Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Argument for an American Wine Industry Hall of Fame

By John M. Olney
July 4, 2011
Part One of a Three Part Series
The Premise

The thought of a Vintners Hall of Fame for those who own and/or are employed in and about the California Wine Industry is a noble notion but what is really needed is an American Wine Industry Hall of Fame that recognizes those individuals, institutions, private corporations and governmental agency’s who have contributed to the birth of wine in what would become the USA, nurturing it through its adolescent years and then managing it into its current state of maturity where its wines are produced for the appeal of the palate of just about every possible consumer market across the USA; indeed the world!


Although the wine snob cannot stand to hear about, see, smell or taste “sweet wines” or acknowledge that there are wine producers who dare to invent or create “designer” or “fad” wines, nevertheless the market sales numbers tell us that the wine snob is distinctly in the minority view.

In today’s market place, the consumer can pick from bottles of wine that are allegedly “premium” and are “what any wine consumer of any real quality should be drinking” - at least so says the wine snob and critic - that cost hundreds of dollars; indeed even ranging into the thousands per bottle! These wines are produced in quantities of way less than hundreds of thousand cases per year. Compare that to the sales of wines with catchy names and clever eye catching labels that are produced in the millions of cases per year at large winery facilities that sell for less than five dollars per bottle down to three dollars a bottle or less! Wow, what a range of diversity in price but not necessarily in quality, since “quality” is a relative term that depends on the likes and dislikes of the consumer making an evaluation of a wine being tasted. What one person or critic thinks is a quality wine, another turns their nose at it. And, in my way of thinking, there is no problem with this concept!

The most important point here is that the above description of the range of wine styles produced in America is exactly what growing regions of those countries. Such rules & regulations can makes it a wine industry! You have the small, family vineyard of a few acres and winery owner personalizing everything he or she does in the vineyard and in the winery to manufacture the product they believe represents the type and quality of wine to which they wish to associate their name. At the other end of the wine industry scale is the wine producer, whether family-owned or a corporation, which is totally vertically integrated owning thousands of acres of vineyard, its own harvesting equipment, one or more wine production facilities - each looking more like a giant oil refinery operation than what one usually thinks of as a quaint farm like scene - analytic laboratory, bottling building and lines capable of handling millions of bottles - indeed cases, label, carton & box design & printing shop, trucking line distribution system, and marketing & public relations divisions and more. The only significant difference between these two ends of the spectrum is the likes and dislikes of the consumer when drinking the wine produced by these completely different operations both in style and magnitude.

The difference in the above spectrum of wine production is also what America experienced as it hungered for the wines of the “Old Country” when the 13 Colonies were organizing, growing and maturing into a cohesive body that would no longer suffer the rule of a distant foreign government trying to control and absorb the abundant resources found in the North American Continent and specifically what would become the United States of America. While enduring this foreign rule, the colonists found an abundant amount and species of grapes in their “New World” that certainly suggested they could produce a wine product for their tables. Indigenous grape varietals were everywhere. Soon the idea of picking and crushing the local grape, fermenting the juice and aging the resultant wine became almost an obsession for many who relished wine as they knew it from their home countries.

The Palate

The driving force to “premium” wine consumption from our earliest days in the Colonies to what we drink today is that our forefathers and the wine critics of the times were and remain as palates used to the familiar tastes of wines pro-duced from foreign varietals and made in foreign vintner fashion as prescribed by the laws of each foreign country controlling the classifications of wines in the various stifle individuality, ambition to improve varietal development, wine production techniques and thus quality of the wines that can be produced.

The USA does not have such strict government involvement in the business of wine grape planting and production. Growers and vintners can plant what they want on their land and as many vines per acre as they feel will work for them. We do not employ a strict “classification system” such as used by the French where traditional classifications of wineries within regions that were defined centuries ago regardless of the current quality of the wine being produced today nevertheless remain carved in stone.

In the USA, the winery and the wines, stand alone to be judged by each consumer and critic!

As our forefathers learned from their many experiments attempting to make wines from the indigenous grape of the USA that tasted like from their original homeland, the resultant wine just did not have the “right” taste. Thus, they would start importing rootstock from their homelands in attempt to reproduce a fine European wine in and on American soil and climate. Once again these ambitious and industrious wine producers experienced set backs as the foreign varietals did not hold up well in the soils and climates of our eastern states. This forced those interested in “fine” wine production to start experimenting in crossing foreign varietals with indigenous varietals. Meanwhile others took a completely different road in wine production. They looked to other sugar developing fruits and berries, and the ancient source of wine - honey - to produce a wine product. Once again the traditional wine snob pushes his/her nose up in grimace at the thought of having to tolerate the existence of these wine products much less to be stuck having to drink any!

All this background information now brings us back to the concept of an American Wine Industry Hall Of Fame. This title purposely avoids the use of the word “grape” because there are a number of states in the USA where many wineries make their product not from grapes but from other sugar-based crops. If you are of the grape exclusive persuasion you wouldn’t even bother to read further or to experiment with or train your palate to enjoy non-grape generated wines. But, such wines enjoy a very large following that results in serious agriculture derived revenues to those producing states.

A Little Bit of Interpretive History

As we began our expansionist movement from a nation of just 13 former British Colonies and dared to push west and south while justifying such conquests of indigenous people and their lands under the delusion that it was our “manifest destiny” to populate the land from ocean to ocean and the Great Lakes to Gulf of Mexico, we brought with us our appetite for wine. We pushed aside indigenous peoples as we moved into the great Ohio and Missouri Basins and plains. The Louisiana Purchase gave us the largest acquisition of land more than doubling the size of our nation. We annexed the Mexican controlled lands of Texas and started a war with Mexico to gain even more of their lands north of the Gulf of Mexico and stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile we negotiated a settlement with the British thereby avoiding another war where land in the Pacific Northwest was divided between the two nations with the USA gaining what we now call Oregon and Washington and other lands stretching along the latitude line intersecting with the Great Lakes.

Upon finally reaching the Mexican controlled land of California and winning rights to it along with other important lands of the southwest during the great war with Mexico, we finally had what would prove to be control of the perfect land and climatic conditions upon which we could grow the European varietals we so longed for our palate - Washington, Oregon and California.

Since those adolescent years of our national growth, wine production in the USA has been dominated by the eastern states of New York, and Pennsylvania, the mid west states of Ohio and Michigan, the south with Texas and Virginia and western states of California, Washington and Oregon. Many of the early names who helped to develop the wines as we migrated west came from the east and settled in the west when they realized what an asset it was for wine production. However, that migration did not mean the doom of wine production elsewhere in the USA. Just the opposite occurred as migration pushed all the other wine growing regions to search for ideal varietals clones and cross breading from which wines could compete in an open market place. The best evidence of this is the fact that every state in the union today has wineries with product in the market place. This achievement is exactly why there should be an American Wine Industry Hall of Fame that recognizes the talents that brought us to this point of our maturity in the wine industry of our country.

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