Lesson 24 – Introduction to the U.S.

Part 1

 

Part 2

Sommelier School

Lesson 24 – Introduction to the United States

 

The United States of America. 50 years ago, if you were talking about wine, this country would barely register a blip. However, wine has been made here for centuries. Yes, as in the plural. Since the mid-1500s as a matter of fact. 

The U.S. is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world. France, Italy and Spain are the top three. Of the 50 states, California is by far the largest producer of wine. Almost 90% of the country’s production comes from California. You saw that I said 50 states. Yes, every single state has at least one winery. Alaska does not grow any wine-producing grapes, so the few wineries there need to import the juice to make wine. However, they do make quite a few wines from other fruits grown there. Ever have a Salmonberry wine? Yeah, me neither. Never heard of Salmonberry till just now.

The top four states in terms of production are (in order):

  • California
  • New York
  • Washington
  • Oregon

Over the next few weeks we will cover each of these states.

Ok, so, let’s backtrack a bit. First a little history of U.S. winemaking. The first place that someone made wine was in Florida sometime between 1562-1564. French Huguenot settlers to the area created a wine from the native Scuppernong varietal in what eventually became Jacksonville. It wasn’t until more settlers arrived on American shores that wine started being made in other places on the Eastern Seaboard. In the 1600s more and more people tried their hand at making wine from the native varietals. Much of the wine was found to be, well, not so good. 

The grape varietals native to the U.S. and much of North America make a distinctively different wine than the European varietals. In fact they are different species of grapes. I’ve probably mentioned the European species at some point, but in case I haven’t, this is as good a time as any. Vitis vinifera is the official designation of the grapes that make the wine that most of us are used to. In North America, the main varietal used for wine making is Vitis lambrusca. Wine is also made from two other grapes of different species; Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis aestivalis. Below is a small list of the varietals used:

  • Catawba (lambrusca)
  • Concord (lambrusca)
  • Delaware (lambrusca)
  • Niagara (lambrusca)
  • Scuppernong (rotundifolia)
  • Norton (aestivalis)

Wine made from these varietals tend to have what is called a “foxy” character. These wines also tend to taste more like grapes too. The wines don’t have the same complexities as their European counterparts.

So with all this “foxy” wine, the early settlers decided to import clippings of vinifera. And here is when problems started cropping up (no pun intended). The vinifera species didn’t take well here. In a way it was similar to when the Europeans started arriving in America and the Native Americans would get sick. Since they didn’t have immunity to the European diseases, Native Americans easily contracted those diseases. For the European vines, the same thing happened.

Phylloxera. I’ve mentioned it from time-to-time in these lessons, but have never really gone into any depth. Now seems like a good time since we’ve arrived on American shores. Phylloxera is a louse that is native to North America. It quickly attacks the roots and leaves of grapevines killing the vines. The species of grapes in North America developed resistance to these pests and are not affected. Unfortunately, the European species has no resistance to this pest.

At the time, it was thought that the reason the European vines were dying was due to the weather. No matter how hard they tried to cultivate these vines, they failed. Over time, the Americans gave up and returned to the native grapes. Even though they went back to using the native grapes, the Americans still preferred the European grapes for wine. Unfortunately, those wines were expensive to import. This lead to less and less wine being made and consumed. Beer and whiskey were easier to make and became more popular.

So how did the U.S. get to being the 4th largest producer in the world using the vinifera species 400 years later? Quite a bit. California is a big reason. Spanish settlers began moving up the Baja and California coast. They brought with them a varietal known as Mission. A grape from Spain that was used in the missions to make wine. For the most part, it makes poor wine except for a fortified wine called Angelica. However it is a hardy grape and adapts to most climates. It also didn’t have to worry about phylloxera. Phylloxera wasn’t present on the West Coast of America.

During the 1800s more and more people were migrating to California. But that little thing called the “Gold Rush” really brought them out. Since there were a lot of new people living there now all sorts of industries needed to be started; winemaking included. In 1861, the governor of California decided to capitalize on this explosion in winemaking and had 100,000 vines brought over from Europe. The climate and lack of phylloxera allowed these vines to thrive. Even with Civil War soon afterwards, California wine grew.

Shortly after this influx of European vines to California the European vines started being affected by phylloxera. You see what had happen was American vines were brought over in 1863 for experimentation. Well, no one knew about phylloxera yet, but they quickly found out. For 20 years phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe. France being the hardest hit. It wasn’t until a few smart men in the U.S. and France figured out how to combat this. Charles Valentine Riley in collaboration with J. E. Planchon and Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet and promoted by T. V. Munson figured out that grafting the European vines on to American rootstock would give these vines resistance to phylloxera.

Since Europe’s vines were dying during this time, California had become one of the major international wine producing areas. Ok, so that’s great. Except that phylloxera decided to try to cash in on the Gold Rush too in 1876. When California was at its height of wine production and exporting the louse showed up to devastate the areas vines since they didn’t have American rootstocks. Eventually they did graft the rootstocks in California and the wines there went back to being excellent; even winning medals in international competitions.

