On Fine Wines in America: Abridged

This is an abridged version of a story because they were many more events than these.

As this previous post establishes, Prohibition (1917-1933) decimated the American wine industry. Gallo produced jug and fortified wines to fit the market needs, but popularizing fine wines was still decades away.

In the 1940s, Cesare Mondavi sold grapes, and later in the decade became a partner in two wineries. Interestingly, each son (Peter and Robert) got their exposure here.

In 1943, Cesare purchased the well-known Krug winery. With Peter as the winemaker, and Robert focusing on marketing, they produced two labels: CK Mondavi (for quantity) and Krug (for quality).

Cesare died in 1959, so his wife ran the company. They struggled, the brothers argued, and she chose Peter to lead a revival in 1965 – leaving Robert to be on his own.

Robert’s became enamored with fine wines on a 1962 trip to Europe, thus he was now free to pursue his dream of making fine wine in America. In his quest to find start-up money, his public relations skills helped find supportive winemakers. His first harvest came in 1966. The winery’s tasting room drew tourists, and his brand became known. By the 1970s, Mondavi was leading the wine revolution in America – but it was still a country of inexpensive, jug wines.

The story changes direction in 1975 when Stephen Spurrier (a British sommelier and wine shop owner in Paris) visits Napa Valley for the first time. The region was far from what we find today nonetheless, American wines caught Spurrier’s attention.

Upon returning to Paris, he organized a blind tasting competition featuring American and French wines a year later. Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon (1973) and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (1973) won, thus beating the notable wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. (Ever see the movie Bottle Shock?)

The world finally recognized that fine wines were in America, and the dreams of Thomas Jefferson and Nicholas Longworth came to be. Americans also took notice over time. In 2006 (30 years later) Spurrier hosted another competition, and American wines won.

Today, all 50 states have wineries. California still leads the way, but quality wines are also in Oregon and Washington – plus New York and Virginia in the east. Ironically, one of the wine regions is near Thomas Jefferson’s home.

Jug wines remain popular, and Gallo (with its 60+ labels) is one of the largest wine producers in the world – and its stable now includes quality wines. Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94, but sold his winery to Constellation Brands in 2004.

According to the Wine Institute, the United States is sixth in the world in grape acreage, fourth in production, and is the largest global consumer of wine. As a wine lover, thank you Robert Mondavi for being a believer and tireless promoter of quality wine – and for leading the charge.

Enjoy this interesting, quality tribute to Robert Mondavi.

Other Posts in the Wine in America Series
The Start
Temperance and Wine
Revival: Gallo Style

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48 thoughts on “On Fine Wines in America: Abridged

  1. Been experimenting with some American wines lately, specifically J Lohr’s Cabernet and Cakebread Chardonnay as well as several others. Different, yet very good. The Chardonnay is exceptionally buttery and is beautiful with salmon and anything done honey mustard. Perfect.

  2. I think it is great that wine making is so wide spread. Why, we even know how to make wine in Iowa. It goes well with pork, beef, sweet corn, and apple pie.

    We visit an establishment in Iowa City Called John’s Grocery.
    http://www.johnsgrocery.com/About/index.cfm
    It is the last family owned grocery in the city. They offer a very extensive number of fine wines from all over the world. We will ask them to put together a case of wines from a region, by type, etc, and keep it under $xx.xx if possible. It’s a fun way to try some you might not pick yourself.

    Thanks, Frank. I raise my glass to you.

  3. It’s sometimes hard to believe the way wineries have proliferated in such a short period of time. Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast all the way to Paso Robles, as you well know, is relative new to viticulture, and yet they are tremendously popular with very good wine. Now we watch to see what climate change is going to do…there may some new varietals that come about, but we’ll see how adaptable the industry can be! Interesting all the way through, Frank.

    • Debra,
      As you well know, the growth in the California wine industry is amazing. I was recently telling my wife that we still have to visit Amador, Mendicino, and Sonoma Coast. Meanwhile, great point about climate change!!!

    • Spiced,
      Italians had a big roll in US wines, especially in California. Besides, they kept making wine during Prohibition. I’m not surprised that not many US wines are in Australia. Then again, you have plenty of your own that are very good!

  4. Temperance never had a chance.
    I’ve seen the CA wine country – hear the ones in the East are the trendiest trips now.
    So hard to believe the vineyards in central Texas when they first started – but they are blossoming now – more surprising are the ones appearing around here – on the Gulf Coast.
    Temperance so never had a chance
    Nice wander through the history

    • Mouse,
      Amazing how the industry has grown substantially in the last 30 years! … and in many locations as you note! … If memory serves me correctly, don’t you have a family member in the wine biz?

    • Sylvia,
      Well … if you return to Florida this year, then is the time to dive into the vastness of California wine. When the time comes, remind me and I’ll gladly pass along some recommendations.

  5. Even though i do not partake in wine, I had no idea that every state has a winery. I thought that was just reserved for certain states. Loved the history lesson today Frank

    • Kay,
      Yep … some as few that can be counted on one hand. In one of the comments above I supplied an old list by states. Having wineries is one thing, but good wine is another, and very good wine is another challenging step.

  6. Pingback: On Rejuvenating Wine in America: Abridged | A Frank Angle

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