While judging some excellent wines for the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition a couple of weeks ago, it struck me that many casual wine consumers may not be aware of an important development on the USA wine scene: Fine wine is being made in your neck of the woods--almost regardless of where you live in the woods. And as a result, wine is reaping great benefits in terms of acceptance and appreciation within American culture.
When I started studying wine seriously 20 years ago, the scope of American wine was largely limited--in terms of what was seriously good and reasonably available--to California.
To be sure, there were a few notable exceptions. Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle and its stablemate, Columbia Crest, were making wines that were widely available and often quite good. But other Washington wines were almost impossible to find even in a big, wine savvy market like Washington D.C. The few Oregon Pinots that were being made were newsworthy but practically impossible to find in retail stores. Konstantin Frank was making good wines from vinifera grapes in New York, but you'd be chasing your tail to try to buy them, and Bully Hill was your only real option from the Empire State. A few wines were being made in Virginia and Texas, but in the unlikely event you found a bottle to taste, you'd likely have been sorry.
Today, the situation is strikingly different, though you might not quite be aware of it because the change has taken place in drip-by-drip increments. Washington State now boasts more than 670 wineries, and its wines are sold in all 50 states and many other countries. Oregon's roster of producers has swelled to more than 500. New York is going strong in the Finger Lakes and on Long Island, and boasts more than 400 wineries in total. There are now 341 wineries in Texas, and Virginia has more than 275 bonded wineries and many more grape growers. Even Michigan--which may seem rather unlikely as a source for wine while we’re in the midst of this wicked winter--now accounts for 230 of the USA’s total of wineries, which surpasses 7,000.
Grapes are now being grown--and wine is being made--in all 50 states, and some of these states are now home to clusters of wineries that are sufficiently large, serious and organized to be on the verge of deserving the name, "industries." Beyond the states just mentioned, these would include North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri--each of which is now home to more than 100 wineries.
So what, you ask?
In my view, the diffusion of wine production beyond California to various regions and many localities is of great historical importance for the development of a culture in which wine is--at long last--broadly and deeply appreciated in the United States.
Thomas Jefferson hoped for the development of such a culture, both as an end in itself and also as an alternative to the very rough drinking culture that he observed in his day, which was based predominantly on spirits. His hopes have been frustrated over the years by a variety of factors, not the least of which being viticultural maladies and the nation's Puritan origins, which ultimately manifested themselves in the vinous catastrophe of Prohibition.
Prohibition has long been a thing of the past in terms of constitutional law, yet it has left the United States with a pounding, prolonged hangover in the forms of a crazy quilt of state-by-state legislation, a three-tier distribution "system," mandatory label warnings regarding health threats, and barriers and penalties regarding direct shipping to consumers. To this day, the public sector's involvement with wine remains overwhelmingly devoted to restriction or interdiction, as opposed to education on moderation and appreciation.
Bizarre though the notion seems to those of us who love wine and understand its proper role in a moderate, healthy life, it remains associated with "Demon Alcohol" for millions of Americans. Millions more who do not decry wine outright look at it askance as something elitist or foreign. Or both. And the sad fact is that wine consumption in the United States is still largely an upper-class phenomenon limited to metropolitan areas, especially on the two coasts.
Time is slowly providing remedies to this lamentable situation, with diffusion of knowledge about wine (and direct experience with it) being the most potent remedy. And in my opinion, the physical presence of vineyards and wineries in a rapidly increasing number of communities is perhaps the single most powerful antidote to the notion that wine is a bad thing from some foreign place.
It is a new fact of American life that a high percentage of citizens now live within a fairly short drive of a vineyard or winery. What lessons are being imparted by this new fact?
--Wine is not just a commodity that is shipped in from some exotic point on the globe, but something crafted by one's neighbors;
--Wine is not simply a luxury product skimmed from nature like caviar, but an agricultural product conjured from the soil by the honest labor of farmers;
--Wine is not only a beverage enjoyed by the pinky-extending gentry at polo parties, but by anyone who pulls into a parking lot to visit the tasting room at the new winery in town;
--Vineyards are not just the stuff of travel brochures, but beautiful additions to the local landscape that keep land in agricultural production and serve as barriers to urban sprawl;
--Wine is not an impenetrably complicated product, but an essentially natural beverage made by a surprisingly simple process that can be grasped readily during a pleasant walk through a winery.
The new wineries that are cropping up across the United States are teaching these lessons every day, and their transformative effect on the status of wine in American culture should not be underestimated.
Sure, lots of these start-up wineries in new locales are making wine that isn't up to snuff by world standards. Some of them in more marginal climates will probably never make very good wine. But two important points remain undiminished by this.
First, the very presence of a winery down the street often has a powerful impact on attitudes toward wine, and a second-rate winery in Minnesota is probably doing more good for wine in America than yet another first-rate winery in the Napa Valley.
Second, over the longer term, I would bet anything that the diffusion of wine-growing across North America will contribute not only to understanding but also--and importantly--to the enhancement of wine quality in the future. This isn't a particularly audacious bet on my part, since excellence has already been achieved with varieties like Riesling in Michigan and the Finger Lakes, Viognier and Cabernet Franc in Virginia, and Merlot on the north fork of Long Island.
Indeed, these wines are widely regarded as superior to their counterparts from California, and I can easily envision a future in which many different parts of the United States are considered the prime spots for this or that grape or wine type.
California will probably always remain the biggest and best contributor to American wine, which is fine by me. Similarly, Bordeaux is the biggest and arguably best appellation contributing to French wine. However, the prospect of a France limited to Bordeaux--without Chenin Blanc from the Loire or Syrah from the Rhône or Riesling from Alsace or bubbly from Champagne--is a nightmare. Quelle horreur!
By contrast to such a nightmare, a future in which wine in the United States is broadly appreciated and made at high levels of quality in many different places is a lovely dream--and one that is being realized before our eyes.