Doubtless As Good
We in America,” declared Thomas Jefferson in 1808, can make wine “doubtless as good” as the great wines of Europe. No one in young America promoted wine more enthusiastically than Jefferson. As secretary of state, he selected the wines for President Washington’s table. When he became president himself, he personally purchased an extensive cellar, and he later assisted both James Madison and James Monroe in keeping the White House well stocked with some of the world’s great winesclaret and Champagne, Burgundy and Hermitage, hock, sherry, and Madeira. Jefferson considered wine to be both a mark of sophisticated taste and a democratic alternative to harsh spirits. “Good wine,” he once said, “is a daily necessity.” But when it came to things American, Jefferson’s enthusiasm often got the better of him. No domestic wines made in his lifetime were anywhere near as good as the fine European ones he imported to Washington and Monticello. Little changed for more than 150 years. Save for a fleeting period of glory in California in the 1880s and 1890s, American wine remained very much in the shadow of the great wines of the world. Even as recently as a generation ago, the United States was little more than an afterthought in terms of fine wine. The country certainly had a long history of grape growing, but that history hardly mattered. Nor did the wines themselves much matter. Large producers, led by E. & J. Gallo, made huge amounts of innocuous jug wine and cheap fortified tipple, but only a handful of small, largely unknown American wineries produced anything remotely resembling the famed European bottlings so sought after by connoisseurs. Then, seemingly overnight, American wine took a huge leap forward in quality and prestige. The nation that had been an afterthought suddenly became an obsession. All at once, Americans discovered that their country had the potential to make wines that could compete with the world’s best. This book tells the story of that discoveryboth why it took so long for the United States to produce truly great wine and how and why America was able to rise so quickly to its current position of prominence, if not preeminence, in the world of wine.
As with most discoveries, the story begins with a crucial moment of realization, an eye-opening instant filled with the awareness of new possibilities. In this case, the moment came in 1976, in Paris, where a young Englishman named Stephen Spurrier ran a small wine shop near the Place de la Concorde. His Académie du Vin had a loyal following, including a considerable number of Americansforeign service officers from the nearby U.S. embassy, expatriates working abroad, and all sorts of tourists, including California wine producers making French pilgrimages. From time to time, these visitors brought along bottles from home. Spurrier drank and sold almost exclusively French wines, because like connoisseurs everywhere at the time, he automatically assumed that France produced the world’s most interesting and distinctive bottlings. Yet a few of the California wines he sampled seemed surprisingly, indeed shockingly, good. As he told his associate, Patricia Gallagher, they tasted “truly exceptional.” After visiting the vineyards of northern California in late 1975, Spurrier and Gallagher concluded that something significant was happening there. Virtually no one in France, though, knew anything about it. So they hatched a plan. They decided to organize a tasting of American wines and invite some of France’s most esteemed wine professionals to serve as judges. The idea was to publicize the high quality of these wines by testing them against expert palatesand in the process to promote Spurrier’s shop as the place in town where even a Frenchman might learn a thing or two. So on a warm May afternoon, they assembled a panel of nine eminent judges on the patio of the Inter-Continental Hotel to taste and evaluate twenty wines, ten whites made from Chardonnay and ten reds made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon. Since Spurrier and Gallagher had promoted the event extensively, a crowd of spectators, including a number of journalists, came as well.
Of the twenty wines Spurrier poured that afternoon, twelve were American, all from northern California. The other eight were French. Spurrier thought it important to have some clear standard of comparison, so he made sure to choose some of the very best French winesone grand cru and three premier cru white Burgundies, a first growth and three “super seconds” from Bordeaux. He had little doubt that the judges would prefer the Burgundies and Bordeaux, but he hoped that they alsso would be impressed by the overall high quality of the California wines, especially when tasted in such elite company. And because he knew that Freench gastronomes usually dismissed American wine out of hand, he decided to conduct the tasting blindthat is, with the labels hidden and the bottles unmarked. When the judges, led by Pierre Bréjoux, chief inspector of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine took their seats, they knew only that some of the wines they would be tasting came from the United States and that the others were French.
