Food & Wine Thusdays: Perception and a Haphazard History of American Wine

California came into its position as America’s top wine-producing state largely by accident and luck. A tiny little aphid called phylloxera is native to the United States and, until the late 1800’s, was native only to the eastern half of the country. This aphid feeds on the roots of Vitis Vinifera, the European grape vine from which virtually all of the world’s wine is made. A Phylloxera infestation will devastate a vineyard and is the reason that Thomas Jefferson, despite numerous attempts at growing European grapes in between bouts of slave-fucking, failed at his viticultural endeavors.

In the western United States, the Spaniards raped their way through Mexico and up into well, I guess it was Mexico too then, bringing with them the Mission grape, a particularly hardy and high-yielding species of Vitis Vinifera. With no phylloxera to be found, the grapes flourished throughout California, Arizona and New Mexico. In fact, New Mexico at one time had more land under vine than California.

By the time phylloxera found time to saunter over the Rockies in the 1880’s (after pillaging most of the vineyards of Europe) we’d discovered the art of grafting. Now the Vinifera vines could be grafted on to the roots of indigenous American grapes (vitis labrusca) which, through the miracle of Intelligent Design, were resistant to phylloxera. Wine saved!

But that’s only half the story as to California’s rise to prominence. Wine was being made throughout the American west and southwest (and to a lesser extent, domains east of the Rockies) and California was no more privileged than any other state. The fact is, there never was a huge domestic demand for wine. Wealthy folks on the east coast drank French wine and it was primarily immigrant communities that consumed wine from vineyards grown locally on their own small farms. Because of the problems producing wine in the early part of American history, the heavily English, Irish, Scottish and German pedigree of our early settlers and the relative ease of growing corn, wheat and barley, America became a beer and whiskey drinking nation.

The final nail in the coffin was Prohibition, which effectively destroyed all but the largest breweries, wineries, and distilleries–the ones who could diversify into the production of other products. Wine vineyards were torn up and replaced either with table grapes or other more valuable crops.

Fortunately some small vineyards did persevere, closely tended again largely by immigrant farmers from Italy and Eastern Europe, since small amounts of wine could be made for home consumption and limited sale of wine for religious purposes was allowed. Most of these immigrant communities were around San Francisco which is why virtually all of the old vine (100+ year) vineyards in the country are in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

(Of course Los Angeles had a bit of wine making history too. San Antonio winery, in the middle of once largely Italian Lincoln Heights, used to produce its wine from grapes grown just east of the LA River. The name of Vignes St, a now heavily-potholed road in the middle of a heavy industrial park reflects this history.)

Flash forward to 1976. California has a small, thriving wine community producing some very good, inexpensive wines (along with gallons and gallons of broadly labeled jug wines). An Englishman named Steven Spurrier (not the guy from Florida) comes and visits Napa to taste some wine. He starts thinking “hey, this is some good stuff, let’s have a tasting in Paris that pits California Cabernet and Chardonnay against the best red Bordeaux and white Burgundy!” They do and, in a blind taste test, the California wines take virtually all of the top slots in the competition. Rather than the logical conclusion to be drawn from this, that the idea of objective wine tasting is patently absurd and the French are chauvinist pricks, Americans instead conclude “Hey, California makes wine as good as France! Let’s start over-inflating our prices and egos too!”

I may have embellished that last part a bit.

It’s true that California can produce wine as good as French wine. The only thing the Old World has on the New in this regard is the centuries of history, which while a benefit 90% of the time, can sometimes be a hindrance. But any region in the right part of the world with good soil, good grape selection, and good wine making skills can make wine on par with any other region with a few specific, distinctive exceptions where the coming together of so many unique conditions results in qualities in those wines which are irreplicable.

Which is all a long way of saying: Arizona makes really good wine. There’s a growing wine community in Arizona that is taking advantage of very cool, distinctive mineral-rich volcanic soil, inexpensive land and a wine culture that isn’t beholden to arbitrary history, pretension and million dollar marketing budgets.

Sure it’s hot in Arizona, but it’s hot in Napa and Paso Robles too. While scorching triple digits are common in Phoenix, the higher elevations where much of these grapes are grown rarely break 90 degrees. The most significant limitation is water, but a grape vine once established is a remarkably drought-resistant bastard.

The exposure of Arizona wine is increasing thanks in no small part to rock star-turned-vigneron Maynard James Keenan (Puscifer/A Perfect Circle/Tool) and his partner, erstwhile Arizona wine maker polymath Eric Glomski, who between their various partnerships produce Caduceus Cellars, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Page Springs Cellars. There’s a movie making the festival and screening circuits about their journey.

There also was recently a blind tasting of Arizona wines against wine from throughout the world and, surprise surprise, Arizona took the top spots in both the red and white categories. The full results of the tasting are supposed to released at a dinner on Sunday.

So seek out the wine regions less traveled, you might be surprised at the quality you can find.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Dispatches From Academia, Home of the Bizarre Rant, Nerd Alert, Wine & Cheese and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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