A Texas Merlot? Put a cork in it!

A History of Wine in America
June 16, 2006

North America produces a good deal of wine, but it is far from clear that North America has a wine culture, one that accepts that wine has an integral role in daily life. A wine culture has developed along America's West Coast and in some major cities, but there are still vast tracts of the US where wine is regarded with disdain, hostility or sheer bafflement.

Thomas Pinney's history makes it very clear that until the 1960s wine played a marginal role in American life. The development of Napa Valley or Santa Barbara as wine tourism destinations is recent, as is the consumption of domestic dry table wines, as opposed to fortified wines.

In this second volume of a comprehensive study, Pinney resumes the story at Prohibition, and the chronicle of evasion and muddled enforcement during the interwar years makes for entertaining reading. Because home winemaking was permitted during Prohibition, the land devoted to vineyards expanded in the 1920s to serve this burgeoning activity.

What is just as interesting, and dispiriting, as Prohibition is the dire state of the US wine industry since repeal in 1933. There was no shortage of grapes, but the varieties planted during Prohibition were those most likely to withstand transcontinental transport to home winemakers. Grape quality did not come into it. So the reborn industry had to make do with large crops of mediocre grapes. What winery equipment survived Prohibition was decayed; it would take years before wineries could invest in modern technology and secure hygiene.

Pinney's account of the industry in the 1940s and 1950s makes for dismal reading. It was an era of bulk wines and fortified wines, and only a handful of wineries continued to produce high-quality bottlings of the kind that Napa Valley and other areas had been known for in the 19th century.

The era was dominated by large co-operatives and corporations, and their primary concern was profitability. Quality, in any case, was hard for a new generation of wine drinkers to assess, given the absence of good wines, other than expensive French imports, on the market.

Gradually the situation improved. The wine merchant Frank Schoonmaker introduced varietal labelling to give consumers at least some notion of what was in the bottle. A few maverick winemakers showed what could be done with the right grapes in the right place (essentially California) and chose to emphasise quality rather than quantity.

American wine production finally came of age in the late 1960s. Driven by intelligent enthusiasts, of whom Robert Mondavi is the best known example, winemakers harnessed the knowledge and experience of the Old World to the benign growing conditions of the West Coast. Since then, California and, to an extent, Oregon and Washington have become international success stories.

It is both the strength and weakness of Pinney's book that it seeks to cover the entire US. It is perfectly obvious that with the one exception of New York State, most of the country away from the West Coast is poorly suited to viticulture. The North is too cold; the Southeast too humid and prone to disease. By planting disease-resistant hybrid grape varieties, some kind of viticulture can be practised in humid states, but the results in bottle are rarely rewarding.

Pinney gives an exhaustive account of almost every state, which makes for tedious reading unless you have a strong interest in Florida winemaking.

Pinney makes matters worse by listing almost every growers' association, promotional organisation, university course in viticulture - the kind of material best confined to an appendix. Of the "old South", he writes: "All sorts of interesting experiments have been carried out, and if things remain precarious, one must still admire the persistence and energy of experimenters. Who knows what may yet develop in Kentucky, say, or in Georgia?" I think I can tell him: not much.

Pinney is on firmer ground in his account of the West Coast and New York.

Yet this is very much an institutional history. The great names of the industry - André Tchelitscheff, Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Paul Draper, Jess Jackson - are mentioned, if at all, only in passing. In their place are blocks of statistics, accounts of mergers and relentless explanations of local rules and regulations. Pinney has little to say about wine styles and their evolution, about why California has done so well, about the media's role in establishing the American taste for wine.

Pinney is nothing if not thorough, but his labours have resulted in a lacklustre tome. He has little sense of narrative, and his prose lacks colour. Other historians have related the development of the Californian wine industry, at any rate, with more panache, but readers requiring a more comprehensive account of American wine as a whole will find this volume of interest.

Stephen Brook is the author of The Wines of California (1999) and a contributing editor of Decanter magazine.

A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present

Author - Thomas Pinney
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 532
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 520 24176 2

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