Wine Business Seven Decades of Wine

Key events and turning points in the U.S. wine industry.

In any seven-decade stretch in most European wine countries, only incremental changes may be seen. Wine makers get only one chance a year to make a wine, and on most estates, one or perhaps two wines are made.

In the U.S., wine has changed so radically in the last 70 years — since the founding of this publication (then titled, Liquor Store & Dispenser) — that it is almost unrecognizable. Indeed, its growth from 1935, when Congress passed the first regulations establishing a three-tier system for liquor distribution, can only be characterized as completely erratic and totally reactive. Old Inglenook winery

PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE WINE INSTITUTE
The old Inglenook Winery, which these days goes by the name Coppola.

The major developments that affected American wine are based on consumer trends, some of which may have been a result of issues not directly related to wine making.

We could easily trace the course of this publication and the course of wine in the U.S. through a chronological step-by-step process. But we chose to use one person’s subjective view of important issues in wine that led to spurts of growth, and how each one is linked to another.

At the top of this list, we put the most important issues — those that sculpted the era that followed. And the overriding issue of the 20th century for wine, and the one that likely launched this publication, is the Repeal of Prohibition by passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

So euphoric was this for the industry that few realized the chaos that would ensue in the distribution of all wines, beers and spirits in the next 70 years — to the point where the United States Supreme Court had to step in to resolve an issue that no one complained about for some 50 years.

The end of Prohibition was greeted with relief on the part of many, but the vacuum created by nearly two decades of abstention was huge. There had been no research into grape growing for more than 20 years, and even though the University of California at Davis had a rudimentary program at the time, it had neither the funds nor the staff to handle the Herculean tasks that lay ahead.

It took decades before U.C. Davis’ research funds began to have an impact on grape growing and wine making.

The Tasting of Paris

The next important moment for the California wine industry’s growth was the Tasting of Paris in 1976. Merchant Stephen Spurrier’s staging of a blind tasting of California Chardonnays versus top White Burgundies, and then of California Cabernets versus top-rate Bordeaux might not have been a world-shaking event had it not been for a couple of coincidences.

First was the fact that a Time magazine writer, George Taber, had no other more important business to attend to, so he covered that event. Then a clever headline writer at Time, seeing the opportunity for a pun in the headline to the story, entitled Taber’s article “The Judgment of Paris,” taking a sideways glance at the art world and at artist Lucas Cranach’s famed painting by that title.

The fact that the winners of both ends of that event were the respective wineries’ second wines (1973 Chteau Montelena Chardonnay and 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon) instantly brought fame to California, and Napa Valley in particular.

A third and most important “event” in California wine history came almost by utter coincidence, and helped keep wine growth on an upward spiral, especially fine wine.

A November 1991 report on the CBS TV news magazine “60 Minutes,” entitled “The French Paradox,” pointed out that the French smoked more, ate more fat, yet have far fewer heart attacks than Americans, and quoted French scientists as saying that the difference was that the French drank more wine, red wine in particular.

Interestingly, “60 Minutes” never credited the real source of the material. The author of the first article on the subject was Edward Dolnick, whose article in the magazine “In Health” a full year earlier revealed the basic material contained in the CBS report. Even the title of the article was the same: “The French Paradox.”

Winery workers circa 1950 CaHillSmllr
Winery workers of about five to six decades ago (left),
and working a hillside vineyard in Napa (above).

Regardless of who first discovered and reported on the phenomenon, the news got out and soon Americans were racing to their local package stores for red wines. By March 1992, E&J Gallo was completely out of red wine for its Hearty Burgundy, and was reported to be buying wine in bulk from Bronco Wine Co., then the largest vineyard/land owner in the country.

Another milestone in American wine was the switch from sweet to dry. That occurred in 1969. Prior to 1969, U.S. wineries sold more sweet wine (port, sherry, sauterne and the like) than they did dry wine, but slowly the U.S. consumer was seeing the benefits of drier styles. But unlike Europe, where 90% of the wine consumed was red, Americans still liked slightly sweet whites, which was evidenced by the fact that two of the most popular wines of the period were Blue Nun from Germany as well as such pink Portuguese wines as Lancers.

One of the largest-selling “red” wines was lambrusco, with well-known Riunite accounting for huge sales from Italy.

Americans thus proved that they’d happily buy any wine that was (a) sweet enough, (b) lower in alcohol, and (c) chilled.

One of the real landmark wines of the 1960s to the mid-1970s was Charles Krug’s Chenin Blanc, a slightly sweet, light white wine that soon represented more than half of that winery’s overall production.

Into the early 1980s sailed that wine, until a light dry, salmon-hued white wine, almost by accident, upstaged it and dealt it a death blow.

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