North American - Wines
Historians tend to date the beginning of the American wine adventure from the arrival of the Franciscan Junipero Serra in California in 1769 to found Mission San Diego, the first of a chain of twenty-one Catholic missions that would reach Sonoma in northern California over the ensuing fifty years.
While Padre Serra probably brought with him cuttings of the Criolla, or Mission grape, a European variety that was to produce California's first wine, it was not until at least a decade later that there were records of wine being made by the Franciscans, and it was made at Mission San Gabriel, east of the frontier settlement of Los Angeles.
But wine had been made in this country long before Padre Serra arrived. In his masterly The Wines of America, Leon D. Adams dates the first successful winemaking to 1562 when French Huguenots used the wild Muscadine -- sometimes called Scuppernong -- grapes they found growing near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. Both the Jamestown colonists in Virginia, in 1609, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., twelve years later, fermented native grapes into wine.
But winemaking in North America goes back even further. As governor of New Spain -- Mexico -- Hernando Cortez oversaw the planting of extensive vineyards -- probably the Criolla grape -- as early as 1524, and the first commercial Mexican winery was in operation at Coahuila, 800 kilometers/500 miles north of Mexico City, by 1593. It was from Mexico that winemaking spread south to Argentina and Chile and north to what was to become the United States.
The first successful vineyards in what was later to become the United States were planted near what is now El Paso, Texas, when it was part of Nuevo Mexico. In the far north, Jacques Cartier found wild vines on an island in the St. Lawrence in the 1530s, and some ninety years later, Jesuit missionaries in the same area began to make wine with which to celebrate the Mass. The grapes were probably not too different from those Lief Ericsson was supposed to have found when and if he landed at Newfoundland some six hundred years earlier.
The eastern seaboard of the United States, beginning with the Huguenots and going up to Thomas Jefferson, had a long and much more varied experience with viticulture well before it began in California, but with middling success.
In their 1941 book American Wines, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel wrote of the early settlers. "They strove to make the land conform to their ideas, or the ideas of overseas experts, instead of taking their cue from nature and adapting themselves to conditions as they found them."
In other words, they tried to grow European vinifera grapes in hostile climates and soils. Jefferson, whose cellars were filled with fine French wines, is said even to have imported French soil in an attempt to get his European vines to grow. His decision, in 1823, to abandon the effort to grow vinifera and to concentrate on native varieties is a landmark in the gradual ascendancy of native grape varieties in colonial America.
Jefferson's interest centered on the Alexander grape, which is said to have been discovered near Philadelphia by James Alexander, the gardener to Thomas Penn, William Penn's son. "I think it will be well to push the culture of this grape without losing time and efforts in the search for foreign vines, which it will take centuries to adapt to our soil and climate," Jefferson wrote.
Jefferson was off by about 140 years. European vinifera vines have grown successfully and produced good wines in Jefferson's own part of Virginia since the 1960s.
The native varieties proliferated. The Isabella was introduced in 1816; the pink Catawba in 1823, the Concord in 1854 and the Elvira in 1870. A report prepared by the British Legation in Washington in 1859 indicated that Ohio had 1200 hectares/3,000 acres of vineyards; Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois 200 hectares/500 each; Indiana, 400 hectares/1,000 acres, and the Carolinas, 200 hectares/500 acres. "At least 75,706 hectoliters/2 million gallons of wine are now raised in the United States," the report said, "the average value of which may be taken at a dollar and a half a gallon."
By 1880, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio had 4,000 hectares/10,000 acres, Missouri 3,000 hectares/7,400 acres and New York, which had not even been mentioned twenty-one years earlier, reported 31,134 hectares/12,600 acres of vineyards.
In the meantime, California had come into what could be called its first golden age of wine.
Even before the Gold Rush of 1849, Easterners and mid-Westerners had begun to see California as a paradise on earth waiting with open arms for anyone with the energy to make the trip west. By 1830 there were already some 100,000 vines in Los Angeles, according to Leon Adams. By 1848, a year before the gold discovery, there were vineyards as far north as Napa and Sacramento counties. By 1856, California wines were being shipped in bulk to Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Japan and South America. That same year, the remarkable Agoston Haraszthy arrived in Northern California. A promoter and deal-maker in the best tradition of the American frontier, he had emigrated from Hungary as a self-styled political exile. He founded what is now Sauk City in Wisconsin, then turned up in San Diego in 1848.
Obsessed with grapes and wine, he planted vineyards unsuccessfully at several locations before happening on Sonoma in 1856. There he created what is now the original Buena Vista Vineyard. In 1861, he went to Europe representing the state of California. He brought back 100,000 vines of more than three hundred grape varieties, converting California growers once and for all to the best European grapes. He became involved in the financial dealings surrounding Buena Vista and eventually fled to Nicaragua to make rum. He is supposed to have fallen into a stream and been eaten by crocodiles.
Haraszthy has been called "The father of the California wine industry," but he was considerably less than that. He did not, as has been claimed, introduce the Zinfandel grape to California, and he was not the first to bring superior grape varieties into the state. He did bring public attention to California wines through his writings but was, at best, a controversial and in fact highly dubious figure in the saga of California wine.
The California vineyards expanded rapidly in the years following the 1849 Gold Rush. Entrepreneurs and adventurers who flocked to the Pacific Coast to make their fortune did just that, in grapes and wine, not in gold. But in the mid -nineteenth century, the glory days of California wine were still in the future. It was not California that fascinated the world's wine drinkers then; it was Ohio. By 1860, Ohio was the most important wine-producing state in the nation, making a third of all the wine in the country and twice as much as California. The principal grape was the Catawba and the Ohio River was, for a brief golden time, known as the Rhine of America. Nicholas Longworth, a self-made millionaire, first planted grapes around Cincinnati in 1823. A quarter of a century later he had 4,047 hectares/10,000 acres of vines growing along the Ohio and his wines were featured in the great restaurants of New York and London. Then disaster struck. Black rot and powdery mildew, diseases for which there were then no cures, devastated the vines. By 1865 they were all dead.
Not all the Ohio growers were concentrated in the south. Those along the shore of Lake Erie, 322 kilometers/200 miles to the north, were spared the diseases that affected the vines around Cincinnati and prospered well into the twentieth century. Then they were stricken by another calamity; the vintners of Toledo and Sandusky survived black rot, but not Prohibition.
The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth were roller-coaster years for the California wine industry. Boom-and-bust cycles ruined speculators and workmen alike at least four times in the years before Prohibition. Each time, prices climbed and more grapes were planted until, inevitably, the market broke and prices plunged.
But, more ominously, in those same years the temperance movement was gaining strength. Originally, it was aimed at spirits and beer but wine eventually was linked with them. By 1914, thirty-three states were "dry." Five years later, with the adoption of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, and the passage the following year of the Volstead Act, Prohibition was the law of the land.
In short order, many of the country's finest wineries had shut their doors and abandoned their vineyards. But then wine lovers discovered a loophole in the law. Anyone, it turned out, could make 758 liters/200 gallons of fruit juice in the privacy of his home. Overnight the demand for grapes and grape concentrate boomed. And if the juice fermented into something else, who was to know?
According to a University of California survey taken at the height of the Prohibition period, Americans made about 151 ,412 hectoliters/4 million gallons of illegal wine in 1910. In 1925, in the depths of Prohibition, they made 3,406,768 hectoliters/90 million gallons.
The home winemakers wanted big, fat juicy grapes, like the Alicante, and not tiny, intensely-flavored grapes used to make fine wine. Some speculators had moved into the abandoned vineyards, ripped out good grapes and replanted with cheap varieties destined to please a new, undemanding generation of winemakers.
When Repeal came in December 1933, it was wine made from these grapes, mostly raisin and table grapes, that flooded the market. Good wine grapes were scarce, especially those from the best mountain vineyards, which had been abandoned more than a decade earlier. By the mid 1960s, according to Leon Adams, California's grape harvest was averaging more than 3,048,300 tonnes/3 million tons, but less than a fifth of it consisted of wine grapes.
And the demand for these grapes was growing. Americans, some of them at least, had once again discovered the pleasures of fine wine. Wineries that had subsisted on fortified wines, so-called Port and so-called Sherry and Muscatel, discovered that their customers were asking for dry table wines. Not many at first; mostly veterans who had served abroad during World War II, and the expanding middle class whose members were traveling for the first time and who had the discretionary income to buy, when they returned home, the wines they had come to enjoy on their trips abroad.
In 1968, for the first time, the consumption of table wines surpassed that of so-called dessert wines, the "Ports" and "Sherries" that most Americans had come to think represented what American wine was all about. What came to be known as the "wine revolution" was under way.
