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America, Land of Wine Drinkers and Producers

Jancis Robinson + Linda Murphy

Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy.

I wonder how many Americans realize their importance in the world of wine. The United States has recently overtaken France and Italy to become the globe’s biggest market, drinking a full 13% of all the wine produced on the planet, more than any other nation. While wine drinking has been declining rapidly in the European countries that make so much of it — France, Italy and Spain — we are amazed at how rapidly and firmly a wine culture has been established in the U.S.

In cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, you can hardly move for wine tastings, wine bars, wine courses and people who are parlaying their interest in wine into building collections, visiting urban wineries and taking wine tours. But even in the vastness of America between the coasts, wine has been catching on. We looked up wine events in Des Moines, for example, and were delighted to find at least one a month. What we like about this development is that these new wine lovers, many of them relatively young, are working out their own preferences rather than being spoon-fed a series of ratings.

Americans are among top wine producers

But it is not just as a consumer that the U.S. now leads the world. Americans overtook Argentina in the 1990s to become by far the most important wine producer outside Europe, with the total amount of American wine produced gaining on the amount made in France, Italy and Spain. The shifting balance is due in some part to a determined program to rip out surplus, low quality vineyards in the EU.

Robert Mondavi was always convinced that California could make wines that were the equal of Europe’s best. That point was made long ago, but what thrills us is that American interest is so great that wine is now being made in every state in the Union. Hawaii and Alaska have their own wines, and North Dakota has eight bonded wineries. We long ago recognized that California, Washington and Oregon could make great wine, but now is the time to check out what we call The Other 47.

Rieslings in the Midwest

The curious American wine lover would be well advised to investigate the less-celebrated steely Rieslings of northwestern Michigan and the Finger Lakes region of New York. In blind tastings of Rieslings from throughout the world, their offerings have been ranked among the finest.  But perhaps the best Viogniers, Petit Mansengs and Bordeaux blends of Virginia would be an appropriate starting point for an exploration of American wine in view of Thomas Jefferson’s early efforts on his Monticello estate to turn Americans into a nation of wine drinkers. (It was the local phylloxera louse that scuppered his early plantings of the European vinifera vines, by far the most dominant vines in wine production.)

In some of the more inhospitable sites for grape vines, where the climate is too cold and the growing season too short to support  European Vitis vinifera varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grape breeders, particularly in Minnesota, have been developing cold-hardy hybrids that ripen their fruit relatively early and produce fully mature grapes that can be vinified into seriously good table and dessert wines. Look for La Crescent and Brianna whites, and Frontenac and Marquette reds. Older French-American hybrids, with names such as Baco Noir, Cayuga, Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, remain important grape sources in the most challenging terroirs in the Midwest.

More options in the South and Northeast

In wet, humid Southern states, native Muscadine vines, which have adapted to the conditions, produce musky-sweet aromas and flavors that can be an acquired taste for some, but are embraced by others who have grown up drinking them. In New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the native Concord grape used so widely for juice, jelly and grapey wines such as Manischewitz, can taste pretty extraordinary to a palate not raised on Cabernet and Chardonnay. However, some American vine varieties — the Norton grape of Virginia and Missouri comes quickly to mind — can produce admirable wines without the rankness associated with Concord,  wines that should appeal to any lover of fruity reds with character.

Then again, there are wineries in the U.S. that  ship in grapes from sunnier climes (often California), and vinify and bottle them under their own labels. Despite movements across the country calling for only locally grown grapes to go into locally produced wines, importing West Coast fruit keeps many a winery tasting room financially afloat.

And in some parts of the country — Alaska, North and South Dakota in particular — vintners make their living selling wines made from vegetables and non-grape fruits. Pumpkins, rhubarb, berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches, just about any produce that has natural sugar, can be fermented into wine. Many of them taste surprisingly good.

We feel strongly that the dramatic increase in quality of wines made in The Other 47 deserves more recognition. Be adventurous in your wine choices.

Photo: Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy. Credit: Michael Wright Studio

Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Jancis Robinson writes daily for and weekly for the Financial Times. She is co-author of "American Wine," "Wine Grapes" and "The World Atlas of Wine," and is editor of  "The Oxford Companion to Wine." The first Master of Wine from outside the wine trade, she has been studying the American wine scene since 1976.

Zester Daily contributor Linda Murphy, an ex-San Diego sportswriter who relocated to Sonoma County in 1990, is the former managing editor of the New York Times’ wine website and the first wine section editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where she won two James Beard Awards. She writes for, Decanter magazine and others. She is co-author, with Jancis Robinson, of  "American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States," published in March.

  • Jim Yocum 4·8·13

    If you are ever lucky enough to be in eastern Iowa (between Davenport and Dubuque) by all means treat yourself to a visit to Tabor Vineyards. This family owned and operated vineyard and winery is more than a bit “out of the way” but visiting these nice folks (Dr. Paul Tabor, PhD — seriously, his wife, mother, kids, etc.) and buying some of their beautiful wines is definately worth your time. I hope you enjoy your adventure getting to and visiting them as much as I always do — to say nothing enjoying of their wonderful wines! (The beautiful farm, now vineyard, has been in the family for something like five generations!)