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Wine History in a Hazelnutshell (Part 2)

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Just tuning in? Check out Part 1 of this story here

California Dreamin’

Although the earliest winemaking was recorded in Florida in the 1560’s and the oldest winery in the USwas established in 1839 in New York, California is the center of the US wine universe. The Golden State claims over 80% of US wine production and for good reason: the climate, soils, and elevations are perfect for growing almost everything, especially wine grapes, though the highest quality is found in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

Early influencers include Agoston Haraszthy (Hungarian immigrant and founder of Buena Vista Winery in 1857 in Sonoma), Charles Krug (opened his winery in Napa Valley in 1861), Ernest and Julio Gallo (founded Gallo Winery in Modesto in 1933 and pioneered jug wine in the US) and Robert Mondavi (considered responsible for the superior reputation of California wine amongst the global wine market).

Things really started cooking (fermenting?) after Prohibition (you know— when folks went crazy and decided alcohol was sinful and banned it from 1920-1933.By the 1960’s, as demand increased and vineyards were replanted, California started producing high quality wines. A huge turning point was the Judgment of Paris in 19761(made famous in the 2008 movie Bottleshock). This blind wine tasting pitted French Bordeaux and white Burgundy wines against California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Stag’s Leap Cellars and Chateau Montelena, both California wineries, took the top spots, judged by French judges, to the astonishment of the wine world. Soon after, the world came knocking and put California on the world wine map.

Another wine centric movie,Sideways, is also entertaining but did more damage than good by sullying the reputation of the Merlot grape and biased many against this delicious grape responsible for half the magic in the world’s most renowned Bordeaux blends. Merlot is the most planted varietal in France and second only to Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. 


The Local Angle


The Willamette Valley was planted with its first wine grapes in the 1960’s due to perseverance of several forward thinking winemakers: David Lett (Eyrie Vineyard), Charles Coury (Charles Coury Vineyard-now David Hill), and Dick Erath (Erath Winery) were some of these key players. Fresh from UC Davis and its famed oenology program, these visionaries believed the terroir of the WV was close to that of Burgundy and started planting in the Burgundy style with Pinot Noir. It didn’t take long for the world to notice and today WV is renowned for its world class Pinot Noir, which makes up over 60% of vineyard acreage. In fact, Oregon had its own “Judgment of Paris” moment when David Lett’s 1975 Pinot Noir took top honors at the 1979 Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades.

Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling follow Pinot Noir as most prevalent grapes in WV and now over 600 wineries call WV home.he wine tourism industry has exploded here. Currently,Oregon is #4 behind California, Washington and New York in acreage under vine.


The Takeaway

The history of wine is long and fascinating and this unique fruit has influenced world history from Roman times to present day. Presently, it continues to play a huge role in commercial/agricultural markets as well as our social lives, mental and physical health  and the financial health of the many countries which support the wine industry. In every glass is a unique story just waiting to be discovered by the drinker. Be curious, taste as many wines as you can afford, keep a wine journal to record your likes and dislikes and enjoy the ride!


Next time: Components of Wine: Chemistry for Fun & Profit!


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