HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? How did a country and a state with virtually no tradition of producing world-class wine become a world leader? Many different, often slowly gathering forces came into play, but two factors stand out. First, it was precisely the absence of tradition in California and the United States at large that enabled visionary winemakers and entrepreneurs to blaze new trails and take American wine to a new level. As Matt Kramer observes in his Making Sense of California Wine , the winemakers of the 1960s and 1970s “had no memory of prior efforts.” They knew that others had passed their way before, but they knew too that any pre-Prohibition path, “if discernible at all,” led nowhere. Three centuries of American grape growing and winemaking, from John Smith to Nicholas Longworth to Jacob Schram, had nothing to do with the future of American wine, and in the 1960s, for Robert Mondavi as well as for Ernest and Julio Gallo, the future was now. The second factor was the realization that if American wine really was going to take “the best” as a goal, American winemakers were going to have to try to redefine “the best.” They could go only so far by emulating the finest wines from Europe, wines that traditionally defined excellence in historical terms that they did not and could not share. Thus the old questions still resonated: Could American wine develop a style and character of its own? Or would a vinous declaration of independence actually prevent American wines from being “neere as great” as their stylistic models, the great French wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux?
The laboratory was one place to look for answers, and the winemakers whose work fueled the rise of American wine in the 1960s and 1970s relied heavily on science and technology to tell them what to do. Many studied in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, and they approached their work like NASA engineers, trying to control nature in order to attain consistent and predictable results. Davis-trained viticulturists pioneered such agricultural methods as mechanical harvesting, drip irrigation, and field grafting, all designed to control more effectively what happens in the vineyard. The winemakers had similar goals. Some worked by recipe and formula as much as by taste, their heads filled with figures and equations—pH balances, fermentation temperatures, Brix levels, and so on. For them, making wine was less an individual art than a repeatable science. All this systemization had a definite downside, for many of the wines ended up tasting sterile. But the upside was far greater. More than anything else, this emphasis on science and technology is what enabled American producers to catch up to their European counterparts in such an amazingly short time. What had taken centuries of trial and error to learn in the Old World was being put into practice almost instantaneously in the New, as experimentation and innovation took the place of inheritance.
DURING THE early 1970s every day seemed to bring the opening of a new winery in California, and money poured into the industry.
THE MOST IMPORTANT American innovation of all was the emphasis that winemakers began to place on a wine’s present composition as the crucial measure of its quality. This involved technical data having to do with such things as acid levels and degrees of residual sugar, but it began and ended with something far more basic: the grape itself. The professors at Davis taught that both grape growing and winemaking could be reduced to mathematically verifiable rules. The critical variable, what separated one wine from another, was the grape, the species— vinifera as opposed to labrusca , and, even more important, the varietal within the species, and then the clone within the varietal, all of which could be studied, analyzed, and even improved upon in the laboratory.