What are America’s most important wines? Not necessarily the best wines, since these will vary from vintage to vintage, but the most important, the wines that in some way have made a significant difference. Below are my “top ten.” Although each ranks among the finest in its class, not all classes are equal, and the list undoubtedly reflects my own prejudices as much as anything else. All these wines, however, are or have been groundbreaking, making them leading players in the twenty-five-year drama of the rise of American wine.
Long-time Napa Valley grape grower Charlie Wagner started Caymus Vineyards in 1972 and released the first Special Selection Cabernet with the 1975 vintage. The wine lived up to its name from the start. Unlike many California Cabernets, it never was modeled on Bordeaux. Instead Wagner and his son Chuck emphasized the ripe, intense black fruit flavor that came from their own vineyards. In doing so, they helped define New World style at the highest level—so much so that Caymus Special Selection is widely regarded today as one of the top red wines made anywhere in the world.
As much as any other, this Washington State wine is responsible for Merlot’s becoming the darling of red wine drinkers in the 1990s. Originally a second label of the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, Columbia Crest released its first line of varietal wines in 1987. Merlot, made from grapes grown in the Columbia River Valley, immediately became the company’s signature offering —a soft, accessible, and, above all, tasty wine that sold at a reasonable price. Now, ten years later, hundreds of wineries all across the country are trying to make Merlot that can match this combination of quality and value. Few succeed.
Who makes the East Coast’s most important wine? Perhaps Dr. Konstantin Frank, who demonstrated that vinifera vines could survive the bitterly cold winters of New York’s Finger Lakes. Perhaps Louisa and Alex Hargrave, who pioneered fine winemaking on Long Island. But my vote goes to Dennis and Sharon Horton in Orange County, Virginia, who with their 1993 Viognier produced arguably the finest American wine yet made from this Rhône grape variety. Its quality, like that of Frank’s Riesling and Hargrave’s Chardonnay, suggests that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of world-class wine from Eastern vineyards is at long last coming true.
Fruity and more than a touch sweet, this mass-market wine epitomizes the style that millions of people want today when they order a glass of Chardonnay. It helped define that style upon its release in 1981, and it has been remarkably successful ever since. Over that time Chardonnay replaced “Chablis” and other generic labels as America’s most popular white wine. Kendall-Jackson, with winemaking inspired by consumer taste preferences more than by European models, led the way.
Over the past decade no one in America has made better Chardonnay than Kistler. This premium Sonoma County winery produces a line of vineyard-designated wines, of which Kistler Vineyard (formerly called Kistler Estate) consistently ranks at the top. The wine possesses incredibly rich, complex flavors, and unlike the vast majority of California Chardonnays, it actually benefits from aging, making it the equal of grand cru white Burgundy. The 1990 stands out as the greatest American white wine I have ever tasted.
Robert Mondavi rescued Sauvignon Blanc from oblivion with his Fumé Blanc in the early 1970s, but Sandra and Bill MacIver at Matanzas Creek have taken this grape variety to new heights in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps because their Sonoma County winery produces only a few wines, they treat the grape with the sort of respect that many other wineries reserve for more profitable varieties. The result is a wine that has redefined how good American Sauvignon Blanc can be.
Dick Ponzi is one of the pioneers and acknowledged leaders of Oregon winemaking, and his Pinot Noir Reserve ranks among the country’s finest. This fickle grape variety has befuddled American winemakers for a long time, but today more and more good wines are being produced than ever before. Many come from Oregon, and the very best, including Ponzi’s, are beginning to rival the great red wines of Burgundy.
A vinifera grape with uncertain origins, Zinfandel reaches its true glory as a full-bodied red wine, especially when the wine is made from old vines. These vines grow in northern California, where many were planted by Italian immigrants. Albert Rafanelli came to the Dry Creek Valley from Tuscany in 1911, and his grandson, Dave, now serves as the family winemaker. His Zinfandel is not as brash or showy as some others, but year after year it tastes spicy, deep, and, above all, balanced, making it to my mind just about the best made anywhere.
Over the past two decades many French Champagne houses have started making sparkling wine in California. Of these, Roederer Estate in Mendocino County produces perhaps the finest wines. Under the direction of the winemaker Michel Salgues, formerly a consultant to Roederer in France, the nonvintage Brut has become one of the great wine values in the world. And the prestigious L’Ermitage is one of only two or three American sparklers that actually can compete in quality with tête-de-cuvée Champagne.
Back in 1972 Bob Trinchero fashioned a pink wine from black Zinfandel grapes as a winemaking experiment. He liked the result, especially when he finished it with a little sweetness, and his Sutter Home White Zinfandel went on to inspire the blush-wine craze of the 1980s. Although often belittled by critics, these rosés introduced millions of people to American wine. They challenged and to a large degree replaced cheap imports as the novice wine drinker’s quaff of choice.