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Feature Article from the January 2009 Magazine Issue
 
 

WINES THAT CHANGED THE INDUSTRY

Technical breakthroughs and stylistic leaps in North American wines over nine decades

 
by Jim Gordon with Linda Jones McKee and Hudson Cattell
 
As Wines & Vines marks its 90th anniversary, it seems appropriate to publish a historically oriented piece on the many achievements of our audience during those nine decades. Rather than retelling the history of winemaking, as many authors have already done so well in book form, we conducted the thought-provoking exercise of picking out individual wines from the last 90 years that embodied important advancements in premium grapegrowing and quality winemaking.

The wines described below reflect innovations that stuck with the wine industry for an extended time, and in many cases still represent the industry standards. The innovations in some cases were actually returns to traditional methods. We ruled out wines famous mostly for winning competitions or high scores, as well as wines known largely for their marketing accomplishments. We did not consider sales success alone a deciding factor.

It was a fascinating but forbidding task. We consulted and interviewed dozens of winemakers, growers, academics, suppliers and contributing Wines & Vines writers for ideas. With limited space in our magazine, we certainly have omitted many worthy wines, whole technologies and professional areas of accomplishment among growers and winemakers, as well as geographic regions of importance. This is not a definitive list, but an attempt to illustrate the progress of North American winemaking through a few concrete examples.

We encourage you to follow up this article by sending your own nominations for "Wines That Changed the Industry" to edit@winesandvines.com, and we will print as many as possible in a subsequent issue. Or go to the electronic version of this article at winesandvines.com, scroll to the bottom of the article and click "Post a Comment" to submit your thoughts directly to the website.

1920s

Sweet and sacramental
1922 Concannon Angelica Livermore Valley

Concannon
 
Concannon Vineyards
During Prohibition, a few wineries were allowed to continue making and selling wine for sacramental use primarily by the Roman Catholic church. Concannon in California was one of these. Jim Concannon, born in 1932, told his co-author Tim Patterson for their 2006 book, Concannon, the First 125 Years, that this is how his family did it: "In that period, we had three basic wine styles. The lead wine was Angelica, basically a white port, made from French Colombard and a mix of white grapes, fortified with grape brandy to 18% alcohol, and aged four years in wood--a wonderful wine." The emphasis on sweet, dessert and Port-style wines lingered long after Prohibition in the U.S. wine industry. These styles provided the basic product line for most wineries until the public began accepting dry-style domestic table wines in the 1960s.

Basement fermentations
1929 Home Wine Cellars California Carignane

Wine-drinking Americans, especially European immigrants in eastern cities such as Chicago, New York City, Cleveland, Boston and elsewhere, took advantage of the Prohibition loophole that allowed them to make wine at home for their personal consumption. When Federal Prohibition took effect in 1920, vineyard lands experienced a flurry of planting and replanting to varieties with thick skins that shipped well, so they would arrive in good shape in Midwestern and eastern cities after several days of rail travel across the country.

1930s

Enduring collectible
1936 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve 1936

"It was the wine that Georges de Latour had been trying to make all his life," said current Beaulieu winemaker Joel Aiken about the Frenchman who established the winery in Napa Valley in 1900. The wine, grown in Beaulieu's Rutherford vineyards and aged in small French oak barrels in a marked departure from the California methods of the day, was finished by French-trained enologist Andre Tchelistcheff soon after he arrived from France. Earlier California wines had been labeled Cabernet, including some from Beaulieu, but, "We claim it as the first reserve-labeled wine," Aiken said. This wine inspired private reserve efforts from many other California wineries and continues to be a collectible today.

Clones for the future
1936 Wente Brothers Chardonnay Livermore Valley

When Herman and Ernest Wente made this first-known varietally labeled Chardonnay from their Livermore Valley, Calif., vineyards, they knew, of course, that Chardonnay grapes made the best white wines of Burgundy. They didn't know that they were starting a trickle of Chardonnay that would become a flood from the late 1970s on, and that their "Wente clone" of Chardonnay would make much of it possible. According to the winery, the Wentes acquired their vines from the Gier vineyard in Pleasanton, Calif., and from the Montpellier Nursery in France. As of 1960, California recorded only 230 acres of Chardonnay, while the Wente plantings had grown to 70 acres. The Wente Chardonnay vines were the ancestors of what came to be known as Chardonnay Clones 4, 5 and 108, which spread throughout the state to quench a thirst that grew quickly after the Judgment of Paris in 1976.

