Tracing America’s Wine History from Shaky Native Grape to the Big Time



Review of
By Paul Lukacs


By Louis Marmon


The Washington Times  December 31, 2000


AMERICAN VINTAGE: THE RISE OF AMERICAN WINEWine appeals to all of the senses. It is described in terms of appearance, smell, taste and texture, which, when combined correctly, change a mere beverage into something more special. While there are sounds associated with wine, such as the pop of champagne cork or the tinkling of a crystal glass, what is ultimately “heard” from the bottle is its history.


Creating a wine does not occur in a temporal vacuum. Rather it is influenced by what is happening in the world at the time of its birth. Opening a vintage Madeira from 1863 transports the drinker to the time of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Similarly, drinking wine to celebrate an important date such as an anniversary allows its history to be intermingled with our own. The history of wine can be as fascinating as the liquid contained in the bottle and it is no surprise that numerous books have been written about the subject. The best of these do not try to overwhelm the reader but instead recognize that, fundamentally, wine is meant to be enjoyed.


Clearly, Paul Lukacs who for the last six years has written a weekly wine column for the food section of this newspaper, understands this principle. His “American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine,” is a delightful history of wine production in the United States. The story moves effortlessly through the years punctuated by outrageous characters, masterful technicians, and dreamers. He decided to write the book when he noted that an Italian wine maker was disparaging American wines as “barbarian” while he was simultaneously serving one of his own productions “that tasted for all the world as if it came from the Napa Valley.”


Dismissed mere decades ago as swill, American wines now influence wine production throughout the world. Mr. Lukacs asserts that this is a result of innovation and determination, leading to success in spite (or because) of its distance from the older European tradition.


Mr. Lukacs begins his book with the pivotal moment in American wine, the 1976 blind tasting in Paris. An expert panel of French tasters judged 12 California and eight excellent French wines. To everyone’s surprise, the highest rated wines were from California. “The real news was, that to a person, the experts had been unable to tell which wines came from which country.”


The impact on the American wine industry was profound because it “demonstrated 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 getting to this point took an arduous journey. The story of American wine production begins soon after the colonists arrived, but they are saddled with an unfortunate trick of nature. Despite their best efforts, the species of grapes that will thrive in the New World taste horrible when made into wine. It is truly a tale of two genetic varieties, the European (Vitis vinifera) which grow only when cultivated and the American (Vitis labrusca, riparia, and others) which grow wild.


Called “fox grapes” because, well, they smelled like a wet fox, the American grapes did not produce good wine or good raisins. And attempts to grow the European grapes were unsuccessful because they were susceptible to American pests.


According to Mr. Lukacs the colonists were anxious to produce their own wine because it was thought to be beneficial to society. Water was impure and milk suspect so almost every adult imbibed in some fashion. The stronger, fortified drinks were associated with impropriety but a wine-drinking society was felt by Thomas Jefferson to be ideal since, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” This was based upon a vision of America as an agrarian nation where the landholders produced their own wine.


America had “every soil, aspect and climate of the best of wine countries,” but it is likely that some cross-fertilization between native labrusca and an imported vinerfera, gave American wine producing its early boost. The best of these was the Alexander grape which, “Probably had much more labrusca than vinefera in it.” But it wasn’t until the arrival of Nicholas Longworth at Cincinnati in 1803 who was able to make “wines that people actually liked to drink” that American wine production took off.


While Longworth was the “founding father” of American wine, Mr. Lukacs points out that there were many midwives. These include George Husmann, the leading wine grower of the late 1880s, Eugene Hilgard “the quintessential nineteenth-century scientist” and Percy Morgan the first to “realize that the wine business had to act like a business.” The interaction of these sometimes-conflicting viewpoints makes for fascinating reading particularly with regard to the coming of Prohibition.


To Americans at the turn of the century wine had lost its lofty, agrarian appeal and was considered merely another way to get drunk. By failing to improve quality and separate wine from other liquor in the public mind, the wine industry helped “sow the seeds of their own destruction.” Recover it did, although it took nearly five decades and the work of other pioneers such as Agoston Haraszthy, Charles Krug, Philip Wagner, Konstantin Frank and Andre Tchelistcheff. They were able to succeed, asserts Mr. Lukacs because they were not constrained by traditional European winemaking methods. Instead they relied upon science and innovation.


What makes this book so agreeable is that Mr. Lukacs does not get hung up on wine jargon or statistics. His history is about the people who actually make the wine, their dreams, troubles and personalities. Examples include Robert Mondavi who began to make his own wine after a fistfight with his brother as well as Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski who were the California winemakers who made the winners at the Paris tasting. The author also correctly points out that the rise of American cooking to an acceptable art went hand-in-hand with the increase in quality of American wine.


And few would argue with Mr. Lukacs’ assertion that Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate is the most influential wine critic in world. Mr. Parker’s emphasis on “bold flavors” and “above all the rich taste of fruit” has defined an American style of wine and has resulted in “the American palate . . . becoming the international palate.”


Well written, concise and entertaining “American Vintage” should be treated like a bottle of 1985 California Cabernet. Enjoy it now and share it with friends.

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