A major factor in the popularization of California's fine wines was the use of varietal names. For almost a century, American wines had usurped the names of the best French and Italian wines, presumably to make them more easily identifiable to the millions of first generation immigrants who were expected to buy them. "Claret," "Chianti," "Chablis" and "Burgundy" were used to describe any melange of grape types the winemakers happened to have on hand.
It was the writer and wine merchant Frank Schoonmaker who first convinced the Californians to identify their best wines by the grapes from which they were made. After some initial resistance, most premium wine producers adopted the practice and consumers learned to discuss the differences among various Cabernet Sauvignons or Zinfandels or Chardonnays.
But the laws required that only 55 percent of a varietal wine had to be from the named grape. Thus a wine billed as a Cabernet Sauvignon could actually contain 45 percent Carignane or some cheaper grape. Eventually the law was stiffened; the minimum is now 75 percent. Anything less and the varietal name cannot be used; the wine can be called only red -- or white -- table wine.
Ironically, just as the law was tightened up, many of California's best winemakers concluded that there were times when they needed more flexibility in blending. They decided that they would ignore the rule and blend as they saw fit. Most adopted proprietary names that they hope bespeak quality even when the wine is identified only as red or white table wine. Mondavi's Opus One, the John Daniel Society's Dominus and Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon are examples of such nouvelle vague wines.
The "wine revolution," also known as the "wine boom," lasted until the early 1980s. Through the late 1960s and the 1970s, wine experts and wine publications routinely predicted that American wine consumption would double every three or four years well into the twenty-first century.
A quarter of a century earlier, in American Wines, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel wrote: "Nature seems to have planned the United States to be a nation of wine drinkers."
They were wrong. Both the figures and Schoonmaker and Marvel.
The United States produces some of the world's best wines and probably has some of the world's most knowledgeable wine consumers. But it is not a nation of wine drinkers. It never was and never will be. Accepting that fact is essential to understanding wine's status now and its future in North America.
Writing on the eve of World War II, Schoonmaker and Marvel were well aware of wine's notorious boom-and-bust past, but they had no way of knowing that wine's days were numbered, that in a few years wine would be in retreat on many fronts everywhere. Not because of moral strictures but because of economic realities. Wine had been important for thousands of years because it was more than a drink, it was a diet staple, an inexpensive source of nourishment in poor lands where most foods spoiled quickly and what little water there was often was contaminated.
The end of World War II saw astonishing economic strides taken in the traditional wine-drinking nations. Electricity, which meant refrigeration and water pumps, became available almost everywhere. Roads were cut through to remote vineyard regions bringing beer and soft drinks. Young people casting off the ways of their elders rejected wine. So rapid was the decline in wine consumption that by 1988, more than half of all French men and women were telling pollsters they never drank wine.
For a time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as if Schoonmaker and Marvel's dream for the United States might come true. Wine consumption doubled, then doubled again. Wineries, first in California, later in Oregon and Washington and eventually in some forty-three other states were opening at an astonishing rate. "People are bonding their garages and tool sheds," said an overworked government official in 1972, referring to the demand for official permissions to open wineries. There were times during the 1970s when five or six wineries would open in California in a single month. In 1970, there were 240 wineries in the state; by 1990 there were over 900.
The industry -- and its investors -- were ecstatic, until it was pointed out that, while production and sales were increasing dramatically, the number of wine drinkers was not. Marketers discovered, to their dismay, that the optimistic per capita figures were dangerously misleading; they discovered that the same group of people -- dedicated wine drinkers all -- was consuming more and more wine and that the vast majority of Americans were still not interested in wine. In the early 1980s, the inevitable happened. The market became saturated; sales flattened out, then began to slide.
Also, the substantial ethnic market, the immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants who had loyally consumed millions of gallons of jug wines over the years, was dying out. The wine drinkers who had made E. & J. Gallo the largest wine company in the world and still managed to support a dozen Gallo competitors no longer existed. What's more, the newest wave of immigrants, people from Asia and Latin America, came with no tradition of wine drinking.
The wine industry in the 1990s became a victim of one of those cyclical changes in American thinking that marks a retreat from what is conceived as material excess. Health concerns became paramount; and the evils of driving under the influence of alcohol gained new urgency. Vainly, the wine industry tried to promote wine as the drink of moderation, as a food to be consumed with other foods. The new generation of prohibitionists, the so-called neo-prohibitionists, depicted wine as merely another form of alcoholic beverage and included it in their anti-alcohol campaigns.
