The Rise Of American Wine

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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.”

BY THIS POINT AMERICAN winemakers clearly had mastered the craft of producing wine that could express a grape’s varietal character. Their wines were very good, sometimes even world-class, but nagging questions remained: Was varietal character really an appropriate end in itself? Could it actually define great wine? Might it not make more sense to think of both terroir and the grape as the means to a common and greater end? More and more winemakers began to ask these questions. One of the most thoughtful was Warren Winiarski, a former professor of political philosophy whose Stag’s Leap Cabernet had won the 1976 Paris tasting. Back then Winiarski had been committed to the ideal of the grape. Now he was unsure. Some wines, he speculated, are good because they conform to regional expectations. They have “charming, intimate associations with local circumstances, not only such as soil and climate but even steeples, church bells, trees, villages and history.” Other wines are good because they conform to the variety. They taste as wines made from a certain grape should taste. But the finest wines avoid excessively parochial associations of origin, whether the origin of place or the origin of grape variety. They certainly need those associations, but they take their bearings as “the best” from other considerations—in Winiarski’s words, “considerations such as harmony, balance, proportion, scale, magnitude and euphonic relationship of parts.” Any such considerations are themselves products of history, but they are neither confined to nor defined by any one particular history. Instead they represent an ideal to be pursued—not an international style but an international standard of quality.

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.