The Great American Wine Buzz

By Posted on Dec 27 2010 | By

In the Not Too Distant Past Wine Served Chiefly One Purpose

The debate is long over. The United States produces some of the finest wines in the world.  And its success has spawned an explosion in high caliber wine production worldwide. Today, nations as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa have become wine powerhouses by following in the wake of California’s vinous success.

OK, the debate still rages as to the ultimate wine style: old world or new world.  The former places an emphasis on subtlety, grace and elegance while the latter prides itself on bold, expressive, and fruit forward renditions.  But wine lovers everywhere no longer reach for only European wines; California changed that paradigm over thirty years ago.

So it may come as a surprise that for a good portion of the last century wine in America was consumed for basically one reason.  To get high.

When the twentieth century dawned, our nation was on the brink of entering a golden age of wine.  Commercial success was being achieved in California with over 1,000 operating wineries, and parts of the mid-Atlantic region were experimenting with hybrid grapes that ultimately proved successful.  Then in 1919, the hammer fell with passage of the infamous Volstead Act. Our nation’s wine industry collapsed into a death spiral as prohibition crushed production of fine wine.  It took some fifty years to recover.

The difference between fine wine and cheap, fortified wine is the difference between a Rubens’ masterpiece and a delinquent’s spray-painted graffiti wall. It’s that huge.  Sadly, “graffiti wine” soon gained commercial success.

But let’s back up a bit and set the stage for the immergence of fortified wines.

Before the “Big Dry”

Moonshine Mania

Prior to Prohibition, major wine producers adopted a business strategy that eventually led to the erosion of table wine growth.   Firms such Italian Swiss Colony and others made a range of wine styles, but almost fifty percent of their inventory was sweet, higher alcohol wines, brandies and grappa.  Loathe to disassociate themselves from the lucrative liquor market, wine was inexorably pulled into the vortex of the public’s anti-alcohol sentiment along with beer and whiskey.  Instead of marshalling an effective fight to exempt wine from Prohibition, their desire for greater profits trumped their more traditional urges for making decent table wines.  In short, greed won out.

After repeal of the 19th Amendment, brewers and distillers rebounded quickly but not winemakers.  With the public’s perception as wine as booze, and reinforced with the idea that fortified wines were simply an easy fix for a cheap, quick buzz, serious wine production did not revive.  Americans, particularly in low income neighborhoods known in the trade as “misery markets”, opted to buy pseudo wines.  Quality wine’s reputation languished in this negative environment for decades.

In the mid-1950s, some 40 million gallons of table wine was produced annually as opposed to over 94 million gallons of fortified wines. Two brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo, in their third decade of winemaking, realized that to fulfill their dream of becoming the largest winery in the world they had to come up with a creative idea to generate new customers.  It came to their attention that in inner city neighborhoods cheap port was often sold with packets of lemon-flavored Kool-Aid.  Customers then mixed the two together.

Springboarding off the idea of this homemade concoction, the Gallos conceived of performing the mixing process at their winery and created a wine called Thunderbird—a 21 percent alcohol port-style wine flavored with lemon concentrate. It was an instant success; years later Ernest claimed he thought of the beverage as a “lower-alcohol alternative to the evening cocktail.”  But of course.

One of the more famous ad slogans of the era was, “What’s the word?” “Thunderbird!” “What’s the price?” “A dollar twice.”

As always happens in a free market, competitors quickly started producing similar types of wines and selling them under names such as Silver Satin, Ariba, Golden Spur, Red Showboat, and Zombe.  It must have been great fun working in the marketing departments of these firms, conjuring up one exotic name after another for what was no more than cheap booze.  None of the copy cats, however, matched the success of the original.

Being "half in the bag" was common for fortified wine drinkers.

Over the years these wines earned some interesting and descriptive monikers, including gutter punk champagne, street wine, block party breakup, goon, bum wine, bag wine, hobo juice and poverty punch.  If the shoe fits…eh?

When the 60s arrived, wine had hit rock bottom in America.  There was no way to go but up.

Wine Revives
The United States slow ascendancy onto the world stage of fine wine began fifty years ago but did not reach critical mass until the mid-seventies.  Men on both the East and West Coasts dedicated to resurrecting wine as a lifestyle beverage played pivotal roles in not only producing but marketing their product.  Understanding that little demand existed for quality table wine, these early wine pioneers were driven more by passion than financial reward.

In Maryland, a newspaper man and amateur winemaker named Philip Wagner became convinced that French-American hybrid grapes could survive the harsh East Coast continental climate and produce quality wine.  He started the first post-Prohibition winery in Maryland in 1945, Boordy Vineyards, while continuing to work as an editor at the Baltimore Sun. His contribution centered more on imparting knowledge to mid-Atlantic grape growers and winemakers than producing large quantities of wine.  He supplied cuttings and rootstock to professional and amateur winemakers alike and lectured widely throughout the eastern United States.  Grapes he championed are still producing quality wines east of the Mississippi and include Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin.

In New York, Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Ukrainian émigré, arrived in the Finger Lakes region in 1951 and observed only native grapes being grown.  He was convinced that Vitis vinifera grapes, which produced ninety-nine percent of the world’s wines, had a future in the Empire State.  He successfully planted the vines and soon others were following his lead.  Dr. Frank also played an important role in Virginia wine by traveling to the state and introducing numerous vineyard techniques to budding viticulturists and winemakers.  Today, over eighty percent of wine grapes grown in the Old Dominion are from the delicate vinifera species—think Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and more.

Robert Mondavi

Out in California, similar advances were underway. Early leaders included men such as Andre Tchelistcheff, Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich and Robert Mondavi to name a select few. The 2008 movie Bottle Shock tells the story of the revival of quality wine making in Napa Valley.  Steven Spurrier, an English sommelier and wine shop owner in Paris, was impressed with wines coming out of California.  He conceived the idea to pit the best of France against the best California.

In May of 1976, nine high priests of the French wine world met in Paris and sniffed, swirled and sipped the finest wines from each country. All of them were tasted blind so the judges did not know which country any given wine hailed from.  When the scores were tallied up shock reverberated around the tasting tables.  Two wines from Napa took top honors; a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  It was the wine shot heard round the world.  Jim Barrett, Montelena’s general manager and part owner said, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”  To say the least.

Within a few years, California became a major force in global wine. Today, over 700 million gallons of wine are produced annually in the United States. The majority of this production is table, dessert or sparkling wines.  While the sale of low cost fortified wine has declined dramatically, the market hasn’t disappeared.  One popular bottling, Richards Wine Irish Rose, still sells two million cases annually.  Nonetheless, only a small percentage of total sales represent the low cost, fortified wines so widely consumed back in the 60s.

The Future is Now
Our Nation’s wine ascendency is now in full bloom.  Since 1999, there has been an 81% increase in the number of wineries coast to coast, with over 6,000 in operation today; all fifty states are producing either grape or fruit wine and are supported by nearly a million acres of vineyards.

Perhaps not even Nostradamus could have predicted such phenomenal growth. America’s four hundred year old culture of beer and distilled spirits is changing as a rising percent of the population—from twenty somethings to senior citizens—are opting for wine as a companion at social events and dinner.

With such popularity could advertising campaigns aping the marketers of yesteryear be appearing soon?

“What’s to say?”  “Cabernet!”  “What’s to like?”   “It’s so polite!”


Published in the 2011 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES