Wine Revolution: As Drinkers And Growers, U.S. Declares Independence
A curious shift has happened in global wine-drinking trends: Americans have overtaken the French and Italians, Europe's traditional lovers of the fruits of the vine, as the world's top wine market.
And it's not just wine drinking that's taken off stateside: U.S. wine production is also on the rise.
Back in the 1970s, there were about 400 wineries in America. Today, there are more than 7,000. And they're not just in locations like Napa, Calif.; Walla Walla, Wash.; and Willamette Valley, Ore. They're in places that are less familiar as wine regions: Texas, Ohio, Hawaii and even Alaska.
"I've had some stunning American wines, and I don't think anyone should think that American wine is necessarily inferior to, say, French or Italian," Jancis Robinson, a leading authority on wine, tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon
Robinson is the co-author of American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States. The book traces what she calls an American "wine revolution" that is kind of amazing, considering it was only 20 years ago that the industry was feeling threatened by Neo-Prohibitionists.
"But now, wine seems to be such a popular interest with a whole load of people — particularly young people," Robinson says.
That interest has even led to wineries sprouting up right in the middle of cities. Just ship in grapes from a nearby vineyard, and you've got a resource for city-dwellers to see how wine is made.
While you may think your local wine can't possibly be as good as something imported, that's not necessarily the case, Robinson says.
She says she's especially a fan of some wines produced around the Finger Lakes in New York. She's also found a very good copy of champagne from the Gruet family in New Mexico.
"Pretty much all countries that make wine make some good wine and some bad wine," says Robinson. "Yes, it's true that the majority of the very, very, very finest wines I have ever had have been from France, but then, France makes more wine than everyone else most years."
Because winters can be pretty harsh in the American interior, European grapevines are tricky to grow. But new varieties like Traminette were bred to survive the climate. Then there's the all-American Norton grape, discovered in Virginia and particularly popular in Missouri vineyards.
"It makes some really serious red wines," Robinson says. "So you can have very respectable Missouri Norton that has not an ounce of influence of France or Italy in it."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You know, American winemaking has come of age, not just in Napa, Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley, but in places that are probably less familiar as wine regions - Ohio, Texas, Hawaii and Alaska. There are more than 7,000 American wineries operating today. That's up from just about 400 back in the 1970s.
Jancis Robinson is a leading authority on wine. She traces what she calls an American wine revolution in her new book, "American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States." Jancis joins us from Melbourne, Australia. Thanks so much for being with us.
JANCIS ROBINSON: Great pleasure. Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: So we are the leading group of wine guzzlers in the world now?
ROBINSON: Yes, it's quite amazing, isn't it, when you think that it was only as recently as the 1990s when the American wine industry was going on about Neo-Prohibitionists, and they were feeling under threat, but now wine seems to be such a popular interest with a whole load of people, particularly young people, actually.
SIMON: Americans certainly know about wine in California, Oregon and Washington state, but I want to get you to talk about some other regions. Maybe how good that wine can be is - might be familiar to the locals, but not people across the country.
ROBINSON: Yes, I think there is a tendency, isn't there, to reckon that your local wine can't be any good, and that imported wine is somehow superior. But I don't think that's, by any means, always the case.
ROBINSON: I'm a huge fan, for instance, of some of the wines produced around the Finger Lakes in New York state, which has a long tradition of vine growing, and it's particularly good, in my view, at making lovely Rieslings, particularly the dry ones; very steely and noble, and they can age very well, which is a sign of great quality in a wine.
I came across a really good copy of champagne in somewhere where you'd least expect it, in New Mexico. Also, as one sort of looking at things historically, you might expect the state of Virginia, I think, is now making better and better wines, including some really, really smart Viogniers and Petit Mansengs and some particularly fine Bordeaux blends.
SIMON: Uh-huh. And there are new urban wine-producing regions, too, I gather.
ROBINSON: That's fun, isn't it? I would say it's happening in America far more than anywhere else, that the interest in wine is being capitalized upon by people starting wineries right in the middle of cities which, of course, is perfectly possible. You just ship in the grapes from a nearby vineyard, and you can show people who are living in a city even how wine is made and take them on wineries tours and, of course, sell direct from your winery.
SIMON: So what do you say to people that would say, look, all of these wines are very interesting, but when the crunch comes, France and Italy?
ROBINSON: Well, I would say that pretty much all countries that make wine make some good wine and some bad wine.
ROBINSON: And yes, it's true that the majority of the very, very, very finest wines I've ever had have been from France. But then France makes more wine than anyone else most years. I've had some stunning American wines, and I don't think anyone should think that American wine is necessarily inferior to, say, French or Italian.
SIMON: Could you leave us with one or two of your most surprising finds and make part of the surprise being the fact that we might be able to afford them?
ROBINSON: Oh, sure. Well, because, of course, the interior of the U.S. is very continental in climate, and winters can be pretty harsh, which makes them quite tricky for these European vinifera vines. So, there have been some new breeding of new varieties, particularly designed for very cold winters, and one of the more successful is called Traminette.
It's a very sort of fruit mix, very fruity white wine. And another grape that I'm very keen on is all American. It was discovered in Virginia by a doctor called Norton, so it's called Norton, and it makes some really serious red wines, not just in Virginia but quite widely, particularly in Missouri. So you can have a very respectable Missouri Norton that has not an ounce of influence of France or Italy in it.
SIMON: Jancis Robinson, her new book, co-authored with Linda Murphy, is called "American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States." Jancis, thanks so much.
ROBINSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.