- Historic Sites
The Rise Of American Wine
AFTER TRYING TO PRODUCE DRINKABLE WINE for three hundred years, we finally got the hang of it—so effectively that in the last quarter-century our results have raised the quality of winemaking all over the world
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
At the highest-quality level, however, the obsessive attention paid to the grape could take American wine only so far. The more talented American winemakers began to realize as much in the early 1980s. Many augmented their university studies with extensive work experience in Europe, and gradually the “us versus them” mentality that had accompanied the initial rise of American wine began to dissipate. Foreign concerns were investing heavily in American vineyards, and cooperation began to become as important as competition. Nothing better represents this changing attitude than the release of Opus One in 1984. Priced at sixty dollars a bottle, making it at that point California’s most expensive wine, Opus One was a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux. Initially controversial, it has gone on in subsequent vintages to win considerable critical as well as consumer acclaim (including a score of 93 from Robert Parker for the 1987 vintage). More important than the plaudits, however, is the wine’s very presence. Made from Napa Valley grapes, it was designed from the start to transcend both the Old World emphasis on region and the New World emphasis on grape variety. The baron’s participation signaled the Old World’s acceptance of the New, but Robert Mondavi’s participation signaled something else: a subtle but significant shift in direction for American wine, a final twist in the redefinition of “the best.”
Considering “the best” as a category of its own and not merely a modifier (as in “the best Bordeaux” or “the best Cabernet” ) marks the final stage in the rise of American wine. Today the American wine industry is filled with people attempting to graft tradition onto what is still very much a new enterprise. The graft can take odd forms, as, for example, in the architecture of Northern California’s wine country, where faux Italian villas sit beside sixty-year-old farmers’ barns. Yet in one sense this sort of oddity is only an outward manifestation of something more substantial —namely, the growing realization on the part of American winemakers that great wine needs history and tradition in order to be (and to remain) great. “The best” cannot be defined in exclusively present terms any more than exclusively historical ones. Thus, while American wine continues to be identified in terms of the grape, the finest wines increasingly are identified in terms of the grape in context—the context of the vineyard as well as the winery, their past as well as their present. California is leading the way, but the lessons are being adopted in the Pacific Northwest, New York, Virginia, and wherever in the United States someone dreams Thomas Jefferson’s old dream: to make wines “doubtless as good” as those from Europe.