The Wentes provided cuttings in 1948 to Fred and Eleanor McCrea as they established Napa Valley's Stony Hill Vineyard. From there this clone traveled to Louis M. Martini's Carneros vineyard in 1951 or 1952, then to the University of California, Davis for further selection and virus elimination; then around the industry, where it spawned the Robert Young clone and others. It is still being selected and refined today by growers like Larry Hyde in Carneros and the Wentes themselves.

1940s

French hybrids arrive
1945 Boordy Vineyards B aco Noir

When Prohibition ended in 1933, only a few large wineries remained east of the Rockies. They had managed to stay in business by making sacramental wines or medicinal tonics. The native American varieties of grapes grown by and for these large wineries were suitable primarily for sweet wines, sherries and sparkling wines.

One man who had a vision that dry table wines could be made in the East was Philip Wagner. A career journalist for the Sun papers in Baltimore, Md., Wagner wrote his first book on American wines and winemaking in 1933. During a stint in 1936-37 as a foreign correspondent in London, Wagner became familiar with the French hybrid grapes being grown in Europe, and recognized their viticultural and winemaking potential for the East.

Boordy Vineyards
 
When he returned from Europe, Wagner began to expand the vineyard at his home in Riderwood, Md., and included French hybrid grapes. In 1938 he imported 25 Baco Noir vines from the French hybridizer Maurice Baco, the first shipment of French hybrids to be introduced into the United States for wine production. The first commercial wine in the East to be produced from the French hybrids was a 1945 Baco Noir made at Wagner's Boordy Vineyards. The 1945 label simply identified the wine as "Baco Red."

Wagner began his commercial nursery operation in 1941 and, until the mid-1950s, Boordy Vineyards was the only source of French hybrid vines in the U.S.

1950s

First eastern vinifera
1955 Brights Wines Pinot Champagne and 1956 Pinot Chardonnay

In 1933, when Henry C. Hatch bought T.G. Bright and Co. in Niagara Falls, Ontario, at that time the largest winery in the British empire, he realized that Brights had to develop a dry table wine industry to remain competitive in the markets of the empire. When his winemaker, Adhemer de Chaunac, attended a wine tasting in September 1945 in Fredonia, N.Y., where Philip Wagner had included some of his then-unknown French hybrid wines, de Chaunac immediately ordered 20 French hybrid varieties from France.

Brights Wine
 
Brights Wines bottles vinifera.
But three vinifera varieties arrived at Brights along with the French hybrid vines in 1946, and George W.B. Hostetter was given the job of supervising the plantings. Hostetter had a theory that trying different spray schedules, including the use of a dormant spray, would allow vinifera grapes to be grown east of the Rockies. It worked, and in 1951, Brights planted the first successful vinifera vineyard in the East. This led to the first commercial vinifera wines in the East, a Brights Pinot Champagne in 1955 and a Pinot Chardonnay in 1956.

Innovation incubator
1956 Hanzell Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley

Hanzell founder James Zellerbach and his winemaker, Brad Webb, created an innovation incubator at their little hilltop winery above Sonoma Valley. With Zellerbach's fortune and enthusiasm behind him, Webb introduced a slew of new cellar equipment and techniques in the winery's early vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The quality of hillside vineyards like Hanzell's was already well known, but never before had a winery applied so much gentle but technical care to its wine. Webb commissioned what are believed to be the first small temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenters, an early nitrogen-sparged bottling machine and other rarities such as a custom stainless steel crusher-destemmer that still looks contemporary today, a small stainless steel basket press and an electrode to measure dissolved oxygen

Oh yes, he also was possibly the first enologist to identify, isolate and use a specific malolactic strain, which was named ML 34. While the winery recognizes 1957 as the first commercial vintage, it has a bottle in perfect condition of 1956 Hanzell Pinot Noir from Brad Webb's personal cellar. One of today's leading Sonoma Valley winemakers, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, particularly remembers the quality of the 1959 Hanzell Pinot Noir. "It is definitely the wine that set the stage for the modern California wine business."

1960s

New York's transition
1960 Gold Seal Vineyards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

In 1934, the chief winemaker at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin in Champagne, Charles Fournier, decided to move to the U.S. and take the position of production manager at Gold Seal Vineyards in Hammondsport, N.Y. He, too, was interested in making dry table wines. Initially he worked with both native American and French hybrid grapes, but remained interested in the possibility of growing vinifera in New York state.