The prolonged economic recession of the early 1990s also took its toll. For the first time in recent history, the faltering economy had its largest impact on middle-management, the sector of the job market that had grown most rapidly in the boom years. Many of the country's newest and most ardent wine enthusiasts came from this group. Since so few Americans had made wine a part of their lives, it was a discretionary pleasure to be set aside while times are hard.
At the same time, analysts detected an interesting and encouraging trend within a trend. Even though overall wine sales were down, sales of the very best wines, those selling for U.S. $20 and more, actually continued to improve. In the midst of a serious downturn, not a few wineries were doing so well that their wines were on allocation. Only old customers could buy them and then only in limited quantities. Industry observers saw a new wine market developing, a true luxury market. America might never become a wine-drinking nation, but it appeared that there was a growing group of Americans who would pay a great deal for American wines if the quality was good.
The quality factor has led to remarkable innovations in American winemaking and in American wine styles. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- originally called Pinot Chardonnay -- took their places at head of the list of America's best wines. The great châteaux of Bordeaux were the inspiration of the Cabernet makers; the famous white wines of Burgundy inspired the creators of the best American Chardonnays. Merlot, long the most important grape of Bordeaux's Right Bank -- St. Emilion and Pomerol -- became an important variety in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Pinot Noir, the temperamental grape that makes the superb wines of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, had always eluded the skills of American winemakers. A few California wineries had made Burgundy-style Pinot Noir as early as the 1960s but it fell to Oregon's wine community first to tame the grape in the early 1970s. A handful of additional California winemakers had some success in the 1980s, and from the beginning of the 1990s good and occasionally excellent Pinot Noir emanated from American vineyards.
Meanwhile even more challenging projects were occupying some young and daring winemakers. An entirely new wine region was created in the 1970s and 1980s on Long Island, in New York. Where once potatoes were the principal crop, hundreds of acres of premium wine grapes now grow, and the wines made from them are remarkably good. With a climate similar to Bordeaux's, Long Island wines tend to resemble Bordeaux wines even more than California's.
In California, some winemakers have accepted the fact that their local climate is much more akin to that of Avignon than St. Emilion and have begun to produce wines in the style of the Rhône Valley. Grapes that were dismissed as coarse by California winemakers only a decade or so ago -- Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, for example -- are the wine country's new stars.
Nor has the experimentation stopped there. Other innovators are working with Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo, Trebbiano and Sangiovese. The plantings were relatively new in the early 1990s and the first wines tentative, but no one close to the wine industry doubts that in a few years, these wines will be significant additions to the American wine scene.
Even more important, perhaps, has been what many feel is a long overdue change in the American philosophy of winemaking. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the emphasis was on technical wizardry and the skills of the winemakers, who talked of "sculpting" their wines in the cellars and laboratories. The wine press followed the comings and goings of winemakers the way sports writers followed quarterbacks and the food press lionized chefs.
As far back as the 1930s, University of California scientists had divided that state into regions based on climate. Each region had many microclimates and it was on this data that vineyards were planted and wineries built. The European emphasis on the importance of soil was downplayed or dismissed.
This approach always had its critics and, slowly, through the 1980s, the importance of soil began to take precedence. More and more, one would hear the phrase: "Wine begins in the vineyard." The trend to viticultural regions played an important role in this change in American viticulture. The first viticultural regions, similar to France's appellation contrôlée, began to appear, under the aegis of the Federal Government, in the 1970s. The regions are determined after consultation with the growers and winemakers in the regions concerned. As more and more winemakers began to demand their own official regions, they were forced to think about the correct boundaries. This, of course, meant they had to think about soil. Gradually many came to realize that, even within a specific microclimate, different parcels of vineyard produced different kinds of wine.
Closer contact with European counterparts also has helped to bring about this new -- for America -- approach. Twenty years ago, French and Italian winegrowers tended to dismiss the brash Americans as upstarts. The Americans, on their part, pretended to dismiss the European experience as irrelevant. Over the years they have grown much closer. They meet regularly to exchange tips and research; they send their sons and daughters to work in each other's vineyards and cellars, and they drink each other's wines.
At the same time, more and more Europeans are taking an active part in the American winemaking. An earlier generation -- among them Czechs, Serbs, French, Swiss, Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Russians -- founded America's fine wine industry. Now another generation is buying American vineyards and wineries. Some, including, of course, the Japanese, come as investors, others to settle in the wine country and make a new life, just as their forebears did. America, they are saying by their actions, is still a land of promise and challenge.
The American wine experience has come full circle. It has come of age.