The Rise Of American Wine

BOTH IN THE vineyard and in the winery, California, with the rest of the United States in tow, has changed how the world makes wine.

This was Prohibition’s long legacy: wine viewed as just another form of alcohol, and American wine as little more than cheap booze. The quality of American wine plummeted. Regulations imposed after Repeal linked wine with other alcoholic beverages, and the liquor industry at large made the bulk of its money selling beer and whiskey. The few producers still making wine usually sold it in bulk, shipping it by rail or truck to wholesalers often a continent away. In order to survive such treatment, the wine had to be tough—which usually meant sugared or stabilized with brandy.

The public, whose taste had been nurtured on thirteen years of roughedged Prohibition wine, lost what little interest it had in dry table wines, and by 1940 well over 80 percent of Amer- lean wine was either sweet or fortified. Then came world war, and by midcentury it had been almost a lifetime since anyone outside Northern California had drunk high-quality American vinifera wine.

The generation that came of age in the great wave of prosperity that followed the Second World War thought of fine wine as something foreign and of American wine as something that belonged on skid row. The debate over American wine’s identity no longer concerned grape species. Instead it concerned quality, and there really was little left to say. Almost all “premium” wines were imported, almost all “bulk” and “pop” wines domestic. This was the era of Thunderbird, Ripple, and Cold Duck—wines that made no pretense of emulating either a European model or an international standard of quality. American culture, in the form of film, music, fashion, and the like, was enjoying unprecedented influence and prestige all across the globe. But in the world of wine, the United States had hit rock bottom.

THE RISE BEGAN IN THE 1960S when, as part of the country’s restless reaction against the staid homogeneity of the postwar years, Americans began experimenting with new tastes and experiences. Wine became one of them. Some people tried it as an alternative to whiskey and cocktails; others drank it because doing so seemed exotic or refined; still others, especially young drinkers on college campuses, turned to wine because it was natural and “of the earth.” Between 1965 and 1975 national consumption increased by nearly 150 percent. As telling, because it suggests that wine was beginning to shed its image as cheap hooch, the amount of money Americans were willing to spend on it went up even faster—doubling, for example, from 1968 to 1972. For the first time since Prohibition the sale of table wines surpassed that of fortified and dessert wines. American producers responded to this new interest in wine in two quite different ways. The first and more common approach was the time-honored one of trying to give customers what they wanted. Ernest and Julio Gallo were masters of this strategy, pioneering consumer research on American taste preferences, and for more than half a century anticipating just about every trend in wine consumption. But the second approach, championed most prominently by Robert Mondavi, paid little attention to consumer preferences. It proceeded from the assumption that people new to wine had not yet developed firm likes and dislikes, and it set as its goal educating the American palate with wines that, in Mondavi’s words, “belong in the company of the truly fine wines of the world.”

The story of American wine over the next thirty years is the story of how Mondavi’s approach carried the day. The British wine writer Oz Clarke describes it as a matter of both vision and ambition. What distinguishes American wine, he says, is that winemakers from California to New York “all take ‘the best’ as their goal, the top wine as their role model… . Sometimes sheer ambition is their downfall. But more often their efforts sing with the excitement of a new industry turning the tables on old, revered institutions, and the whole world has cause to be grateful for that.” The world has cause to be grateful because the rapid rise of American wine gave producers all across the globe the confidence to adopt a similar approach. They too began to think that “the best” need not come from centuries-old vineyards and be made in time-honored ways. This was true in New World countries like Australia and Chile, where growing international markets led to the creation of new wines in new styles. But it also was true in Europe, where America’s success inspired a revolution in the quality of wines from such traditional areas as Piedmont in Italy and Burgundy in France. The issue is not just competition; a good Burgundian négociant has never had much trouble selling his wine. Instead the more significant issue is quality. Both in the vineyard and in the winery, California, with the rest of the United States in tow, has changed how the world makes and appreciates wine.