July 4th Flashback: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourIt is Independence Day here in the United States and that is all the excuse I need for this special Flashback column, which takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

My friends always tell me to have a fifth for the Fourth, and I assume they are recommending a bottle of American wine with the required holiday menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and salads. Cheers and Happy Independence Day.

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At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

The Past Meets the Future at Alentejo’s Historic José de Sousa Winery

P1110385The dynamic intersection of old and new was a theme of our recent visit to Portugal’s Alentejo wine region and there cannot be a better example of it that the work that winemaker Domingos Soares Franco is doing at at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery. Here is a brief report.

Past & Present

Domingos Soares Franco’s roots in Portuguese wine run very deep. He is the sixth generation of his family to make wine. He is a quiet man, I would say, having met him just once, but also proud of all that he and his family have accomplished at José Maria da Fonseca. And rightly so (see video below).

Domingos is known for the innovations that he has introduced in winemaking here, which reflects the new. His technical training was in California at UC Davis (he was the first Portuguese Davis graduate), so it is no surprise that he brings the modern and experimental to his work here.

But we did not meet him in a high tech facility as you might imagine. Instead he took us into a deep cellar at the José de Sousa winery where we confronted Alentejo’s past and perhaps also its future.

Going Back in TimeP1110389

The Romans made wine in this region two millenia ago using huge clay jars not unlike the ones shown in the photo above and video below. Incredibly the ancient practice remained alive here over the centuries before fading away in the 20th century as the local wine industry suffered from adverse economic incentives (the Portuguese government promoted grain production over wine).

The reemergence of wine in this region is an important story and as we saw at Adega de Borba, modern technology and innovation have been key to that success. But many of those old 1000 liter clay jars still survive from a century ago and we saw them at several wineries that are experimenting with them to see if the past can provide insights for the future. I am not sure anyone has gone as far as Domingos, however.

We inspected the basement with the largest collection of jars that I saw on this trip and peered into a jar full with wine that Domingos was making based upon an ancient recipe. A layer of olive oil protected the wine from oxygen. It was like a look back into the past!

A Memorable BlendP1110401

Then we tasted and that was very interesting, too. Experimenting with both the past and the future, Domingos makes one wine using modern techniques and then another, using identical grapes, in the clay jars. You could sense the family resemblance, but there was a lot that is different, especially aroma and mouthfeel.

We tasted one and then the other and then improvised the blend that Domingos favors: half past, half future. Memorable. Not just a wine but an experience.

If you look closely at the photo you can see the shimmer of olive oil floating on the surface of the clay jar wine. That will be gone when the finished wine is made, Domingos said, but the sense of history will certainly remain.

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This video gives you a sense of the old and new that we experienced in Portugal.

Legendary Fred Franzia to Speak at Unified Symposium Luncheon

Sue and I will be at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento on January 26-28, 2016 where I will once again moderate the State of the Industry session featuring presentations by Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage, Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

I always look forward to the Wednesday “State of the Industry” panel because the speakers are so well-informed and the information so timely and interesting. But if I am honest, this year I am even more excited about the Tuesday luncheon gathering because that speaker will be the legendary Fred Franzia (a.k.a. Mr Two Buck Chuck) of Bronco Wine. Wouldn’t miss this for the world!

Bronco By the Numbers

Bronco Wine Company is a major force in the U.S. wine industry. According to the most recent Wine Business Monthly report, Bronco’s 20 million annual case volume makes it the fourth largest U.S. wine company after Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands. Although Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) is the best known Bronco label, the company has more than 50 brands. One of the products that Bronco does not make is Franzia, the popular box wine, which belongs to The Wine Group. Franzia doesn’t make Franzia? It’s a long story that I will tell another time.

Bronco’s history began in 1973, when Fred Franzia and his brother Joseph met with their cousin John and pledged to go all in to build a new wine company. Equipped with a tiny bank loan, their knowledge of the business side (Fred and Joseph) and of winemaking (John), plus a major measure of determination, they set out on the twisting road that has brought them to their current position.

Their accomplishment is quite breathtaking when you think about it.  Bronco today boasts impressive winemaking facilities, a packaging and distribution center in Napa and about 40,000 acres of vineyards. No, I didn’t make a mistake, the number is 40,000, making Bronco one of the largest vineyard owners in the world.P1100664

The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck

One of Bronco’s greatest achievements, of course, is the success of the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores. These clean, balanced, and affordable wines played an important role in the democratization of wine in the United States. So many previously intimidated consumers were drawn into the wine market by Two Buck Chuck and the other wines it inspired or provoked.

