The Borrowed and the New: American Wine and French Tradition

by Dwight Furrow

The wine world is an interesting amalgam of stability and variation. As I noted last month, agency in the wine community is dispersed with many independent actors having some influence on wine quality. This dispersed community is held together by conventions and traditions that foster the reproduction of wine styles and maintain quality standards. Most major wine styles are embedded in traditions that go back hundreds of years and are still vibrant today. Although the genetic instability of grapes and their sensitivity to minor changes in weather, soil and topography are agents of change, most of these changes are minor variations within a context of stability. We create new varietals, discover new wine regions, and develop new technologies and methods but these produce minor deviations from a core concept that sometimes seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a modification of those major themes.

Nevertheless, sometimes wine styles change, often massively. In a community so bound by tradition how does that change take place? One example of a massive change in taste took place in the U.S. in the decades following WWII, where in the course of about twenty years American wine consumers changed their preference from sweet wine to dry. How did such a revolution in taste occur in such a relatively short period of time?

American wineries in the nineteenth century were widely acknowledged to produce quality, dry, European-style wines, but Prohibition virtually eradicated the domestic wine industry, except for the few wineries that survived making sacramental wine or growing grapes for private use. Gone were the winemakers, the vineyards, the knowledge, the culture and the equipment necessary to make quality wine. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 it took several decades to get Americans to drink wine again, although by 1960 we were consuming about 160 million gallons per year.  In the 1950’s and 60’s 70% of the wine sold in the U.S. was cheap, sweet and with very high alcohol. People drank Thunderbird, Ripple, and Wild Irish Rose (remember those?) because it was a cheap high and producers such as E.J. Gallo were happy to satisfy that demand.

Yet, by 1978, 70% of wine sold in the U.S. was dry (or relatively dry) table wine. And of course that trend continues today. In 2016 the percentage of dessert wine sold in the U.S. was just over 10% of total wine sales.

What happened to produce such a dramatic shift? In essence, Americans began to emulate the French whose reputation for quality wine was unmatched at the time. Although the French made lovely dessert wine, most of the storied vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy were making wine with little residual sugar, modest alcohol levels, and nuanced aromas intended to be consumed with their refined cuisine. That French image of wine—dry, nuanced, food friendly, and a source of aesthetic experience—was transplanted to the U.S. in a few short years albeit with important differences reflecting the changing context. It is often claimed that the U.S. had no wine traditions to act as a constraint on innovation. We didn’t need them; we borrowed a tradition.

The emergence of a fine wine culture in the U.S. cannot be disentangled from the simultaneous emergence of a food culture in the U.S. Even during the dreadful landscape of American cuisine in the 1950’s, change was afoot. Julia Child was cooking her way through France. Soldiers returning from WW II and its aftermath in Europe had acquired a taste for European cuisine, and as air travel improved, prosperous Americans were traveling to France and Italy and being exposed to refined tastes and a focus on flavor. Furthermore, immigrant communities kept their ties to the old country alive by preserving some of their food and wine traditions—the role of Italian immigrants will be especially important in this wine revolution. Thus, by the 1960’s, the ingredients were in place for some Americans to begin a serious exploration of flavor.

Importers and media as well as American commercial wine producers were quick to recognize this uptick in our interest in European style wine. Julia Child advised Americans on the finer points of wine and food pairing in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while toasting “bon appetite!” with a glass of wine at the close of each episode of her long-running TV cooking show. Advertisements in magazines such as The New Yorker, Gourmet, and Time Magazine were instructing consumers on the nuances of wine appreciation and how to read wine labels. Airlines and fine hotels began to emphasize wine as a component of first-class service. Thus, in addition to advertising a product, the wine trade was in the process of creating an imaginative discourse around wine in which it came to symbolize a life of refinement, ease, aesthetic appreciation, and sophistication. As a result, wine gradually loses its reputation as a cheap way of getting drunk and separates itself from spirits and beer as a more civilized alcoholic beverage no longer associated with barroom brawls or so called “bum wine”.

That image of quality wine as dry, refined and nuanced, a symbol of the good life, and a necessary accompaniment for food was a reproduction of European, especially French, conventions and traditions but in a new context. What appears to be a radical change in taste was in fact an extension and reinforcement of a long European tradition led by the French with important contributions from the Italians and Spanish among others.

Nevertheless, that transplantation of European traditions in the U.S. did not occur without some variation. These differences would become magnified, ultimately producing a distinctly different style of wine. While Americans were discovering their palate, Californians were rediscovering how ideal their climate was for growing wine grapes. Although prohibition had put an end to most commercial California wine production, by the 1940’s the foundation of a re-born wine industry in the Napa Valley was planted with 15-20 wineries active by 1950. French winemaker Andre Tchelisticheff had joined Beaulieu Vineyards in 1938 and introduced a variety of French winemaking techniques, emphasizing the planting of French varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, the use of French oak barrels for aging wine, and the use of techniques such as malolactic fermentation and cold fermentation. Just as wine appreciation would later adopt the French image of wine, wine production, in those redoubts where quality mattered, had already done so. As American winemakers increasingly focused on quality, they were trying to emulate the best, and that was French wine. Even the Italian immigrant Robert Mondavi, a tireless promoter of improved quality in the Napa Valley in the 1960’s planted French varietals and used French winemaking techniques.

