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Articles, April, 2001

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AMERICAN WINE HEROES

....UNFINISHED WORK, BUT LOTS OF PROGRESS, OR...

Hello. My name is Bill.....

........and I'll be the owner of your favorite winery today.  

      Every time you look around there is another winery popping up. It's hard to keep track of them any more. And the ones popping up are not selling cheap stuff, salt of the Earth, "honest" wines. No. They are "boutiques." Their cheap stuff seems to go for $60. Start a winery, hire some famous assistants, make small production wines, charge a fortune, and in a few years you are competing at price levels only the world's most famous wines used to get. 

    This phenomenon is perhaps most obvious with the California cult wines, but certainly is prevalent now in Australia. It even has resonance in France, where the old guard is grumbling about the vins de garage in Bordeaux.  Is this a good thing? I would say "yes."  

    Now, that answer may strike you as strange if you have read my various tirades on overpriced cult wines. My opinion on the absurdity of buying wines at those prices has not changed. But that is another issue, for another day. What is most important in this trend is the healthy aspect of all this--people are fascinated with wine. Normal folks want to quit their jobs and go out and be winemakers or winery owners. It is for them and many others the ultimate dream,  and the ultimate romantic adventure. While there is a certain naiveté about this, it is also a symbol of how far wine has come. 

    Reading the very fine book, American Vintage, about the rise of American wine by Paul Lukacs, I was reminded how disreputable wine in America has often seemed to be. The reasons for this are many, as Lukacs points out. First, much of the early American wine industry focused on fortified wines made from the worst grapes, and intended mostly just to get one quickly buzzed. Thus, they were lumped together with booze and considered fodder for skid row. Second, when American wines started to move beyond that premise, the prevailing thought was still the Gallo model--it's impossible to compete with famous European wines, so we should concentrate on making good, low level quaffers. 

    There are many heroes in the battle to raise American wine to the level of European wine. These include the real old timers like John Daniel and Andre Tchelistscheff, whose wineries made some of America's greatest pre-renaissance wines. And of course, it includes Robert Mondavi, whose 1966 founding of his own winery, dedicated to competing with the best Europe had to offer, was arguably THE turning point of the new era. After Mondavi, there was no longer any question that an American winery could stake out the high ground. There are many others who helped prove him right in that era and the decade or so following--the Barretts at Chateau Montelena, Joe Heitz, Paul Draper of Ridge, to name just a few. I commend the book American Vintage  to you for the whole story. 

    By the time we hit the early '80s, when I started collecting wine, there were many more names. Sure, there were still BV and Mondavi and some other familiar names. But many others joined the fray. For every one that took a step back--the degradation of Inglenook is one unfortunate example--there were many more taking a step forward, like Moueix at Dominus, to name one stellar early 80s newcomer. By the 90s, we had the next wave. Colgin, Jones Family, Bryant Family, Beaux Freres, Marcassin, et al. Hard to believe, but Dominus suddenly seems like one of the old timers. There were so many new names and new places that great new wines could completely escape your attention for awhile. To be sure, many of these wines were unaffordable or unfindable. But there was always a second tier of very well made wines that cost less, drank as well, and were easier to get, including wines from familiar names like Phelps, Ponzi and Mondavi.   It seems to me that wine excitement filters down and anything that gives wine cachet and an aura as something interesting to be coveted is a good thing. This is something Robert Mondavi always seemed to understand intuitively. 

    All is not coming up roses, however. Consumption has increased after some dips, but the reality is that wine is still a niche, not a tradition. People are spending more but not necessarily drinking all that much more. It is not yet part of our culture. To some extent, this is the downside of the pricey cult wines. We make wine an event, not a daily occurrence. There has to be some nod, also, to everyday habits and everyday wines. As Matt Kramer pointed out, if you actually drink wine every single day, even a $20 bottle is a lot of money for most people. Do the math, as Matt so aptly put it. You can buy a $50 bottle if you only drink one a month, but that's not an answer for regular wine drinkers and it is not how wine will insinuate itself into our lives. Wine can't be something just for the rich and famous. In this regard, we have some other American heroes, too--people like Steve Edmunds at Edmunds St. John, Trentadue, Marietta--folks that manage to produce high quality products at very reasonable prices, in the fashion we often see in lesser French regions, or Australia.  Still, Americans seem more willing to pay ridiculous amounts for wine than anyone else--and in part that is because we do not drink it regularly enough to care about a few extra bucks per bottle. It is hard for Americans to compete with the high quality from other lands in "low premium" wines. From Adelaide, to Umbria, to the Languedoc, you know what I mean. That has to change. 

    Then, too, there are always dangers threatening our new-found success. The short-sighted Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association has led a vicious and deceitful campaign designed to prevent interstate shipping. It has harmed the interests of small wineries, consumers and wine in general, to its everlasting disgrace.  (My Articles section contains articles on this topic, too.) The Health Nazis, those who tell us everything we cannot do for health reasons, and then impose onerous regulations to make sure we obey their advice, have been momentarily derailed. The persistent drumbeat of scientific evidence to the effect that reasonable quantities of red wine are beneficial to most people's health is hard to ignore. It has momentarily saved wine and alcohol from the attacks suffered by tobacco, which is not really the same issue at all (no second hand smoke from alcohol....no health benefits from tobacco!). In the background, still, are those with whom the Health Nazis love to make common cause: the prudes and the do-gooders, the types who still want their counties "dry," or think that your kids should be taught to equate alcohol with illegal drugs. (One friend reported that his child, after he came home from an anti-alcohol lecture, started yelling that "Daddy was using drugs," after witnessing Dad having some wine with dinner.) We certainly could use the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association to lead a counterattack. They are our natural allies, but they are too busy sticking their heads in the sand over interstate and internet shipping issues. So, all is not entirely well. 

    For all that, I think I can fairly state that American wine today is better than ever before. The great vintages of the '90s are better than those of the '80s--when many thought American wine had rounded into form. Then, it got better still. There are more top level producers than ever, doing better and better with more varietals. American wines have a different style than European wines, but, stylistic preferences aside, which is very much an issue of personal taste, at their best they can compete with any country's wines. Robert Mondavi, in his upper 80s now, has survived to see that dream become reality. 

    So, a hearty welcome to all the newcomers, and a tip of the hat to those who paved the way............I spend enough time criticizing. It's good to remember the positives once in awhile!

 


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