I wrote about “the miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The quality of these inexpensive wines forced other winemakers to raise their game and give better value, which in turn gave consumers more confidence and expanded the wine market’s reach. If you think about the U.S. wine world before 1973, well it really is a miracle that we have come so far. The Franzias played an important role.

The View from Bronco Wine

What will Fred Franzia talk about at the Unified Symposium luncheon? Obviously I don’t really know, but I hope that he will look back at some of the inspiring figures that he has known in his life in American wine and look ahead at some of the challenges he sees for the future. I’m hoping to be  informed, entertained, and inspired.P1100655

Sue and I had an opportunity to talk about the past, present, and future of American wine with Fred Franzia back in September. Fred invited us to come down to see what a large-scale grape harvest looks like. Fred’s son Joey took us to see the night harvest at a 4000-acre vineyard ranch near Lodi — quite an experience to see the big machines at work under the stars.

We also visited the Napa bottling and distribution center and the main winery in Ceres, where we had lunch with Fred, Joseph, and John Franzia. Then John took us through the working winery (he designed it and supervised its construction), which was receiving grapes picked the night before (more than 300 big truck loads a day at that time).

Big and Bigger

The scale of the Ceres operation got our attention, of course. We saw some tanks that held 350,000 gallons of wine each. Big as they are, they were dwarfed by other tanks that held twice as much. Amazing.

Once we got used to the scale of the Bronco winery we began to appreciate the tremendous attention to detail, which was apparent in all of the other Bronco operations we visited. So many moving parts coordinated so efficiently. Very impressive. We enjoyed the opportunity to sit and chat with Fred in his modest trailer office and to hear some stories from the past and his vision of the future. I’m hoping to hear more along these lines when Fred gives his luncheon talk.

The Name is Shaw, Charlie Shaw

Let me share one story. Fred told us that he was making a call  at a Trader Joe’s store — he still handles that account himself — and struck up a conversation with a young man who was stocking a Charles Shaw display. Fred asked about how the wine was selling and what customers were saying and so on and the clerk asked who he was and why he wanted to know. Well, Fred replied, I’m one of the people who help make this wine — I work at the winery.

Wow, the clerk exclaimed. You’re Charles Shaw? You’re Charlie Shaw! No, no, my  name’s not Shaw, Fred tried to explain, but it was too late and a minute later the store PA system announced that Charles Shaw was visiting the wine aisle. Amazed customers surged to the Two Buck Chuck display to thank their hero and Fred spent the rest of his visit happily autographing wine bottles. A rock-star moment!

I hope I have the details of that story right (and I apologize if I’ve messed up) because it says a something about the pride and personal touch that we found everywhere at Bronco and about the warm enthusiasm that Charlie Shaw inspires in his fans.

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Sue’s photos above show the blur of the Charles Shaw bottling line at the Bronco Napa facility and a tractor driver during night harvest.

Looking Back at the European Invasion of California Wine

The Beatles’ Boeing 707 landed in the USA on February 7, 1964 and pop music has never been the same. It isn’t that the British Invasion conquered American pop music as much as that a creative dynamic was accelerated. The influence can still be felt more than 50 years later.

Another invasion took place from about 1970 to 1990 when a number of Europeans made significant wine investments in the United States, stirring the creative pot in ways big and small. Last week I talked about the Skalli family’s Mondavi-inspired investment in St Supéry and the recent sale of that property to the brothers who own Chanel.  That event got me to thinking about the other invaders. Where are they now? Here are a few quick case studies.

Chandon’s French Invasion

Domaine Chandon, for example, has thrived as a sparkling wine producer and now also a maker of fine still wines.  Chandon California (1973) is part of Moët Hennessy’s  global luxury wine portfolio that also includes Newton Vineyard in Cailfornia, Chandon Argentina (1959), Chandon do BrazIl (1973), Chandon Australia (1986) and Chandon China (2013) as well as Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay, and other famous brands.

(Newton Vineyard is the part of the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions. What two California wineries were featured in the Japanese re-make of the film Sideways, which was set in Napa Valley? Answer: Newton and Frog’s Leap.)

Boisset Comes, Goes, Returns

Chandon was not the only French firm to invest in the California wine industry. Boisset, known today for DeLoach, Raymond, and Buena Vista wineries among others, came on the scene in the early 1980s. In fact, Boisset sold Robert Skalli  the Rutherford property on Highway 29 that became the St Supéry winery.

Boisset first entered the California market as an importer and producer in 1980. The Rutherford property was purchased in 1982 (the Victorian home you see there was used as a summer residence for a couple of years). But it was sold to Skalli in 1984  as the result of a strategic shift to focus to building the company back in France rather than expanding further into California.

Jean-Charles Boisset returned in California in 2003 with the DeLoach purchase and has gone on to become an integral part of the wine industry here with a large wine portfolio and deep local roots. He is married to Gina Gallo and the couple live in the old Robert Mondavi house.

Water to Wine: Hess Collection

Donald Hess wasn’t looking to start a winery when he came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1978, although he ended up creating the Hess Collection vineyard and winery on  Mount Veeder and starting an international wine portfolio that now reaches out to California, Argentina and South Africa. Hess wanted to produce and sell bottled water in the U.S. and he traveled across the country looking for both a production source that appealed to him and evidence that there was a growing market for bottled water.

Having failed on both fronts when it came to water (he was obviously just ahead of his time), Hess became inspired by some of the wines he tasted and changed direction. He invested first in the vineyards high up on Mount Veeder and then took over the historic Christian Brothers winery up there, which is quite an inspiring place to visit now that Hess has strengthened and restored it after the Napa earthquake. Hess’s signature modern art collection is spectacular, too, and some of the wines we tasted were memorable indeed. 

Atlas Peak to Antica Napa Valley

As we drove the winding road to Antica Napa Valley I had that feeling of déjà vu: have I been on this road before? Impossible? Nothing much out here except Antica Napa, the Antinori family’s Napa Valley winery (the Antinori are also involved in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Red Mountain’s Col Solare in partnership with Ste Michelle Wine Estates) and this was our first visit.

But I think I had been there before, back when it was called Atlas Peak. The winery and its famous cave system are a fascinating story. Piero Antinori first came to California in 1966, when Robert Mondavi was just starting out with his new winery. Antinori fell in love with the place and started a slow, thorough search for the right path to enter the region.  He finally found it in 1986 when he entered into agreement to purchase land for vineyards and a site for a winery in the beautiful Atlas Peak area. Antinori formed a partnership with Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, and Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne, who were also keen to get a toe in the U.S. pond.

The partnership did not go quite as planned (a long story that Richard G. Peterson outlines in part in his new book The Winemaker) and in 1993 Antinori bought out the Whitbread and Bollinger shares and in 2006 renamed the operation Antica (Antinori + California) Napa Valley.  The road from 1966 to today has been as full of twists and turns as the road to the winery itself and I think it is fair to say that the journey continues with growing confidence. The Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon we tasted speaks volumes about this winery’s capacity, vision and direction.

Two for [Opus] One 

No one remembers for sure, it is said, whether it was Mondavi who approached the Rothschilds or if it was the other way around, but whoever had the idea for a French-California partnership it proved to be a good one. The terms were simple: fifty-fifty. No one had a controlling interest, everything had to be mutually agreed.

The first Opus One wines were made in 1979 and 1980 and in 1981 a single pre-release case sold for $24,000 at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was the highest price ever paid for an American wine at the time and still quite a lot of money for a case of wine today. The first wines were released in 1984.

The landmark winery sits just off Highway 29 across the road from the Robert Mondavi winery where those very first wines were made. The dramatic architecture of the winery gets all the attention, but the vineyards are the important thing here.  Opus One counts part of the historic To Kalon vineyard as a key asset and component in its wine.

Constellation Brands purchased Mondavi in 2005 and inherited half ownership of Opus One. The Rothschilds considered buying out the American half interest as was their right under the founding agreement, but opted instead to keep the winery with a foot in both wine worlds. Constellation and the Rothschilds reached an agreement to remain partners while assuring the winery’s independence and integrity.

Unintended Consequences

I admit to being surprised when I learned about the Constellation side of Opus One.  I could not imagine that the Mondavi family would structure things in a way that would allow this jewel to slip away.

But things don’t always turn out the way we plan and perhaps this quick survey of the European Invasion shows just how diverse the experience has been for those who came to America in the 70s and 80s to make wine here (and for American winemakers, too).