Gold Seal
In 1953 Fournier hired Dr. Konstantin Frank, who had grown vinifera in the Russian Ukraine, to start a vinifera program at Gold Seal. Frank believed that finding the right rootstock was the key to growing vinifera in the East, and after several years of experimentation, the decision was made in 1957 to expand Gold Seal's vinifera plantings. This led to the production of the first commercial vinifera wines in New York state, a 1960 Pinot Noir and a 1960 Chardonnay. It is very likely that a 1960 Johannisberg Riesling also was produced. Frank bought land of his own in 1956 and planted his first vines in 1958. He remained a tireless promoter of vinifera.

Handling extra ripeness
1968 Mayacamas Late-Harvest Zinfandel

Robert Travers was in the process of buying Mayacamas Winery in 1968, when he and then-winemaker Bob Sessions (who later moved to Hanzell) made what he believed to be the first wine to be labeled late-harvest in the U.S. It wasn't a Riesling or a botrytized Sémillon, however, but a red Zinfandel. This accidental wine made waves with critics, such as Robert Balzer, and the wine trade. It showed other California winemakers for the first time how attractive full-bodied, ripe-flavored wines
could be.

It also demonstrated that standard yeasts could tackle higher sugars than previously believed. Travers, who still runs Mayacamas with his sons, said he and Sessions were processing the other grape varieties and couldn't bring in the Zinfandel when they wanted to. A week or 10 days later, the sampling showed 28ºBrix. The true level was closer to 30º, he said, after the raisined berries soaked. The final alcohol level was 17%. In those days winemakers didn't wait for ultra-ripeness, and no one knew if the must would ferment dry before it killed off all the yeast. But after six months of slow bubbling on 505 Montrachet, rather than the usual six days, the Zinfandel went nearly dry and retained surprisingly good acidity, Travers recalled. "I thought it was tasty and enjoyable right away. To me it was significant because it made an interesting wine with a different character to it--jammy, pruney, you could say raisiny, but very attractive."

First of a flood
1968-70 Louis M. Martini Merlot California Mountain Edge Hill Selection

This unusual two-vintage blend may have been the first varietally labeled Merlot to be sold, in 1971, at least 30 years after the first varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignons were introduced. Sterling Vineyards also released a Merlot in 1971. From the 1930s through the 1970s, three generations of Martinis introduced or were early adopters of many new tools and techniques. Michael Martini includes on this list the invention of the vineyard wind machine using an old airplane engine based on his father, Louis P. Martini's, understanding of inversion layers; 2-ton grape gondolas that could be pulled through vineyards; and the first planting of Pinot Noir in Carneros in 1948.

1970s

One man's vision
1970 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley

David Left
 
David Left.
Rarely has a milestone in wine stood out as clearly as the introduction of Pinot Noir to the Willamette Valley by David Lett. The young University of California viticulture and enology graduate moved to Oregon in 1965 with 3,000 cuttings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. He and Diana Lett founded The Eyrie Vineyards in 1966 in the Dundee Hills. In 1970 Eyrie made its first wines. Lett, who died in 2008, gets credit for starting the now substantial Willamette Valley wine industry with Pinot Noir as its star vehicle, and for surpassing a host of California Pinot Noir makers of the day for quality accolades.

He chose the location with no previous winemaking history to recommend it, and the prescience of his choice has been confirmed time and again. Lett was also the first in North America to grow and make Pinot Gris, among other accomplishments.

Time-honored Techniques
1971 Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello

Ridge California
Winemaker Paul Draper first came to the mountaintop winery near San Jose in 1969, and by 1971 he had implemented several "innovations" that were actually reversions to time-honored winemaking techniques that by then had been

forgotten in most California cellars. Using as his inspiration an 1888 book by Emmett Rixford of California's defunct La Questa Winery, Draper let indigenous yeast and natural malolactic make his wine, and began buying small oak barrels in which to age it.

Draper believes his use of new air-dried American oak barrels in 1971 may have been the first in the U.S. At a cooperage yard in the Ozarks, he found leftover 7-year-old staves and surprised the cooper by ordering barrels made from those castoffs. At the time, other American wineries bought either used whiskey casks or new kiln-dried barrels, which were later discredited as giving too much green, herbal flavor to fine wine.

