Posted on June 26th, 2009
“If anyone orders any Merlot I’m going home!” said the rather fanatical Miles in the influential film from 2004, Sideways.
This fanaticism, though comic and for some a little strange, is a common aspect in the production, consumption and critical analysis that surrounds the wines of much of North America.
In particular focus, however, is one place and in North America it is the USA and in the USA it is California.
Here, the rest of the world has watched researchers at esteemed universities develop new theories, agricultural programmes, uncover long forgotten vine varieties and work out the best way for wineries to produce the finest elixir from the earth’s resources; here, the mythical role of the winemaker has been promulgated more than anywhere else outside of Bordeaux; here, a growing public base of support for boutique wineries has seen an almost cult-like following of different districts of wine production the like of which has only been witnessed in the following of Grand Cru Classe Medoc or the Garagiste offerings from St. Emilion and Pomerol.
Fanaticism about Californian wine is like so many things in America, Full On. You can’t say you’re a fan of Californian wines unless you’re on the mailing list of at least half a dozen wineries and on the waiting list for half a dozen more. If you’re not, then you’re just not as in to wine as the others. The “others” know all about the soils and particular blend proportions of each of the releases from all of the wines that they subscribe to and can name these variables accurately for all of last decade’s releases. It’s true; these people exist. And they have normal jobs, too.
The USA has had a chequered past in relation to wine as it has had to all alcoholic produce. Notwithstanding this North American wines are the most important in the world, outside of Europe. Italy and France vie for volume of wine produced each year, followed by Spain and then the USA.
With big movement in Canada and Mexico, the dominant wine producing areas may move sharply from the current proximity to the zero degree Greenwich line, to the west.
The questions from the wine consuming public will largely focus on price, quality and the relation between the two. Stylistic differences and the fanatic attention to detail and nuance in one Cabernet to the next might entertain at a growing number of dinner parties, but the key to economic success and development for the continent is in lower priced wines and in making them seem better value and better quality than all of their international competitors.
A brief history of the vine in the USA
This is the key country for North America and has had, as mentioned above, an extraordinarily tricky and at times impossible journey to the production that we witness today. European vines arrived to the East coast with the Pilgrim Fathers. Success was nonexistent as the vines all but died due to harsh winters and muggy summers. But not all was lost.
Vines already existed in the USA: at least a dozen varieties of the vitis species are unique to the continental America, where Europe has only one. What happened was that when the Vinifera strain arrived via not-so-abstemious Pilgrims it bred with various strains of other vines, Labrusca, Rupestra and others to create the oddest new hybrid varieties that even today are described as “Foxy”
Phylloxera: The American vine saves European wine
So, these were nover going to set the world alight, but they did show one thing to the east coast settlers: something about American vine varieties made them resistant to the damaging elements that ravaged the European vines. But they didn’t work out what it was until the mid-to-late-1800s when the Phylloxera crisis in Europe was solved by the grafting the heads of European vines onto these American rootstockmaking them hardier to weather conditions and resistant to Phylloxera.
Now another influential point in the development of US wines was the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. He was a wine nut! And in the middle of the 1850s the first shoots of commercial winemaking were being seen.
Cincinnati Ohio, famous for a one-time former Mayor (Jerry, Jerry…), Jerry Springer was famous then for the production of sparkling wine. Across the country, from the east to the Rockies, wine was spreading. Then came the Civil war.
In the West, wine arrived via a more direct and experienced group of hands – the Franciscans. Moving up the coast from Mexico to Baja California, the wine-savvy monks brought peace and harmony via a variety of European varieties that had none of the difficult conditions that he east coast had to contend with.
It would have seemed that the US has found an amazing place for vines. By the time the sparkling wine production in Ohio was growing, vines in California were all over the place producing European styles. So there were two wine industries either side of the Rockies operating quite independently of each other.
Then at the end of the 19th century the Americans had to deal with Phylloxera, blights of mildew and some other infections.
But none of these problems were anything like the change of Federal policy with regarding the consumption of alcohol. The effects of which are still felt today.
If you think that other countries like New Zealand an have odd relationship with alcohol – only sold in supermarkets since 1999 – the attitude of Americans to alcohol is even stranger.
Damned by obtuse and obstructive legislation, unnecessarily complex organisation of the trading of alcohol and a vilifying suspicion towards those consumers of even the smallest amounts of “likker”, has for a long time been the upward facing hill that the industry has had to battle.
The semi-religious convictions that alcohol is bad, hmm kay, and that those that drink are a little loose and not to be trusted are part a frighteningly large number of normal American’s make up.
Fighting this is a difficult task. Pressure groups and lobby set-ups are rife with right-wing neo-conservative scientific surveys showing the damaging effects of alcoholic consumption that no one can seem to argue against.
French Paradox in the USA
But in the same way that all of us in Europe just knew that voting Democrat was the right choice, attitudes were fixed. Until they used the same weapon as the Self-righteous preachers, the TV.
In late 1980s a short TV program was broadcast called The French Paradox, which charted the relationship between the French way of life and their diet. How is it that they can all eat and drink so well and be happy? Precisely because they eat and drink so well, and this was the key turning point in the US for wine consumption.
What is odd, given the negative status of alcohol, is that wine is produced in each of the 50 states of the USA. From weird pockets of native varieties in Colorado to exceptional sparkling wines in New Mexico and distinctly European styles in New York and the Hamptons, there is a world of wine in one country.
Buying the stuff
Purchasing wine can be impossible. Literally, some counties are ‘dry’ and the purchase of any liquor is banned. Most ironically, the county in Tennessee where Jack Daniel’s distillery is based is one such dry county. The importing is also odd. There is a triple separation of powers. One company can import wines, another can buy these from the importer and sell them to a retailer or restaurant, and then the retailer and restaurant can sell them to the public. Not one of these companies can be owned by the other. Phew.
Back to Californy
Let’s have a real look at the key player, California. A massively varied set of types, geographical and meteorological, California produces ninety per cent of the wine in USA.
Far from vineyard perfection the regions are subject to the dreaded and currently incurable threat of Pearce’s disease and are much more concerned by proximity to sea than degrees of latitude; the sea air and rolling fog plays havoc with ripening seasons.
Much of the state is considerably warmer than European regions, though some very fine areas are close to the sea, such as Sonoma and Napa.
The San Joaquin (or Central) Valley is very, very hot and though some aim for dry farming, it is never a realised goal: irrigation, though expensive, is increasingly essential.
Terroir versus alchemy
Some winemakers are single vineyard fans whilst others look for good grapes from wherever and look to the winery for alchemy. Fashion is perhaps unsurprisingly important in California and trends are powerful things: denser planting, increased use of varietal clones, more foliage covering, late harvests and a concerted effort and drive to find the right sites for specific grape varieties are all trendy features, fine, but it is amazing that these opinions are nearly universally held and aspired to by the majority of wineries and vine growers.
But that’s not to be unexpected and it isn’t entirely undesirable, as there is now concrete proof that Pinot Noir is perfect in Carneros, Zinfandel is perfect in Dry Creek and Cabernet is perfect in the middle of the Napa valley.
About Christopher Gifford
Christopher works in The Corkscrew, in Dublin.