How the West Was Won
We now think of Napa Cab and Santa Barbara Pinot as old staples in the wine industry. The wines of California have earned worldwide respect with prices to match like Screaming Eagle released at $500 per bottle and many others not far behind. In 2003, America produced over 600 million gallons of wine per year and the number is growing annually. All of this, however, did not come overnight. The California wine industry is actually quite old and has faced its fair share of bumps along the road.
It began with the Spanish pushing up from Mexico in the 18th century, planting the first recorded vinefera vines in 1769. These wines were used mostly in church ceremonies but the vines grew so well that the industry took off more than expected. As time passed, the 19th century wine industry in California had a few unexpected charges. The first was the gold rush. After the gold rush was over, many of the displaced treasure seekers were left with no occupation and had to find something to do. As an odd twist of fate, many of them began to grow vines and produce wine. It was an early realization that the California terroir was well suited for vines and that wine sells easily. The California government quickly realized the value of this commodity and commissioned Austrian born American entrepreneur Agoston Harazathy to import vines from Europe, and with his Buena Vista Winery, still around today, the industry developed legs.
Next came the great blessing that turned into the greatest curse. The dreaded phylloxera louse devastated the vineyards of Europe throughout the 19th century. Phylloxera is a rootstock-eating bug that cohabitates with labrusca, or native American rootstock, but devastates the vinefera, or European varieties. For many years the California vineyards were safe, as the aphid had not yet made it over the Rockies and with the drought in European wines, California flourished as the world’s only large-scale producer of wines made from European grapes. 1879, California was producing 2.3 million gallons of wine per year. This number was stomped into the ground when phylloxera finally made it over the hill and it devastated vineyards in California just as quickly as it did in Europe. After the Europeans figured out how to stop this devastating aphid, California quickly followed suit and was back on track making not only regular table wines but also wines of very fine quality.
All seemed well and good for California wines until the prohibition came around and halted all of the progress made over the last few hundred years. Fortunately, it was still legal to make wine for sacramental reasons and thus a few wineries kept it together through the alcohol-deprived times. The industry didn’t recover right away after prohibition and low-quality fortified wines became popular over the next three and a half decades. It really wasn’t until the 1970s that the industry returned to its former glory, but what it has become since is truly remarkable.
After winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976, where Napa Cabs and Chards beat out some of the finest French Bordeaux and White Burgundies in a blind tasting arranged by French wine critics and writers, California wines finally received worldwide recognition for their quality and unique character. America now has one of the finest industries in the world to boast, where modern technique and creative enthusiasm run wild.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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