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St Supéry Winery Sale: From Algeria to California & from Skalli to Chanel

I was surprised to learn a couple of weeks ago that Robert Skalli, founder of the St Supéry winery in Rutherford, was selling his family’s iconic winery and vineyards to Chanel, the French luxury goods producer.  Press coverage such as an article in Decanter was pretty limited — not much more than the press release version of things — lots of unanswered questions in my mind.

Sue and I visited St Supéry in September (we loved the wines and the people we met) and we were told many times how committed the Skalli family was to the project, so I was caught off guard by the change in ownership. It is natural to keep quiet about a business deal until it is finally done of course, but the quick change got my attention.

All in the Families

The facts of the sale are these. Chanel owners Alain and Gérard Wertheimer,  who are said to be worth €16.6bn, have reached an agreement to pay an undisclosed sum for the winery on Highway 29 in Rutherford, the 35-acre vineyard there and the magnificent 1500-acre Dollarhide Vineyard up north in the hills.

No reason was given for the sale, although Skalli is quoted saying he happy that his winery will be run by a firm that shares his values. The Wertheimers own two wineries in Bordeaux, Château Rauzan-Ségla and Château Canon, but there is no indication that they plan to build a luxury winery portfolio. Lots of questions — why, how much, and so forth — but winery sales happen all the time and details are not always fully revealed. So why am I so curious to find out more?

I first got interested in St Supéry when I was working on my 2011 book Wine Wars. I was examining the tensions between New World and Old World ideas about wine and I came across the fascinating story of the Skalli family wine empire.

Rise and Fall of Skalli Wine Empire

Robert Skalli is the founder of the Skalli Group, a holding company that was until 2011 one of the largest producers of wines in the Languedoc.  The Skalli conglomerate made branded varietal wines  and sold them in France and around the world. Skalli sold almost all its wine interests to Boisset in 2011. Almost all? They  held on to St Supéry.

Robert Skalli’s grandparents were pied noirs, French migrants to Algeria.  Many pied noirs emigrated to Algeria starting in the 1870s, when phylloxera wiped out vineyards and grower incomes in the Languedoc. The Skallis left France in the 1930s, presumably in search of greater opportunity in Northern Africa – and they found it.

Robert-Elle Skalli, Robert Skalli’s grandfather, built an empire on grain and wine. By the time that Francis Skalli took over from his father after World War II, the family business included a huge grain operation, Rivoire et Carré with a mill in Marseilles, the number two pasta company in France, Lustucru, a vineyard in Corsica, a rice producer, Taureau Aile, and of course vineyards in Algeria.

By 1964 the Skalli vineyards in Algeria spread over 600,000 acres, which is nearly as large as all the vineyards in Languedoc today (700,000 acres, which is much less than a few years ago). This was the wine that the French négociants blended with the weaker Langudoc product to make industrial strength vin du jour and they made vast quantities of it.

Like many other pied noirs families, the Skalli eventually fled to France as a result of the Algerian war and its independence in 1962.  They settled in the Languedoc and went about rebuilding their business.  Robert Skalli entered his father’s and grandfather’s business in the 1970s and, as part of his education, studied and worked (as  a “flying intern”) with winemakers in Australia and the United States.

California Inspiration

Significantly, according to the official company history, he worked with Robert Mondavi, who introduced him to the idea of branded varietals and opened his eyes to a different vision of the wine business, one based not on the condition of supply (and the traditional practices and regulations governing production) but on demand and the development of vineyard, cellar and marketing techniques that would provide buyers with wine that they could understand, appreciate and that they would buy.

Skalli returned to France and began to organize a business to make the clean, consistent, mid-range varietal wines that he saw in California and Australia. He established partnerships with growers and cooperatives in the Languedoc, providing financing for the process of pulling out their tough old vines and replanting with market-friendly varietals like Merlot and Chardonnay. Replanting is expensive, both in direct outlays and in lost production while the vines mature.  I suppose having the backing of the profitable Skalli grain business was useful in this transformation process.

The main Skalli brand, Fortant de France, was established in 1983 to produce and market these wines both in France and in 25 foreign countries.  The Cabernet Sauvignon sold  for about six dollars a bottle back when I was doing my Wine Wars research. There was a cheaper brand, Couleurs Du Sud, sold mainly in European hypermarkets and also a kosher wine line.

