Amer­ica Wakes Up to Wine

Food & Wine - - 1978-1987 - By Ray Isle

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.

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