The Rise Of American Wine


IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. SALES OF TABLE wine continued to rise, but overall wine consumption in the United States actually declined slightly over the next twenty years—in large measure because of the anti-alcohol movement of the 1980s. Yet something extremely important had changed. For the first time in American history, a small but significant percentage of the population was enjoying wine as part of daily life. Back before Prohibition only high society or immigrants drank wine regularly. Now it had become part of middle-class life. What had changed, then, at least for an important segment of the population, was American taste, moving from sweet to dry (or drier) and from tough to smooth. The United States was not destined to become a wine-drinking country on the French or Italian scale, but Americans increasingly had little use for the sort of wines that many French and Italian wine drinkers consumed every day—rough, cheap vin ordinaire . Of course, plenty of Americans still had no interest in wine at all. Some continued to think of it as just another form of alcohol and regard all alcohol as the devil’s handiwork. As a societal force, then, Prohibition’s legacy was still alive. Still, those Americans who were interested in wine focused more on the pleasure than the effect it provides. They cared about quality, and in this respect Prohibition’s legacy had just about run its course. These wine drinkers approached wine with a distinctly American consumer mentality. Led by a Maryland lawyer named Robert Parker, who behaved like Ralph Nader and rated wines critically on a 100-point scale, they searched for the best bottle in whatever price category, no matter its origin. Unbound by tradition, they felt free to try wines that themselves had little tradition. But being unbound, they also had little loyalty, and they seemed always to be on the lookout for something new or better. In order for American wine to keep their interest, its quality would have to rise even more.

The first big jump in quality came with mass-produced wines designed for everyday drinking. In Europe vin ordinaire had virtually nothing in common with fine wine. Rough and dirty, it traditionally had been the province of the working poor, with its low price the only thing recommending it to anyone else (including backpacking American tourists). In the United States, however, bulk wine took its cue from premium wine. This was because a good-size American winery usually made both types, and more and more the style of the one followed the other. The changing direction at E & J Gallo provides perhaps the best illustration. This family-run company had prospered for years selling jug, dessert, and pop wines. In the table-wine category its different lines of generic blends, whether Chablis Blanc and Hearty Burgundy under the family label or the red, white, and rosé wines labeled as Carlo Rossi, were (and still are) perennial bestsellers. But beginning in the mid-1970s, Ernest and Julio Gallo began to shift the emphasis, if not the volume, of their production. In 1974 they released a line of varietals, their first wines to be closed with corks rather than screw tops. Later in the decade they built a massive underground aging cellar. Then, in the 1980s, they began buying more and more prime vineyard land in Sonoma County, much of which they bulldozed and shaped into the terroir they wanted. They built a new winery, purchased the finest equipment, and in 1994 released their first estate-bottled Chardonnay and Cabernet, priced respectively at thirty and sixty dollars a bottle. The Sonoma vineyards were capable of producing only one percent or so of Gallo’s annual output, but the wines made from those grapes set the standard for everything else. For by the 1990s Gallo, too, was aiming to make “the best.”

AMERICA has at last realized Thomas Jefferson’s old dream: to make wines “doubtless as good” as those from Europe.

THIS MOVEMENT FROM GE- neric blends to varietally designated and vintage-dated wines was a logical extension of the philosophy that the grape functions as the key to a wine’s quality. It soon swept rapidly all across the globe. Chardonnay and Cabernet were the most popular grapes, and growers just about everywhere started planting them. Soon “fighting varietals” from Australia, Chile, Italy, and France, not to mention the Pacific Northwest, New York, and Texas, were competing with California wines in the global marketplace. A truly international style of wine, one that emphasized above all else the taste of fruit, had arrived. This style drew its share of criticism, much of it deserved. Too many growers in established viticultural regions had grafted over indigenous grape varieties, too many winemakers now were working by formula, and too many wines tasted alike. Yet at the level of moderately priced wine, the emergence of a global style was undoubtedly a good thing. The improvement in the quality of American wine was demonstrating to producers everywhere that bulk wine actually could taste clean and pleasant. The new emphasis on the grape provided standards of quality that could be measured scientifically, and modern technology produced both better grapes in the vineyard and better wine in the winery. To put it simply, bad wine at any price was becoming a thing of the past.