Yet there were two crucial innovations and some good fortune that modified that French model. One innovation was varietal labeling. Most European wineries labeled their wine with a brand name and the name of the place where the grapes were grown. With few exceptions, the name of the grape varietal never appeared on the bottle and few consumers knew or cared which grape was used to make the wine. It was the land and the winemaking tradition that mattered, not the varietal.

The bulk wine market in the U.S. continued this practice calling their white wines “Chablis” and their red wines “Burgundy”, despite the fact there was no connection between what was in the bottle and these famous place names in France. But the influential importer Frank Schoonmaker had long advocated the use of grape varieties on the label and wineries increasingly adopted this approach. This made wine much more accessible to a mass market in which consumers lacked the knowledge or inclination to keep track of obscure vineyard sites and regions in France. This focus on varietals had some influence on winemaking as well as well as marketing, allowing wine science to experiment with measurable dimensions of particular varieties under controlled conditions rather than the less calculable historical traditions tied to the land in Europe.

The second innovation was related. Americans were early developers of the modern technology of wine production. Without domestic traditions to define their approach, they were free to experiment, and experiment they did. Stainless steel, temperature-controlled, fermentation tanks were developed in the 1950’s. Filtration techniques were improved, and reliable commercial yeasts manufactured. Mechanical harvesters, drip irrigation systems and laboratory testing of wine components came online with the help of the oenology and viticulture department at the University of California, Davis.

Third, and most importantly, California was fortunate to have the sunlight and warmth to bring out even more fruit flavor and do so more consistently than the cooler sites in France, since the Californians had fewer bad vintages where the grapes wouldn’t properly ripen. The cumulative result of these differences was clean, consistent wines with bold, bright fruit flavors and reliable secondary fermentations in red wine to soften the acidity. The role of technology was not only to increase production capacity to satisfy a mass market but had a discernible influence on wine quality. Americans were emulating the French but they were also trying to surpass them, an aspiration partially achieved in the famous Judgment of  Paris event in 1976 in which French wine experts in a blind tasting gave first place to two Napa Valley wines—the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay.

Ultimately, the focus on varietal, California sun, and advanced technology would lead to a distinctive new style of wine. When the Judgment of Paris took place, it is probably not correct to say the California style was radically new. After all some of the blind tasters in the Paris event mistook California wines for French, although the British wine writer Oz Clarke described the California wines as “startingly, thrillingly different”.

But the small differences American winemakers were able to achieve with their methods were celebrated, worked on, and enhanced in the ensuing decades. California had the sun; why not use that as their competitive advantage? Grapes were left on the vines longer in the relatively dry, sunny early autumn months developing more sugar to convert to higher alcohol, softer tannins and less acidity. All of this innovation of course spread to other countries that also had the sun and technology. Australia was especially aggressive in pursuing these same developments. New world wines were born. Today, for blind tasters, one of the first judgments you make about a wine’s origin is “new world or old world”. They are distinctly different styles.

So what can we conclude about change in the wine world from this brief history of 20th Century wine in the U.S? When traditions and conventions are reproduced they don’t make exact copies. They are reproduced in different contexts and those differences beget more differences. [Fans of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze might recognize the repetition of difference-in-itself in these events.] When traditions cannot be rigidly enforced by rules or norms, the constant demand for improvement encourages tinkering with new methods and techniques which induces drift—minor changes in quality that become major when taken up, worked on and advanced.

Yet even when a tradition is supplanted by something new, the old ways can reassert themselves. The influence of the French image of wine would continue in the U.S. as a return of the repressed. As California wines became richer, more dense, and more alcoholic, there was a powerful backlash as more restrained styles come back into fashion. The “Anything but Chardonnay” movement of the late 1990’s, and the highly publicized but recently disbanded “In Pursuit of Balance” winery association, launched in 2011, were part of this backlash. The recent interest in very dry, Provence-style rosé, and the generally lighter, less alcoholic wine styles we find today are all a re-assertion of the French image of wine. (This is an image the French are struggling to maintain in the face of climate change and market pressures)

One problem with new wine styles is that they become popular. Demand increases and supply must follow suit. Thus, wineries begin using inferior grapes from inferior locations and take shortcuts in the winery to keep up. The result is an inferior product about which thoughtful people begin to wonder “what was I thinking?” Such was the fate of buttery Chardonnay and oaky, chocolate-like Merlot. It will shortly put the brakes on our fascination with Pinot Noir.

Taste is a realm of never being satisfied. The new is never quite new, and the old is never quite gone. I can’t wait for the revival of Thunderbird and Ripple.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution