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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
As with most discoveries, the story be- gins with a crucial moment of realization, an eye-opening instant filled with the awareness of new possibility. In this case the moment came twenty years ago, in Paris, where a young Englishman named Stephen Spurrier ran a wine school called L’Arcadé mie du Vin. In May of 1976 Spurrier invited some of the most respected French wine experts of the day to a formal tasting of prestigious classified-growth Bordeaux and grand cru white Burgundy. Spurrier included a number of California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays in the tasting—in part because of his admiration for these then-obscure wines and in part because of his characteristically British desire to deflate Gallic pretension. This was not the first head-to-head comparison of French and American wines, but it was the first competitive tasting to be held in France with French professionals serving as judges. And it was blind, meaning that the judges had to evaluate and rank the wines without knowing which were which. To everyone’s surprise, including Spurrier’s, the winning wines turned out to be American—the red a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet and the white a Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley. (In second place came two very famous French wines, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 and Domaine Roulot 1973 Meursault-Charmes.) The press, which Spurrier had been sure to invite to the tasting, jumped on the story. In France the reaction reflected anger and disbelief, but in America it was pure glee. Writing in The New York Times , Frank Priai noted that Europeans frequently had denigrated American wines by denigrating American tastes. “What,” he asked rhetorically, “can they say now?” Time magazine put the case more succinctly: “Last week in Paris the unthinkable happened—California defeated all Gaul.”
Of course nothing of the sort had really happened. One event cannot by itself determine supremacy in a field as subjective and changeable as that of wine. Spurrier himself insisted that the Paris tasting should be thought of less as a competition than as a vehicle for discovery—”an opportunity to acknowledge that a young vineyard area can produce top-quality wines, given the same love, interest, skill and money that has been lavished on European vineyards for centuries.”
Yet the Paris tasting had farreaching consequences. It demonstrated to Europeans and Americans alike that the United States (and possibly other New World countries) actually could produce world-class wines. In America it inspired the wine industry to raise its standards and to begin thinking of “world class” as a goal. In Europe it led winemakers to look to American wine with a new appreciation and respect. The realization that great wine could come from vineyards that did not have centuries of grape-growing history behind them suggested to people on both sides of the Atlantic that they had to rethink what great wine was all about. In short, the Paris tasting woke everyone up. It presaged radical change, in the Old World as well as the New.
Plenty would change in Europe over the next twenty years, but the most radical change of all was the rise of American wine—both in terms of quality and in terms of influence and renown. In one sense the rise was meteoric, so much so that the United States today has become arguably the most important winemaking country in the world. Yet wine had been produced in North America ever since the late 1600s, so in another sense the rise was a long time coming. For more than three centuries American wine had seen success only in fits and starts, with small victories almost invariably followed by large defeats. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, came the dizzying achievements of the last quarter-century. How did everything change so quickly? The answer is paradoxically but quintessentially American. On the one hand, the winemaking entrepreneurs whose work inspired the rise advocated individual self-reliance. Like so many Americans in so many fields before them, they believed that their present success had little, if anything, to do with past accomplishment. On the other hand, those same winemakers wanted nothing more than to create a tradition and establish a legacy. They believed that no accomplishment was too great for American nature, and they considered it their mission to make history from the fruit of that nature—American wine from grapes grown in American vineyards.
Others kept trying. One of the most dedicated attempts was made by an Ohioan named Nicholas Longworth (1782-1863), who experimented with all sorts of imported vines in all sorts of soils and locations. He too failed. “I have tried the foreign grapes extensively for wine at great expense,” he admitted in 1843, “and not a single plant is left in my vineyards. I would advise the cultivation of native grapes alone.” Longworth certainly took his own advice. He planted extensive vineyards in the Ohio Valley near Cincinnati, concentrating on the Catawba grape, a hybrid cross between pure labrusca and vinifera . There he produced America’s first commercially successful wine, a sweet “Sparkling Catawba” that developed a considerable following. Comparisons with European wine were inevitable, and some Americans went so far as to judge Longworth’s wine superior even to Champagne. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave voice to this vinous version of manifest destiny in an 1854 poem titled “Catawba Wine,” part of which reads:
It is worth noting that Longworth himself did not claim this sort of superiority for his “wine of the West.” He planted plenty of native grapes and made plenty of money, but he never planted “native grapes alone.” For despite his success with Catawba, he knew in his heart that even hybrid labrusca varieties could never make wines equal in quality to the best from Europe. Hence he kept trying, and failing, to grow Vitis vinifera grapes. But like Jefferson and all the others before him, he could never figure out why those grapes kept dying in his vineyards.
The first Western vineyards belonged to Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Franciscan missions in California. The wine was made for religious purposes, but secular pleasures could not be ignored for long, and by the early nineteenth century vinifera vines were being grown commercially near Los Angeles. The grape of choice, called the Mission, came from Spain via South America, and by all accounts the wine made from it tasted simple and dull. Things remained fairly dull until the 1850s. Then, following the Mexican-American War and the gold rush, came the first California wine boom. It was led by immigrants—for example, the Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy, the Germans Charles Krug and Jacob Beringer, the Frenchman Charles LeFranc and his Burgundian son-in-law, Paul Masson. These viticultural pioneers planted vines all up and down the California coast, concentrating mostly on the valleys north and east of San Francisco Bay. First in Sonoma and then in Napa, they experimented with every Vitis vinifera grape variety they could get their hands on. (Haraszthy alone brought back some three hundred varieties from a European trip in 1861.) Not surprisingly they made wines on a strict European model. One of the best accounts is Robert Louis Stevenson’s in The Silverado Squatters , published in 1883. Stevenson, who knew fine wine from his youth in Edinburgh and his travels on the Continent, lived for a year or so in an abandoned miner’s house in the Napa Valley. “Wine in California is still in the experimental stage,” he wrote. “So, bit by bit, [the Californians] grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.” Stevenson especially admired the wines made by Jacob Schram near Calistoga. In Schram’s cellars, “earth’s cream [is] being skimmed and garnered,” and one “can taste, such as it is, the tang of the earth.” Some of the Schramsberg wines were being shipped to London, and Stevenson noted with approval that “Mr. Schram has a great notion of the English taste.”
