America Wakes Up to Wine
NOT LONG AGO I was sitting in Press restaurant in St. Helena, California, in the heart of Napa Valley, drinking a bottle of wine from 1979—a William Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. It was everything you’d want in an older wine: complex aromas and flavors recalling dried currants, dry leaves, tobacco; a sustaining acidity that lengthened those notes until they finally ghosted away. It was made the year after Food & Wine was founded. I wasn’t even old enough to drink on the day that wine went into its bottle.
The thing about great older wines is that they occupy both then and now. Looking back through the lens of that wine takes you to the dawn of the American wine revolution. In the late 1970s, the reverberations of the now-famous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976 were echoing louder and louder, building an intensifying awareness of the world-class quality of American wine.
Consider the wineries that got started in Northern California then: in 1978, Pine Ridge, Flora Springs, William Hill, Kistler; in 1979, Opus One, Iron Horse, Far Niente (originally built in 1885 but resurrected after being abandoned for years); in 1980 and ’81, Rombauer, Cain, Chimney Rock, Ferrari-Carano ... the list goes on. Nor is this profusion limited to California. In Washington in 1978, Leonetti Cellar in Walla Walla and Quilceda Creek in Snohomish both got their start, soon proving that Washington Cabernets could rival those of California. Oregon also took off, the number of wineries there doubling in the 1980s.
It’s also easy to forget how provincial the U.S. wine world was then (something the acclaimed critic Robert Parker noted in our last anniversary issue in 2008; he got his start in 1978, too). Back then, most stores and restaurants carried little more than the familiar names: Chianti (Italy represented almost 60 percent of the imported wine in the U.S. in 1980), a Rioja or two, a Sancerre, some Champagne, a smattering of California wines. Bordeaux was in the doldrums; it took the game-changing 1982 vintage to bring it back to prominence. New Zealand was negligible, Chile and Argentina mostly known for dictatorial regimes; terroir was a word that would get you a baffled glance at best.
But that was changing. Thanks to sommeliers like Kevin Zraly (Windows on the World in New York City) and restaurant owners like Narsai David (at San Francisco’s Narsai’s), wine lists soon reached unprecedented levels of depth and ambition; wine-savvy chefs like Jonathan Waxman at New York’s Jams gave respect to bottles even as they changed the face of American cooking.
Today we live in an era of wine abundance. There are 8,700 wineries in the U.S.—up from 676 in 1978. Walk into any wine shop or ambitious restaurant, and you can buy bottles from places as far-flung as Slovenia, Tasmania, and Lebanon, wines made with grapes ranging from Arinto, native to the Azores, to Sicily’s Zibibbo. And the tiny tail end of that current cornucopia starts in the year Food & Wine was born.