New book looks at how far U.S. wine has come
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
America is in the midst of a wildly exciting love affair with wine right now, fueled not only by the evolving growth and sophistication of wine regions in California, Washington and Oregon, but also increasingly in places like Colorado, Texas, Michigan, New York and New Jersey.
Such is the premise and passion behind a comprehensive new book, “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States,” co-authored by London-based Master of Wine Jancis Robinson and former San Francisco Chronicle wine section editor Linda Murphy.
“(Robinson) kept saying 'I see more excitement in America about its wine industry than anywhere else in the world,'” said Murphy, a Healdsburg resident for many years.
“At the same time, I was able to taste wines from all over the country at wine competitions,” she added. “I kept having really interesting wines cross my palate that were from Kansas, Nebraska. It was just fascinating to me.”
Murphy, who also found inspiration in Leon Adams' 1976 book, “Wines of America,” explains that what's driving a lot of the wine industries in these states today is tourism.
“It's all part of this eat-local, drink-local movement in America,” she said. “Wine is growing right along with it.”
Murphy notes that the book is not intended to be a guidebook per se, but rather to give a broad flavor of where American wine is right now and which states are growing.
“As they grow, they learn what to plant, how to make the wine, what their region can support and what it can't,” she added. “Most wine regions in America want to make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. They're the king and queen of wine in the world. But many who do in cold regions or hot, humid regions are finding those grapes don't work there.”
Rather than continuing to fail, many of these burgeoning vintners have begun to embrace hybrid varieties genetically bred to withstand disease or better withstand cold climates.
These hybrids — genetic crosses between Vitis vinifera and Native American species — include Brianna, a cold-tolerant white ideal for the climatic conditions of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska; and Chambourcin, a crisp, herbaceous red that has done well in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“It's taken the vintners themselves to swallow their pride and not make the wine they think they're going to get $100 a bottle for, but to grow the grapes that grow best in their area,” said Murphy. “People are embracing those wines as their local wines.”
There are also Native American varieties (Vitis labrusca and Vitis rotundifolia) being grown to make wine, grapes that can be traced as far back as the 1500s. Norton is one such example, a spicy, full-bodied red wine grape that is being embraced in Virginia and Missouri, where it can stand up to humidity. Muscadine is another, a group of both red and white wine grapes that includes the whimsically named Scuppernong.
These grapes don't mind humidity and have a high resistance to fungal diseases; as a result, they have found success in places like Florida, Kentucky and North Carolina.
“North Carolina Muscadine is such a specific grape with an unusual foxy, confected-candy aroma and taste,” said Murphy. “But if you grow up drinking Muscadine, that is wine to you.”
While the book travels far and wide to all 50 states, Murphy, who has been a part of the wine world in California since 1990, says her research also made clear that there's plenty new to talk about here, too.
“It brought all of California into focus for me,” she said. “The one region I think of along this line is Temecula, which got wiped out by Pierce's disease 10 or 15 years ago and some people thought, well, there goes the wine industry, it's not a good place to grow grapes.”
But the Temecula Valley, which is within Riverside County just northeast of San Diego, instead replanted to Mediterranean grapes such as tempranillo and grenache, wine varieties that love a warm, hot, dry climate, re-inventing itself by finding the right grapes for its conditions.
Murphy admits that the evolution of California wine has benefitted from attracting people with money from other industries, who can invest the resources to fine-tune the agriculture and viticulture here. But, she adds, other states are learning fast from other people's mistakes and there are wines worth seeking out everywhere.
“Discovering new wines is the most thrilling thing I do, and meeting the people that make them,” Murphy said. “That's the point. People who read this book might get a similar desire to try new wines for themselves.”
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.
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