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The New World of American Wines

Even though the United States produced wine commercially in the nineteenth century, the U.S. wine industry made it big only beginning in the 1970s. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, the Great Depression, and WWII were serious blows to the wine business — and recovery was slow.

Before 1970, only a few dozen operating wineries existed in California; today, the state has well over 800 bonded wineries (about a dozen or so “giants,” but mainly small, family-owned operations). California’s growth has stimulated interest in wine all across the country.

Wineries exist in all 50 states, but wine production is an important industry in only four states:

  • California (the largest wine producing state, by far)

  • Washington

  • Oregon

  • New York

The United States currently is fourth in world wine production — although well behind the two leaders, Italy and France. (Spain is a distant third.)

Homegrown ways

The wines of the United States — especially California — are the essence of New World wine-think. Winemakers operate freely, planting whatever grape variety they wish, wherever they wish to plant it. They blend wines from different regions together as they wish. (Blending among states is trickier, because of federal rules.)

Until California began naming wines after grapes, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon were just behind-the-scenes ingredients of wine — but now they are the wine. Lest anyone think that all wines from a particular grape are the same, however, winemakers have emerged as celebrities who put their personal spin on the best wines. In the California scenario especially, the land — the terroir — has been secondary, at least until recently.

American winemakers have embraced technology in their efforts to create wines that taste like fruit. California’s two important universities for winemaking — California State University at Fresno and, especially, the University of California at Davis — have become world leaders in the scientific study of wine. Even European winemakers make pilgrimages to California to study at U.C. Davis.

Playing by their own rules

An appellation system for wines does exist in the United States, and like the classic French model, the country defines various vineyard regions. But the U.S. system of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) establishes only the geographical boundaries of wine zones; it doesn’t stipulate which grape varieties can be planted, the maximum yield of grapes per acre, or anything else that would link the geography to a particular style of wine. AVA names, the names of the regions of production, therefore have secondary importance on wine labels after the name of the grape.

Wines labeled with the name of a grape variety in the United States must contain at least 75 percent of that grape variety, according to federal law. Wines with an AVA indication must be made at least 85 percent from grapes from that viticultural area. Wines with vintage years must derive at least 85 percent from the named vintage.

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