Breaking the ice
1974 Montbray Wine Cellars Riesling Ice Wine

Dr. G Hamilton
 
Dr. G. Hamilton.
Dr. G. Hamilton Mowbray, an experimental psychologist in the applied physics laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., became interested in growing grapes and visited Dr. Konstantin Frank in Hammondsport, N.Y., in 1958. He became one of Dr. Frank's "cooperators," as his followers were known, and planted his first vineyard in Silver Run Valley in Maryland in 1959. He opened Montbray Wine Cellars in 1966.

A sudden, very sharp freeze in October 1974 allowed Mowbray to harvest his Riesling grapes that had frozen in the 21°F temperature and crushed them to produce the first ice wine in the U.S. Montbray Wine Cellar's ice wine production was 100 bottles.

Stuck on sweetness
1975 Sutter Home White Zinfandel

A now fabled stuck fermentati on led Napa Valley's Sutter Home Winery to market its 1975 vintage of pale Zinfandel rosé as a moderately sweet wine, and the rest was history. Other white Zinfandels had been made, and most were dry, like Sutter Home's first few vintages. But the sweetness and freshness of this version appealed to consumers, leading to rapid growth in demand.

The winery's owners, the Trinchero family, capitalized on the opportunity by tapping into the vast existing acreage of Zinfandel all around California. A side benefit was preserving old-vine Zinfandel plantings at a time when there was little demand for red Zinfandel, and eventually spurring new plantings of Zinfandel. James Lapsley, a long-time winemaker and UC Cooperative Extension educator, said, "When White Zin took off, the sales of the then-popular sweet table wines from Germany, Liebfraumilch, declined. Sutter Home and soon others including Beringer made White Zinfandel into the first of the big California varietals. They were listening to consumers."

1980s

A Rhône ranger rides
1984 Bonny Doon Cigare Volant California

Rhone Rangers
 
Randall Grahm
Probably the first red-wine blend of Rhône varietals in the U.S., this California "cryptoneuf-du pape" as its pun-loving inventor Randall Grahm called it, got lots of attention for its unique flavor profile and its tongue-in-cheek name, which referenced a flying saucer sighting in the French district of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Joseph Phelps and Estrella River wineries already had bottled Syrah, but this was apparently the first commercial wine to use three of the principal grapes of France's Southern Rhône valley. Bonny Doon founder Grahm said he made about 1,300 cases, sourcing mostly Grenache from the Besson vineyard in Hecker Pass, and blending in a minority of Syrah from Estrella River and Mourvèdre from a San Joaquin Valley vineyard.

Washington's connection
1987 Snoqualmie Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley

This and a few other Bordeaux-style reds from celebrated wineries like Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and Quilceda Creek in Washington's early years made the key connection between great vineyards and great wines. The winemaker for Snoqualmie at the time, Mike Januik, later went on to head-up winemaking for Chateau Ste. Michelle and now runs his own Januik Winery.

The 1987 Cabernet came from Mercer Ranch vineyards in what is now the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Mercer Ranch was then managed by Paul Champoux, who later bought the property and renamed it Champoux Vineyard. Januik said, "If you talk about the best Washington vineyards over the years, you really do have to put Champoux at the top," mentioning in the same league Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. In a state where the grapegrowers early were diversified farmers--and still are in many cases--finding growers who were passionate about winegrapes was a key element for winemakers, many of whom did not own their own vineyards.

1990s

Going organic
1990 Bonterra Red Wine Mendocino County

Bonterra Vineyards
 
Pond at Bonterra McNab Ranch.
Bonterra, an outgrowth of the Fetzer winery under their mutual parent company, Brown-Forman, became the first wine made with organically grown grapes to enter the national distribution system. Other organic vintners like Paul Frey, also in Mendocino County, did much to pioneer organic growing and winemaking, and continue to serve a small market for strictly "organic wines" with no added sulfites in the winery. Bonterra began organic faming in 1987, said winemaker Bob Blue, who was there for the first vintage and remains the only winemaker Bonterra has ever had. The vineyards were first certified as organic in 1990. The 1990 vintage red wine was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignane. It was released in 1992 as part of the Fetzer Vineyards label. Bonterra debuted as its own winery with the 1992 vintage.