By the 1880s California had surpassed Ohio to become the leading wine-producing state in the Union. Phylloxera arrived in force that same decade, but because the remedy of grafting onto resistant rootstock had been discovered, what could have been agricultural disaster ended up as little more than a financial downturn. Soon California wines started winning medals in international competitions, including more than thirty at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. They were being exported to Australia, Asia, and South America, in addition to Europe. Even more important, they were beginning to gain some small measure of acceptance in the East. The stage seemed set, then, for domestic wine to begin shedding its image as second-rate and inferior. After almost three centuries American wines finally were becoming “neere as great [as] our French Brittish,” and a culture for their appreciation seemed to be on the rise.
But another, stronger culture also was ascendant—that of temperance and then Prohibition. In 1851 Maine became the first state to go dry. By 1914 some thirty-two others had followed suit, and then in 1920 the national “noble experiment” began. Americans certainly did not stop making or drinking wine during the thirteen years of Prohibition. In fact they produced more wine than ever before. Some was sold for medicinal use, some went to bootleggers, but even more was homemade. The Volstead Act permitted each citizen to manufacture up to two hundred gallons of (supposedly nonintoxicating) wine or cider “exclusively for use in his home,” and farmers immediately started growing grapes specifically for this purpose. These grapes had to be extremely hearty. They often were shipped thousands of miles across the country, either in open railcars or in packages of concentrated juice known as wine bricks. Business boomed, and by 1923 some California vineyard prices had risen from five hundred to twenty-five hundred dollars an acre. But quantity, not quality, was all that mattered. No one cared anymore about the differences between wine grapes and table grapes, Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca , European-style and distinctly American wines. Grapes were grapes, yeast was yeast, and alcohol was alcohol. So while American wine survived and in raw numbers even prospered during Prohibition, what died was any culture for its appreciation.
When Repeal came in December 1933, the country was in the depths of the Depression. A few adventurous entrepreneurs tried to jump-start the California wine industry, but the vineyards all needed to be replanted, the banks had no money to loan, and most important, virtually everyone now thought of American wine as something made in a bathtub. The old East Coast image of American wine as secondrate was back with a vengeance, and some forty years would pass before it was seriously challenged.
This was Prohibition’s long legacy: wine viewed as just another form of alcohol, and American wine as little more than cheap booze. The quality of American wine plummeted. Regulations imposed after Repeal linked wine with other alcoholic beverages, and the liquor industry at large made the bulk of its money selling beer and whiskey. The few producers still making wine usually sold it in bulk, shipping it by rail or truck to wholesalers often a continent away. In order to survive such treatment, the wine had to be tough—which usually meant sugared or stabilized with brandy.
The public, whose taste had been nurtured on thirteen years of roughedged Prohibition wine, lost what little interest it had in dry table wines, and by 1940 well over 80 percent of Amer- lean wine was either sweet or fortified. Then came world war, and by midcentury it had been almost a lifetime since anyone outside Northern California had drunk high-quality American vinifera wine.
The generation that came of age in the great wave of prosperity that followed the Second World War thought of fine wine as something foreign and of American wine as something that belonged on skid row. The debate over American wine’s identity no longer concerned grape species. Instead it concerned quality, and there really was little left to say. Almost all “premium” wines were imported, almost all “bulk” and “pop” wines domestic. This was the era of Thunderbird, Ripple, and Cold Duck—wines that made no pretense of emulating either a European model or an international standard of quality. American culture, in the form of film, music, fashion, and the like, was enjoying unprecedented influence and prestige all across the globe. But in the world of wine, the United States had hit rock bottom.
The story of American wine over the next thirty years is the story of how Mondavi’s approach carried the day. The British wine writer Oz Clarke describes it as a matter of both vision and ambition. What distinguishes American wine, he says, is that winemakers from California to New York “all take ‘the best’ as their goal, the top wine as their role model… . Sometimes sheer ambition is their downfall. But more often their efforts sing with the excitement of a new industry turning the tables on old, revered institutions, and the whole world has cause to be grateful for that.” The world has cause to be grateful because the rapid rise of American wine gave producers all across the globe the confidence to adopt a similar approach. They too began to think that “the best” need not come from centuries-old vineyards and be made in time-honored ways. This was true in New World countries like Australia and Chile, where growing international markets led to the creation of new wines in new styles. But it also was true in Europe, where America’s success inspired a revolution in the quality of wines from such traditional areas as Piedmont in Italy and Burgundy in France. The issue is not just competition; a good Burgundian négociant has never had much trouble selling his wine. Instead the more significant issue is quality. Both in the vineyard and in the winery, California, with the rest of the United States in tow, has changed how the world makes and appreciates wine.
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.
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 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.”
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.