The Rise Of American Wine


This was not at all the traditional emphasis in Europe. There far more attention was paid to location, what the French vigneron called terroir . To some degree terroir is quantifiable. Factors such as soil composition, drainage, and vineyard exposure can be analyzed scientifically and at least partially controlled by human labor. But terroir involves more than present location. To the winemaker in Burgundy or Bordeaux, the quality of a great wine does not come simply from the grapes being grown in a specific vineyard. Instead it comes from grapes having been grown in that same vineyard for a very, very long time. That is, it comes at least in part from history. This aspect of terroir cannot be quantified or analyzed in a laboratory, and at first American winemakers distrusted it intensely. They did so because it was the one aspect of great wine as it traditionally had been defined that they did not and could not have. So long as history played an important role in defining quality, American wine would have to remain a notch below “the best.” But if “the best” could be redefined in wholly present terms—that is, in terms of the grapes whose juice is the wine—then there was no reason why American wine could not aspire to the very highest level. Physiologically, American grapes were the best in the world. Why then, ran the argument, shouldn’t the wine be the best as well?

When American winemakers began to define quality analytically rather than historically, they also began to look at the great wines of Europe anew—as points of departure rather than as models for slavish imitation. Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc provides one of the earliest and best examples. First released in 1968, this dry white wine was inspired by the crisp, tart wines from the Loire appellation of Pouilly-Fumé. But being oak-aged, it was not made like Pouilly-Fumé —and certainly did not taste like it. Mondavi felt free to innovate and experiment when making (and naming) it because his goal had not been to create an Old World clone. Instead he wanted to make a wine that could match the best of Europe on its own terms.

Much the same was true of the Cabernets and Chardonnays that eight years later triumphed in Stephen Spurrier’s Paris tasting. Although inspired by Bordeaux and Burgundy, they tasted, in Oz Clarke’s words, “startlingly, thrillingly different.” That is, they had a style all their own, one marked by an intense, mouth-filling quality and rich, sun-drenched fruit flavors. Over the next twenty years that style would come to define American wine. In turn, it would become America’s greatest gift to the world of wine at large—an exuberant, ripe style of wine that comes from the grapes as much as, if not more than, from where they are grown.

THE EARLY 1970S WERE HEADY days for American wine. New vineyards were being planted in unlikely places: Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Washington, and Oregon. Old vineyards were being restored in Virginia, Ohio, and New York. And every day seemed to bring the opening of a new winery in California. Money flowed freely, as plenty of fortunes made in other fields financed the ambitious dreams of American winemakers. Soon big corporations like Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, and Nestlé got into the game, sometimes buying established vineyards and wineries, sometimes starting their own brands. All this optimism and enthusiasm was based on the seemingly logical assumption that wine consumption in the United States would continue to increase. Americans drank an annual per capita average of 2.5 gallons of wine, a far cry from the French (29 gallons) or Italians (30 gallons). Surely this would go up. In November 1972 Time magazine ran a cover story titled “American Wine Comes of Age.” A picture of Ernest and Julio Gallo appeared on the cover, and the article declared it “inevitable that more Americans will become wine drinkers.”