Mondavi Again

The Skalli family eventually decided to concentrate on wine – the grain and pasta businesses were sold or spun off.  They had wine interests in Languedoc, the Rhone Valley, in Corsica, where they owned the largest private vineyard, and in California.   Skalli credits Mondavi with helping him make the St Supéry investment.

And in return Skalli supported Mondavi’s aborted attempt to invest in the Languedoc on the logic, I believe, that anything that Mondavi did would draw favorable attention to the Languedoc, which would benefit both family businesses.

In 2011 the Skalli family sold off their wine interests to Boisset but, significantly, retained St Supéry. This surprised me at the time and I figured that it must either signal a new direction or a special fondness for the Napa project. Now I am not sure what to think.

But it seems like the winery is probably in good hands if Chanel gives the excellent local team that Skalli developed some autonomy. Luxury goods companies are sometimes more focused on managing brands than making wine. Skalli seemed to be good at both and perhaps Chanel will take the winery to the next level. Fingers crossed for a bright future at St Supéry.

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The decade from about 1975 to 1985 featured a surprising number of European wine investments in California. Sue and I have made a point to visit many of them over the last few years to find out how they have changed or developed. How have those ambitious Euopean investments of 30-40 years ago turned out?  Tune in next week for some thoughts.

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The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article about Chateau Canon, one of Chanel’s French investment on November 11, 2015.  Unclear if this is  St Supéry’s future.

Book Review: Richard G. Peterson, An American Life in Wine

Richard G. Peterson, The Winemaker. Meadowlark Publishing, 2015.

I was going to title this review “A Life in American Wine,” but Richard Peterson’s autobiography is all-American through and through starting from humble Iowa origins on to university at Iowa State, a tour in the Marine Corps and then  a Masters in Food Science and PhD in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley (the Davis campus was not yet a reality). Quite a journey for a coal-miner’s son.

Wine was part of the story from the early days. The photo on the cover shows Peterson making his first batch of wine in Iowa. The grapes were Concord. The year was 1948. He was 17 years of age.

The Research Lab at Gallo

As he was finishing his Ph.D. in 1958 Peterson was approached to come work in a new research lab at E&J Gallo, which was at that time the third largest wine producer in the U.S. after Roma and Italian Swiss Colony. Gallo was riding high on the basis of the success of Thunderbird and they wanted scientific rigor as they worked on both developing new products and improving the quality of existing ones. In retrospect, this was probably one of the best places to be in American wine at the time as the Gallos were willing and able to put resources into wine research and development.

Reading Peterson’s account of his time at Gallo and the people and products he found there is pure pleasure. It is a very personal account, not an academic study, and it gives the best insight I know into what was happening deep inside the industry in the 1960s when the foundations for the rise of American wine were being laid.

Working with Tchelistcheff

Peterson moved his family to Napa Valley in 1968 and started a new job. Where do you suppose one goes from Gallo? It is easy to think about American wine as being sharply divided into industrial wine and craft wine, but I have always maintained that American wine is more complicated than that and Peterson’s next step proves it. After much thought and many interviews, Andre Tchelistcheff hired Richard Peterson to work with him and eventually to take his place at Beaulieu Vineyards, one of Napa’s crown jewels.

Peterson stayed at Beaulieu through the sale to Heublein, leaving in 1973 and moving to an ambitious new project called The Monterey Vineyard. He stayed on as this project evolved into Taylor California Cellars with Coca Cola and then under Seagrams ownership. He moved to another ambitious new winery project, which Sue and I have recently visited. Today it is called Antica Napa, an outpost of the Antinori family in Napa Valley, but it was originally called Atlas Peak, a partnership between Whitbread, Inc., the British brewer, Christian Bizot of Bollinger Champagne and Piero Antinori.  Peterson built the elaborate cave system that we visited on our trip among other achievements here.

Gallo, Tchelistcheff, Antinori — quite a resume, don’t  you think? Peterson’s book takes the curious reader through wine science, wine history and wine business. There are several key themes. One is the importance of quality, even for inexpensive wines. This could be called “the Curse of the Thompson Seedless Grape.” A second theme deals with Peterson’s experiences working with people who know the wine industry or are willing to learn (Gallo and Coca Cola get good grades here) versus those who don’t understand wine or prefer to be ignorant (Hublein and Seagrams among others).