The results of the 1976 Paris tasting shocked the wine world. When all twenty wines had been swirled and sniffed, savored, spat out, and scored, Spurrier removed the wrappings from the bottles. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, the highest-rated wines turned out to be Americanthe red a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet and the white a Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley. (Two famous French wines finished in second place, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 and Domaine Roulot’s 1973 Meursault- Charmes.) The press 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 Prial noted that Europeans frequently had denigrated American wines by denigrating American tastes. “What,” he asked rhetorically, “can they say now?” Time put the case more succinctly. In a story headlined “The Judgment of Paris,” the magazine declared that the “unthinkable happened . . . California defeated all Gaul.” These statements were more expressions of chauvinism than objective reporting. Spurrier himself argued repeatedly that his tasting was less a competition than 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.” The surprise, then, was not so much that some American wines received high scores. The real news was that, to a person, the experts had been unable to tell which wines came from which country. During the tasting, some of them had confidently announced that this or that wine was “definitely” or “certainly” or “unmistakably” a Bordeaux or a Burgundy, only to be repeatedly proven wrong. The wine that one judge said bespoke “the magnificence of France” turned out to be a Napa Cabernet, while another wine that a different judge dismissed as Californian because of its allegedly simple bouquet turned out to be a Burgundy. “Tender . . . a fine balanced wine,” read one person’s notes on the Stag’s Leap Cabernet. “Fruity and elegant . . . trcs complet,” read another’s on the Montelena Chardonnay. On it went. The egg on the judges’ collective faces came from their inability to discern what until then everyone had assumed was obviousnamely, that the great French wines tasted better than other wines because they tasted, well, French.
The Paris tasting had far-reaching 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, while in Europe it led winemakers to look at American wine with a new appreciation and respect. But most important, 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. For generations people had assumed that quality was a function of historythe living, growing history of storied vintages from storied vineyards. The Paris tasting suggested that quality involved something else. Perhaps it came from the winemaking, perhaps from the vineyard, but in any case it was intrinsic, actually within the wine, no matter what was on the label. In short, Stephen Spurrier’s publicity stunt woke everyone up. It presaged radical change, in the Old World as well as the New.
Plenty would change in Europe over the next quarter century, but the most radical development of all was the rise of American winein terms of intrinsic quality as well as influence and renown. The rise certainly was meteoric, as the United States quickly became one of the major winemaking countries in the world. It also was unexpected, particularly since American wine had experienced an equally great fall earlier in the century. In 1933, following the thirteen years of national Prohibition, wine in the United States was widely considered nothing more than an agent of intoxication. It remained perceived that way for nearly a generation. For centuries, men and women had distinguished wine from other alcoholic beveragesin part because of the sheer diversity of its flavors, in part because of its use at the table, and in part because of its historic role as a mark of refined culture and civilized taste. In post- Prohibition America, such distinctions were all but lost. Far from being a mark of sophistication, wine was viewed as a sign of destitution. In the mid 1960s, when the phoenix of American wine began to stir in its ashes, things could hardly have been worse.
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. Without a legacy of celebrated vintages and classified growths to define but also confine their efforts, they felt free to experiment with new approaches and technologies. They looked to science rather than tradition to tell them what to do, and they defined quality almost exclusively in terms of a wine’s present composition. But 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 natureAmerican wine from grapes grown in American vineyards.
The first stage in American wine’s rise involved making premium wines that resembled the European classics as closely as possible. The ultimate accolade, as evidenced at Stephen Spurrier’s Paris tasting, came when an American wine was mistaken for a European one. The second stage came when those successful handcrafted wines became models for less exclusive mass-produced ones, wines that in turn became models for improved vin ordinaire throughout the globe. If a great many of the world’s wines, regardless of origin, taste similar these days, they do so in large measure because they are made to match a stylistic profile that used to be reserved for a handful of elite bottlings. American vintners were the first to emulate and then popularize that profile. But the third stage in American wine’s rise has involved producing wines that can serve as touchstones with which to determine quality, thus complementing, and sometimes replacing, the European classics. In Italy and France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany, American wines today function as new classics, helping to define excellence at the highest level. For the first time in the seven-thousand-year history of wine growing, that level transcends regional and even national boundaries. Winemakers all over the world labor to make wines that are “doubtless as good” as the finest made in the United Stateswhich does not mean wines that taste American, but wines that taste first and foremost of themselves. Perhaps the most important legacy of the rise of American wine has been the realization that inherent quality rather than reputation defines a classic. After all, quality is what gives any wine-growing country a tradition worth savoring.
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 farmers’ barns, or in the French names that some wineries put on their labels to make their wines sound sophisticated. Yet these oddities are only superficial manifestations of something more substantial: the realization on the part of winemakers and wine drinkers alike that American wine has at long last come of age. The proof can be found not just in a few successful bottles that trick tasters like those in Paris back in 1976, but rather in a series of wines from a series of vintages that themselves initiate a native tradition of quality. The finest wines in the world today are identified in terms of the grape in contextthe context of the vineyard as well as the winery, the past as well as the present. In America, California is leading the way, but the lesson is being adopted in the Pacific Northwest, New York, Virginia, and wherever someone dreams Thomas Jefferson’s old dream. That same lesson is also being learned at famed European estates and at wineries in other New World countries, since international rather than merely local standards now fuel winemaking ambitions the world over. The dawn of the twenty-first century is a truly golden age for wine, with vintners producing better wines than ever before in more places than ever before. This golden age is global, but both the improvement and the redefinition of quality elsewhere has been inspired in large measure by the success and the ongoing promise of American wineits amazing rise from its equally amazing fall.
Copyright © 2000 by Paul Lukacs