One thing to mention here is “hybrids”. Hybrids were created to also help combat phylloxera. A hybrid is technically a cross-breeding of two different grapes from two different species to create a new one. For example, the Hybrid varietal Baco Noir uses the vinifera grape Folle Blanche and from what most sources say is an unnamed Vitis riparia grape. The idea is to try to take the best of both worlds from each species. In this situation, the resultant grape is resistant to many diseases and phylloxera. Even though hybrids seemed like a way to save the industry, they didn’t always accomplish the goal of creating the equivalent of a phylloxera resistant European grape.

Then there is the “cross.” A cross is the same idea as a hybrid except that it is within the same species. Many times this is done to try to combine characteristics of two grapes. For example Müller-Thurgau is a cross between Riesling and Silvaner. The intent was to get the complexities of Riesling with the ability to ripen earlier of Silvaner.

Then we have Prohibition. This just about destroyed the wine industry in America. Along with the Great Depression, most wineries could not stay in business. The few that could used the loopholes of “sacramental” wine or medicinal wines to stay in business. There was also grape concentrate. This method had producers print a warning on the containers stating that adding sugar and yeast would start fermentation. Hmmm, what do you think really happened? Yeah, people bought concentrate and added the sugar and yeast. Some companies even provided the sugar and yeast along with the concentrate.

Before and after Prohibition there were two World Wars that didn’t help anyone. The U.S. was not affected as badly as Europe in terms of wine, but what it didn’t do in terms of destruction of land and property, it did in terms of people. Each war reduced the number of people skilled in winemaking. A field that was still relatively new and small to most Americans.

Wine from the U.S. after World War II was still poor compared to most of Europe. It wasn’t until the late 60s when what is referred to as table wine outsold fortified wine in the States. As demand increased in the 70s and 80s more and more quality wine was being made. Again, California was leading the charge. 

The Judgement of Paris also helped catapult American wine, and California wine specifically, to the forefront. The Judgement of Paris (subject of the movie Bottleshock) happened in 1976. The short version is that American wines won best in each category over the French wines. This caused a stir to say the least.

In the 1980s the first AVA (American Viticultural Area) was created. And it wasn’t in California as you might thing, but in Missouri where winemaking continued using mostly the lambrusca grapes over the years. Augusta is the first AVA created in 1980. Quickly other AVAs were created throughout the country.

Ok, so now with all this history out of the way, it’s time to start getting into the laws that regulate U.S. wine. The U.S. came a little late to the party when it comes to having an appellation system. As I mentioned already the first AVA wasn’t created until 1980. Since then that list has expanded to 199 AVAs as of January 2010. The vast majority of them are in California. Almost 150 AVAs are in California alone.

The U.S. has a fairly comprehensive labeling law for wine:

  • Whether mandatory or optional, an appellation of origin may be used on a wine label only if:
  • For U.S. Wine:
    • With an “American” (country), state or county appellation of origin:
      • Not less than 75% of the volume of the wine is derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in the labeled appellation of origin
      • The wine is fully finished (except for cellar treatment and/or blending which does not alter the class and type of the wine) in the labeled appellation of origin EXCEPT THAT in the case of a state appellation of origin, the wine is fully finished (except for cellar treatment and/or blending which does not alter the class and type of the wine) in the labeled state or an adjacent state
      • The wine conforms to the laws and regulations of the labeled appellation of origin governing the composition, method of production and designation of wine produced in the labeled appellation area
    • With a multi-state appellation of origin comprised of not more than 3 states:
      • The states are contiguous
      • NOTE: Contiguous means that 1) both or all 3 states touch at a common border or 2) in the case of 3 states, all 3 states are in an unbroken line
      • 100% of the wine is derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in the labeled states
      • The wine is fully finished (except for cellar treatment and/or blending which does not alter the class and type of the wine) in one of the labeled states
      • The percentage of wine derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in each of the labeled states is shown on the label
      • The wine conforms to the laws and regulations governing the composition, method of production and designation of wine in all the states listed in the appellation 
    • With a multi-county appellation of origin comprised of not more than 3 counties:
      • All of the counties are in the same state
      • 100% of the wine is derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in the labeled counties
      • The percentage of wine derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in each county is shown on the label
    • With a viticultural area appellation of origin:
      • The labeled area is an American viticultural area approved under U.S. regulations (specifically 27 CFR Part 9)
      • Not less than 85% of the volume of the wine is derived from grapes grown in the labeled viticultural area
      • The wine is fully finished (except for cellar treatment and/or blending which does not alter the class and type of the wine) in the state or one of the states where the viticultural area is located
  • For Imported Wine:
    • With a country, foreign equivalent of a state or foreign equivalent of a county appellation of origin:
      • Not less than 75% of the volume of the wine is derived from grapes (or other agricultural commodity) grown in the labeled appellation of origin
      • The wine conforms to the requirements of the foreign laws and regulations governing the composition, method of production and designation of wine available within the country of origin
    • With a Viticultural Area Appellation of Origin:
      • The labeled area is recognized by the government of the country of origin as a delimited grape-growing/viticultural area
      • Not less than 85% of the volume of the wine is derived from grapes grown in the labeled viticultural area
      • The wine conforms to the requirements of the foreign laws and regulations governing the composition, method of production and designation of wine available within the country of origin

source: http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/

Note that there used to be regulations for Texas that stated that if the state was on the label then 85% of the grapes had to have come from Texas and for California it was 100%. Under Federal labeling laws that is not longer the case.

