, but wines from them tended to smell and taste rank—something like wet fur.
 

Of course nothing of the sort had really happened. One event cannot by itself determine supremacy in a field as subjective and changeable as that of wine. Spurrier himself insisted that the Paris tasting should be thought of less as a competition than as a vehicle for discovery—”an opportunity to acknowledge that a young vineyard area can produce top-quality wines, given the same love, interest, skill and money that has been lavished on European vineyards for centuries.”

Yet the Paris tasting had farreaching consequences. It demonstrated to Europeans and Americans alike that the United States (and possibly other New World countries) actually could produce world-class wines. In America it inspired the wine industry to raise its standards and to begin thinking of “world class” as a goal. In Europe it led winemakers to look to American wine with a new appreciation and respect. The realization that great wine could come from vineyards that did not have centuries of grape-growing history behind them suggested to people on both sides of the Atlantic that they had to rethink what great wine was all about. In short, the Paris tasting woke everyone up. It presaged radical change, in the Old World as well as the New.