Saved by technology
1990 Glen Ellen Imagery Series Merlot

Possibly the first wine to be saved by reverse osmosis, this Merlot made by the Benziger family when it still owned Glen Ellen winery had a stuck fermentation and the VA level was very high. Assistant winemaker Charlie Polbert and winemaking consultant Clark Smith (who later developed Vinovation) thought the VA might be sticking the fermentation. They began running the wine through a reverse osmosis machine that Bruno Benziger had bought to experiment with de-alcoholizing, and as soon as the VA was being removed, the wine immediately started fermenting again, Smith said.

By the 1992 vintage Smith was using RO to help a "very famous winery in Napa that had all their 1992 Cabernet stick." Smith recalled that 1995 was about the year that winemakers began using RO to lower alcohol levels when needed.

Farming for texture
1991 J. Lohr Cabernet Seven Oaks Paso Robles

It's difficult to pick one wine that represents the fulfillment of the idea that "wine is made in the vineyard," but winery founder Jerry Lohr is convinced at least that this was his first wine to bring the preponderance of viticulture experience to bear on aroma, flavor a nd texture. It all started in the early 1980s, when Hyatt contacted J. Lohr with a request to make 150,000 cases of Cabernet for the chain's 84 hotels. Working toward that goal, Lohr said he and his winemaker of the time, Barry Gnekow, tasted through at least 400 red wines looking for the flavor and texture characteristics that they liked.

They determined that existing Paso Robles reds had the basic sensory set they were looking for, while Monterey Cab was too vegetal, Sonoma was too tannic, and Napa too big. "We didn't know what the public wanted, but Barry and I knew what we liked," Lohr said. The next step was to plant new Paso Robles vineyards with pruning to four canes and four renewal spurs on a three-wire trellis, attention to sun on the fruit, ripeness to 25.5° Brix, pre-harvest passes to remove raisins and poor bunches, hand harvesting, and so on. By the time the vines were mature in 1991, the formula all came together.

Turning the screw
1997 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Oakville

Plumjack Winery
Plumpjack was hardly the first wine to wear a screwcap--jug wines and basic table wines had used them for decades--but when co-owners Gordon Getty, Bill Getty and Gavin Newsom proudly unveiled their $135 reserve Cabernet in screwcaps in 2000, it was certainly the most high-profile wine to turn the screw.

To make the point even stronger, Plumpjack put out 133 cases with screwcaps and about the same amount with corks, yet with a lower $125 price tag on the cork-closed bottles. "This has been a long time coming, as anyone who follows the wine industry knows," Gordon Getty said at the time. "The technology is in place, we believe the market is prepared, and all that remains is for someone to break the barrier of tradition."

Riesling renaissance
1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling

Eroica
The oldest winery in Washington state had a history of sales success with Riesling from the 1980s, but this new product released in 2000 could be called the catalyst for the explosion of domestic Riesling sales that followed in this decade. German vintner Ernst Loosen partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle to produce this $20 off-dry wine from Washington vineyards.

Allen Shoup, then head of Ste. Michelle, recalled, "Ernst came to me and said, 'I know there's going to be a renaissance in Riesling. I don't know where it's going to be, but I know it's not going to be in Europe.'" Shoup said that before that time, Ste. Michelle had been paying growers to take out Riesling and plant other varieties, because Riesling sales had stopped growing. This time around with Loosen's guidance, they paid closer attention to the vineyards, pruning differently, controlling yields, and in some locations leaving bigger crops at Loosen's urging so the fruit would ripen more slowly and develop more complex flavors.

Sustainable premier
1999 Bethel Heights Vineyard Estate Grown Pinot Noir

The first certified sustainably grown wine in the U.S. was released in June 2001, setting the stage for subsequent innovations in sustainability by Lodi, Calif., growers and presaging the whole sustainable viticulture movement in California and other parts of North America. Certification for sustainably grown wines in Oregon is provided by the Low Input Viticulture and Enology program (LIVE), a voluntary organization established in 1997 by a group of Oregon winegrowers led by Ted Casteel, co-owner and vineyard manager of Bethel Heights.

2000s

Too early to tell?

Only looking back later will we be able to pinpoint which wines changed the industry in the current decade. California viticulturist Philip Freese noted the difficulty of seeing the inflection points of history from too close-up. "It's a mathematical term for when a line changes direction," he said. "They are usually best recognized in the rearview mirror. In a political sense, right now we're at an inflection point, and we know it, but it will be even more clear from several miles down the road. In a technical field like ours, however, changes in those techniques are not so clear while you're experiencing them."
 
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