In addition to this an appellation or origin is required on a label under these conditions:

  • Generally, appellations of origin are only required for grape wine 
  • An appellation of origin is required on grape wine when the wine is labeled with:
    • A grape varietal designation
    • One of the following designations AND the wine is NOT from the origin indicated:*
      • Angelica (U.S.)
      • Burgundy (France)
      • Claret (France)
      • Chablis (France)
      • Champagne (France)
      • Chianti (Italy)
      • Haut Sauterne (France)
      • Hock (Germany)
      • Malaga (Spain)
      • Marsala (Italy)
      • Madeira (Portugal)
      • Moselle (France)
      • Port (Portugal)
      • Rhine Wine (Germany)
      • Sauterne (France)
      • Sherry (Spain)
      • Tokay (Hungary)
    • *There has been a change relative to the use of all of the above names except Angelica.  On March 10, 2006, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) signed an Agreement on Trade in Wine in which the U.S. committed to seek to change the legal status of the above names (with the exception of Angelica which is a U.S. wine and therefore not included in the Agreement) to restrict their use solely to wine originating in the applicable EU member state, except as provided for under a “grandfather” provision.  The “grandfather” provision excepts certain non-EU wines labeled with one of the above names (other than Angelica) provided the applicable label was approved on a certificate of label approval (COLA) or certificate of exemption issued before March 10, 2006.  The legislative proposal that effected the change in legal status of the names was included in the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 that was enacted on December 20, 2006. (If you would like to read more about this, please see the U.S./EC Wine Agreement page.)
    • A vintage date
    • The phrase “estate bottled”

source: http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/

This part of the labeling laws addresses a problem that has been around in the U.S. (and many other countries) for a long time. The use of place-names or styles of wine for what was known as “semi-generic” wine. Up until 2006 winemakers could freely use these names as long as they had their actual place of origin on the label (i.e. California Chablis). As you can see there is a “grandfather clause.” 

What this means is that if Joe’s Winery makes a wine called Joe’s California Chablis, they can still make it. However if Joe’s Winery becomes Tom’s Winery, then they cannot market a Tom’s California Chablis since the brand has changed. There is also a thing called a “fanciful” name that can be on a label. So if it was called Joe’s Ultra Cool Super Duper California Chablis and they decided to call it Joe’s Awesome California Chablis, that is NOT allowed. A change in Brand or Fanciful name negates the grandfather clause.

OK, so here’s some more. Let’s say Joe’s Winery decides to change it to Joe’s Ultra Cool Super Duper Napa Valley Chablis. That’s OK since the Brand or Fanciful did not change. Also if Joe’s Ultra Cool Super Duper California Chablis was originally Joe’s Ultra Cool Super Duper California Dry Chablis or was being changed to that, then that is also OK since the Brand or Fanciful name didn’t change.

Finally if Joe’s Winery sells the rights to Joe’s Ultra Cool Super Duper California Chablis, the new owner of those rights can still use the name as long as they don’t change the Brand of Fanciful name.

Confusing, right? Yeah, so this is a step in the right direction to help protect those names of wines from other countries, but it’s also trying to allow for the wines from the past that have been traditionally called themselves a Chablis or Burgundy, etc. to still use it. In other words, if you want to change your name, then you lose the ability to use the semi-generic designation.

And lastly, these rules cover the type appellation of origin required:

Generally, with two exceptions, any one of the types of appellations (i.e., a country, state, etc.) may be used when an appellation is required. The two exceptions are:

  • Wine labeled with a vintage date:
    • The appellation of origin must be a state (or foreign equivalent), multi-state (U.S. wine only), county (or foreign equivalent), multi-county (U.S. wine only) or viticultural area
  • Wine labeled as “estate bottled”:
    • The appellation of origin must be a viticultural area

source: http://www.ttb.gov/appellation/

OK, so that’s going to wrap it up for this week. While the labeling laws/AVA rules might seem a bit confusing, just remember that for the most part 75% of the grapes need to come from the state indicated. If it’s from an AVA it’s 85%. One thing that isn’t obvious from all of this is that no matter what, if there is a varietal designation on the label, it must contain 75% of that varietal. Next time we will continue with California. That will very likely take 2 lessons to just give a general overview. After that we will cover New York, Washington, and Oregon. 

Thanks for watching/reading this week’s lesson! I will see all of you next time!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training

Tags: , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: