When it comes to ideology, religion, politics, etc., the world has always been divided for the most part. It’s inevitable, we’re only human, and some things are so rooted in passionate disagreement, that it’s impossible to find common ground on. If there are a few things that subscribe to history, culture and artistry that everyone can agree on and share, it’s food and wine. The “golden rule” that has always served me so well when human connection is involved, is that, when at the dinner table, don’t discuss politics or religion. It’s the fastest way for a carefully prepared meal to take a bad turn. We do ourselves justice by focusing on those things that bring us together in the first place, and those things we have in common.
This sentiment is one that should carry over into more facets of daily life than solely just the dinner table. How is it possible that there are people who can’t appreciate the few things that connect us as humans? Wine has been a cornerstone of so many uniting events in history, that the history of wine itself should be something we ought to think about. Especially since the development of the American wine industry was so strongly influenced by the European influx and influence. Keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 over a bottle of Madeira wine, a favorite of George Washington, who was reputed to drink a bottle of it each day. Also, Thomas Jefferson was the first, and possibly greatest wine collector in America who regularly had bottles imported from his favorite wine regions of France and Italy.
The Old World
Even though we know that wine predates written records, the oldest evidence of wine was traced back to Georgia from as early as 6000 BC where they would age in qvevri, or clay, beeswax lined vessels called amphorae (often still used in Georgia). It was also traced back to Greece (4500 BC) and Sicily (4000 BC). Then Armenia from 4100 BC, where the first evidence of a winery was discovered. Almost all of these wines were used for religious purposes due to its consciousness-altering properties. Civilizations such as Greece and Italy worshipped Bacchus and Dionysus as cult figures. Some early records suggest that wine was also used medicinally in some eastern regions in the Golden Age, due to Islam’s forbidding the consumption of alcohol. During the 780-725 BC, the Muslims and Phoenicians were instrumental in spreading viticulture to the Mediterranean.
In the first few centuries AD through the 15th century, with the expansion and industrialization of Europe, wine consumption and production grew like wildfire. The Romans and Greeks started to spread viticulture into France, which they knew as Gaul, and encouraged the planting of vines in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Loire, Champagne, Languedoc and the Rhone Valley. After the fall of the Roman Empire, wine was flourishing in the south of France and largely seen as a status symbol by those in the north. The church, who was using wine as a sacrament in the Eucharist, was a massive influencer in helping the wine industry survive, even though it was often used in Pagan rituals, as well. In 1152, Eleanor of Acquitaine (Bordeaux) married the future Henry II of England, and a beautiful trade relationship was born. The Dutch wine traders soon followed suit and the export market was in bloom.
The 19th century brought boom and bust to the wine industry of France. While the trade market with England had brought a golden age of prosperity to French wine, Bordeaux in particular, with the rise of the Bourgeoise class. Napolean was so enamored by the wines of the region, he ordered a ranking of the top estates in the 1855 Paris Exposition. This ranking exists to this day, with only one change to the original (Mouton Rothschild elevated to 1st growth from 2nd growth in 1973). In the late 1880s, a small root louse called phylloxera was brought from North America and nearly devastated the entire French wine industry. Luckily, a horticulturist in Texas, Thomas Volney Munson, discovered a resistant rootstock that was used to graft original vines onto and saved the world of wine.
The New World
When European explorers first came to the Americas, they discovered so many vines, that they originally called it Vinland. They soon discovered that they could not make wine of any quality with the indigenous varieties growing there. They brought Vitis Vinifera from Europe and experimented with various areas from New Mexico to Ohio to New York with little success until the 19th century. In 1769, Spanish missionaries planted the first Vitis Vinifera vineyards in California with the Mission Grape variety to satisfy their sacramental needs. When Jean-Louis Vignes came to California as an immigrant from Bordeaux, he was dissatisfied with the quality of the wines being produced. He started importing vines from France and his Los Angeles based winery was started.
When it was found that the climate in Sonoma was ideal for the cultivation of Vitis Vinifera for winegrowing purposes, the Northern California wine industry was born. Pioneered by General Mariano Valejo and a host of European immigrants such as Agoston Haraszthy, who was the first to dry farm in the valley and considered as the father of modern Northern California viticulture and viniculture as we know it today. Quality improved as new philosphies spurned innovation from places such as Croatia, France, Italy and Prussia.
Prohibition put a halt to the progress of much of the quality wine production from 1920 to 1933, with only sacramental and wine for personal consumption allowed. There was a lot of wine grapes produced, but from hearty, shippable grapes such as Alicante Bouschet taking over. But it slowly lifted itself out of it’s jug wine era and went onto dominate the Judgement of Paris in 1976, organized by Stephen Spurrier, a British wine merchant living in Paris. See the movie “Bottle shock” for a loose interpretation. This propelled American wine into the spotlight and was the vehicle for the industry we know today.
One of my favorite things that the wine world has to offer, is the sharing of knowledge, philosophy and passion. And most of today’s greatest American winemakers have had the honor of helping with, and even heading up vintages at some of the most prestigious wineries in the world in countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Not only do we consume this product of thousands of years of European pedigree, but the export market to Europe from the U.S. is a $469 million industry. I hope and pray we can continue to strengthen the ties that unite us and never take them for granted
By Tony Scholzhauer