Bronco and Peynaud

One of my favorite parts of this book is a story that Peterson tells about some consulting work he did for Fred Franzia. Fred wanted to make sure that the Bronco winery in Ceres was doing everything right, so he paid Peterson to come around regularly and be a snooping “Big Brother” — seeing all, hearing all, and calling Bronco out if there was an issue. Peterson had contracted with Bronco for wine stocks when he ran Taylor California Cellar and he had a high regard for the winery’s quality and consistency. The attention to detail he saw on his inspections explained it all.

I was also fascinated by the brief section on Peterson’s work with Emile Peynaud. They couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but they found a way to speak wine, which I guess is a universal language. So many interesting stories here. Peterson is a lucky guy — what an interesting life!

Richard Peterson is generous with his praise and sympathetic with those who made honest mistakes, but very sharp with people and companies who tried to take unfair advantage of situations. Not everyone will be pleased with how they are portrayed in this book. It is a very personal account of American wine, told by a real insider. It is very much worth a place on your wine bookshelf.

Book Review: Tom Acitelli on How American Wine Came of Age

Tom Acitelli, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Chicago Review Press, 2015.

At one point when I was working on my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated I realized that I needed to know more about how the craft beer industry developed here in the United States. So I talked with a lot of people and read a lot of articles and books on the subject.

One of my favorite references was a brisk and informative 2013 book by Tom Acitelli that he named The Audacity of Hops , an audacious play on the title of Barack Obama’s best-selling book,  The Audacity of Hope.  

Actitelli’s  beer book was useful and entertaining. It was packed full of information, but organized in an interesting way around personalities and key events. I have recommended it to several friends as a great introduction to the craft beer movement. Now Acitelli has written a wine book, too, and it fits the same profile: usefullly packed full of information and entertaining, too. I am pleased to recommend it to my friends.

An American Tale

Acitelli sets out to explain how the American wine market rose to become the largest in the world, starting more or less in the 1960s and moving on to the current vibrant wine scene.  Those 50 years are packed full of history, so it is necessary to pick and choose who and what to highlight and what factors to skip over.

The main thread will be familiar to many wine readers, drawing a line from Andre Tchelistcheff to Robert Mondavi and Mike Grgich, Jim Barnett, Warren Winiariski, and on to Randall Grahm and other familiar names. Defining moments are located in this narrative, including especially the founding of the Robert Mondavi Winery and the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting.

These stories are familiar and important, but what I found interesting was Acitelli’s ability to uncork unexpected facts and insights. It is clear that his writing ability is matched by his research skills. 

American Wine Culture

Although American Wine is the title of this book, it could have been named American Wine Culture because the story of how American attitudes toward wine changed is given at least equal treatment to the development of the wine industry itself. Thus, for example, the book begins not in a vineyard in Napa nor a cellar in Sonoma but in a restaurant in France where we meet Julia Child, the American who would  become television’s The French Chef.

Julia Child? Julia was not a particularly important shaper of American wine, but she was important in the transformation of American attitudes and behaviors about food and life, which has implications for wine. American wine would not be what it is today without the great cultural shift that Child helped lead.

In my 2011 book Wine Wars I wrote that Robert Mondavi tried to do for American wine what Julia Child tried to do for American cuisine. Taken together over a long period of time and in company of many others, it was a powerful movement. The intellectual and cultural transformation of America was a necessary pre-requisite for the growth of American wine.

American Wine Beyond the Headlines

Acitelli writes that, “A few events, the coverage they engendered, and a surprisingly few individuals changed all that [U.S. wine culture].” This focus on a small number defining moments like Sideways and the Judgement of Paris, media reactions, and famous names like Parker and Mondavi helps the author tell the story, and he tells it very well and in good depth, but it is a narrower story than the one I understand.  I would nudge the breadth versus depth trade-off needle just a little bit the other way.

I’d happily trade yet another Robert Parker story, for example, for a fuller account of Oregon’s stunning emergence and how that altered both American wine itself and the idea of what wine could be in America. Oregon pioneer David Lett, alas, gets but a single mention here as one of a group of Davis boys who went north.

There are so many great tales in the rise of American wine that I wish even more of them appeared here. But it is impossible to tell every story or fully satisfy every reader and that doesn’t diminish my respect for this book , which I happily recommend to novice and expert alike  Great story-teller (Acitelli) meets great story (wine in America) — it’s a perfect pairing. Cheers!

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If American Wine is the story of the last 50 years of wine in the United States as told from the outside in (stressing media, culture, international influences and reception), what would an inside-out story look like? Come back next week to find out.

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