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The Long Revolution

2011 April 15
by Mike

It is usually said that Americans didn’t get serious about wine until the early 1980s, when an historic bull market on Wall Street began and Robert Parker emerged as the country’s go-to wine guru.  That’s the generally accepted narrative, one I’ve regurgitated more than a few times. So it was with some surprise that while Googling the other day, I found a Time magazine article—a cover story, no less—from November 1972 entitled “American Wine Comes of Age.” The story heralded the emergence of a very dynamic wine culture in the United States. It focused mainly on the production side, specifically the rise of the Gallo empire, but it also discussed at length the blossoming consumer interest in wine. It reported:

“Americans will spend close to $2 billion on wine this year, twice as much as in 1968. The growth in wine consumption is outpacing that of hard liquor and beer, though Americans will spend ten times as much on those beverages combined as on wine. This year a U.S. adult will drink an average 2.4 gallons of wine; that is still quite a few sips behind such iron-livered veterans as the French (29 gallons) or the Italians (30 gallons), meaning that the U.S. industry still has plenty of room to grow. Last year alone, retail wine sales rose 59% in Wisconsin, 65% in Vermont and 98% in Rhode Island. Young people have become particularly avid imbibers. On campuses, wines are considered the best accompaniment to informal meals and exotic smokes. Consumption will reach an alltime peak this week because the biggest wine-drinking day of the year is traditionally Thanksgiving.”

Wine and exotic smokes—now there’s a pairing! On a more serious note, I wonder to what extent college kids really embraced wine in the early 1970s. When I went to college in the late 1980s, there was literally no wine drinking; it was strictly beer and hard liquor (oh, and exotic smokes). I suspect that in the great trend-story tradition, the Time article probably exaggerated how much wine was being consumed on U.S. campuses at that time. Nonetheless, the story clearly indicates that oenophilia gained a foothold here earlier than is commonly believed, so perhaps that aforementioned narrative is in need of some revision.

There is a lot of fun stuff to chew over in the article—the faith in technology, for instance, and the belief that intervention inevitably yielded better wines. I was particularly amused by the comments from Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild, who voiced skepticism about California’s prospects. “To develop character, great wines must go through hardship,” he told Time. Snow. Drought. Storms. There must be suffering to produce it. In California everything is much too perfect. The soil is too rich. The weather is too good. The wine all comes out industrially uniform, like Coca-Cola.” Four years later, the 1970 Mouton Rothschild finished second behind the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon in the Judgment of Paris, and two years after that, Baron Philippe teamed up with Robert Mondavi to create Napa’s Opus One.

Here’s the link to the article, a time-capsule item that is well worth a read.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. April 26, 2013

    Think it just like a journal or simply a magazine for general interest for everyone to read. Funny, witty, controversial, entertaining, useful, acerbic, thoughtful, serious, curious, unexpected comebacks will be welcome.

  2. April 18, 2011

    Mike,

    Thanks for digging up that old gem. The line that made me sigh:

    “Because grape sugar content tends to be higher, California wines often have a higher alcohol content (up to 14%, compared with French wines’ usual 12%).”

    Ahhh, the days before Parker and global warming….

    Bill

  3. April 15, 2011

    Hey Mike,

    Nice find. A few of reactions:

    1. There was a 1972 Bank of America report that fanned the flames of investment in Napa wineries at that time. So this story may have been building on those same assumptions, enthusiasm or even the actual report.

    2. As a trend piece it was probably overstated. As we all know, wine didn’t become a dining hall staple on campus until…oh wait. It still hasn’t.

    3. It’s funny how little the per capita consumption rate has climbed in the last 40 years.

  4. Matt in Chicago permalink
    April 15, 2011

    Mike,

    A fun archaeological read to be sure. It was interesting to note the single quote from Robert Mondavi. 10 or 15 years later the Gallo family (not that they’d ever admit it) was scrambling to keep up with changes begun by Mondavi and many others. I wonder what the price difference, in 1970, was for an acre of To Kalon compared to the anonymous 75,000 acres which were so radically upgraded from Thopmson seedless (!) to Chenin blanc at the behest of Ernest and or Julio.

    Best,

    Matt

  5. April 15, 2011

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the comment, and fair point. I didn’t mean to imply that our wine culture began to mature in the early 1970s; what this article simply suggests is that the interest in wine was kindled perhaps bit sooner than we thought. Gallo Hearty Burgundy was clearly not a sign of a mature market (though, come to think of it, I’m not sure Yellow Tail is, either!).

    Glad to hear that your recollection of campus drinking squares with mine. There were certainly a few Sunday mornings during college when I woke up wishing I’d had wine the night before, rather than whatever rocket fuel we’d consumed.

    Take care,

    Mike

  6. Matt in Chicago permalink
    April 15, 2011

    Mike,

    I think the answer to your general query (did wine come of age earlier than thought) is found in the first paragraph of the story.

    “Inside the cylinders, millions of gallons of California Burgundy, Chablis and rosé age.”

    If we are looking for signs of a maturing wine market, the above quote pretty much sums up why people look beyond the 1970’s. Yes the foundations were being laid, but the plonk in jugs still ruled the market place.

    If we really wanted to know when the U.S. market matured I think it would be telling to know when wines correctly identified by either varietal or place overtook sales of the blended, multi-varietal, non-vintage, jugs of Colombard, Carignan, Barbera and over-cropped Chenin. You know the kind: those which indentified terroir or AVA through such discreet terms as “Mountain Chablis”. Hearty indeed.

    And I agree with your remembrance of wine on campus in the early ’80s, non-existant.

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