America’s ‘Second’ Revolution: Viticultural Independence

When California vintners began to seriously cultivate the famous wine grapes of France to compete with the formidable juice of the Old World, it created both a successful business model and raised expectations among connoisseurs and collectors. The ante was then raised with the American “victory” at the Judgment of Paris.

The effect was almost a oenophilic duplicate of the American Revolution: the strident intent of the Declaration of Independence, plus the closure — and location — of the Treaty of Paris. All was combined in a relatively peaceful swirl-sniff-and-sip: no rusty bayonets, no musket fire. And delightfully, all to the chagrin of wine’s most obstinate Loyalists.

This accomplishment is significant, especially with the American nation’s 241st birthday celebration in the offing. Fittingly, the triumph at the Judgment of Paris occurred, albeit coincidentally, during America’s bicentennial, and on foreign terroir… er, soil.

But one result was that California/Napa Valley Cabernet, along with other domestic “Bordeaux blends” and meritage wines now have a tough reputation to uphold. So, the trophy brands and boutique beauties end up being priced in a similar price range as their illustrious first-growth French counterparts. And, at the truly inexpensive end of the spectrum, many California Cabs and Merlots can be insipid — mere dullards that are sourced from bulk grapes, grown all over the state’s AVAs. These latter examples are not much unlike the watery beer gushing from behemoth breweries that compromise barley and hops.

“We have proven that we can make the greatest wines in the world,” says Michael Taylor, Regional Manager for Wilson Daniels, a luxury wine and spirits marketer. “What we didn’t do much of (and what many European countries have been doing for centuries) is cultivating grape varieties that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis.”

Taylor’s hunch is that the domestic wine market might be encouraged to set aside some land for lesser-known grapes, and the result will be exciting, interesting wines. Zinfandel has a legacy in California that dates back to the Gold Rush, but the varietal has been obscured by a near obsession in Napa — and other wine country tourist sites — with achieving the greatness of reputation and the attendant plaudits.

Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards, in Woodside, CA.

“What I’d like to see is some Cinsault or Grenache [more widely cultivated] in American soil. Taylor adds.

So, with the Fourth of July approaching, many American wine drinkers might feel a certain patriotic penchant to purchase and enjoy wines that are indigenous to the native land — the domestic terroir. Below are several options at moderate price points, which aren’t wrung from bulk berries, aren’t trying to masquerade as challengers to Chateau Petrus, and are reflecting American innovation.

Thomas Fogarty Gewurtztraminer, Monterey, CA: Just a beautiful summer sipper for sultry summer days, it features classic ginger and jasmine aromatics. The grape, popular in Alsace region of France and much of mitteleuropa, can tend toward excess of spice, but the Fogarty has a crisp, balanced character, which works beautifully as an aperitif, or with light, chilled shellfish. $18.

Airfield Estates Merlot, Yakima Valley, WA: A hearty red, aged in French Oak barrels, this Merlot shows both power and finesse, with dark fruit on the palate and a finish of cocoa, cardamom and just a bit of tomato leaf. Its elegance is difficult to find at the price: $18.

Le Vigne Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, CA: Featuring expressive and forward red fruit — the result of 18 months of barrel aging in new American oak — the Le Vigne Cabernet is a classic wine pairing for all 4th of July barbecues — a great pairing for Memphis Ribs or a New York Strip. Lots of rich, bing and black cherry on the palate, with a long, smooth finish. Average retail is approximately $19.

Beckmen Cuvee Le Bec, Santa Ynez, CA: A classic and balanced Rhone-style blend with Syrah as the lead grape, along with smaller amounts of Grenache and Mouvedre and just a bit of Counoise. Featuring seductive mouthfeel and balanced tannins, this blend could be cellared for 10 years. Almost impossible to find that quality at retail for $18.

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