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Understanding American Wine

By Way Yu

The wine aisle at most grocery stores is amazing. Rows upon rows of bottles gleam: chardonnays, sauvignon blancs, merlots, cabernets...from France, Italy, Germany, United States, Australia...good grief, the sheer number of choices available could make even the most decisive person have a moment of panic. After all, it takes much more concentration to choose a wine than it takes to pick out a cereal. There are so many things to consider, like price, wine type, year, and grape region.

Istudentcity has put together an easy guide to help make navigating that wine aisle easier. You may already be familiar with European wines since they're the most popular. If you read on, you'll learn the small differences between European and American wines. The history of wine making here in the States is also great background knowledge, but the key to choosing which wine you'll like is to understand the grape and the region it was grown in.

You're lucky too--being in America puts you in the best place to sample and savor the new wines taking the world by storm. That's right: you are witnessing a glorious moment in wine-making history. For the past centuries, the Old World wines of France, Italy and Germany have dominated the market. But in the recent decades, America, Australia and New Zealand have produced top-quality wines that have astounded even the most critical wine snobs. Ever since the infamous 1976 Paris blind-taste competition, in which two California wines won top honors over the reigning French ones, it's been accepted that American wines are the new stars of the wine world.

Next time you're in the supermarket, don't be intimidated by the wine section. Napa County Chardonnay versus a Monterey County Sauvignon Blanc? Identifying the wine by the label will be a cinch. Then you can pick one up when your parents are in town--and recommend it with confidence.


Background on American Wine

This country's fascination with wine began in the late 1700s. Despite having declared their independence from the Old World, Americans enjoyed drinking European wine. It wasn't until the 1800s that an American successfully produced a wine from grapes grown here. Nicholas Longworth of Ohio tried hundreds of grape varieties. He finally landed a hit with a sparkling wine--the first American wine was born.

Since then, American wineries have weathered many obstacles, including rot in 1860, which nearly wiped out all of the grapevines. Prohibition in 1917 was another monumental setback: by the time it was reversed in 1933, the number of US wineries had dropped from 1000 to only 150. It wasn't until the 1960s did wine making start up again. At this time, the economy stabilized and food quality began to rise--as did wine consumption. It didn't take long before vinters, or wine makers, realized that California had the perfect climate to grow grapes. Then in 1976 came the Paris wine competition and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wine-producing Regions
Quick Grape Facts
  • Chardonnay grapes are the most widely planted in the US and grow best in cooler regions, where the grapes ripen with a high degree of natural acidity and make the wine crisp. In warmer areas, the grapes produce rounder, richer and sometimes fruitier wines.
  • Sauvignon Blanc is usually cheaper than its Chardonnay cousin. Lately, wineries have been mixing in Semillon to give the Sauvignon Blanc a fuller flavor.
  • Pinot Noirs are best suited to cooler regions, like Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County. Many pinot noirs are suited for rich foods.
  • Cabernets are really the wines that put California on the wine world map. Some of the best are from Napa and Sonoma.
  • Syrah is becoming more popular because of its rich flavor and dark berry color. Try the ones from the Central Coast, Sonoma and Napa.
  • North of San Francisco, there is a countryside reminiscent of Italy or France. Here, acres upon acres of land are cultivated to grow grapes and other crops. In the spring, the hills are flushed with green vines glistening under the sun. In the fall, the grapes are picked, harvested and put into barrels, waiting to be bottled and distributed.

    Welcome to the area known as Wine Country. This is Napa Valley, where more than half of the 1,600 commercial wineries in the United States are located. The area covers a 30-mile region between the base of St. Helena in the north and Marin County in the south. Flanked on both sides are two mountain ranges that create a valley floor ripe for growing grapes. The cool air and fog from the Pacific Ocean will roll over the mountains and into the valley, providing moisture in an otherwise warm climate. The main wine types produced here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir.

    Most of the top American wines are produced in the Napa Valley region of California. Within the Valley then are multiple well-known American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, you've no doubt heard of. Since the valley floor, as well as the hills nearby, have varied growing conditions it's important to know what region the grape is from since climate affects growing conditions. A Cabernet grape will ripen better in the warm, northern areas, while Chardonnays do well in cooler regions.

    One key AVA to know is Los Carneros, situated close to San Pablo Bay. The area gets foggy at night, which is ideal for Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. These two grape types are also used to create sparkling wines. Try Acacia Winery, Carneros, and Saintsbury. Another important area is Stags Leap District, which sits along the east side of Napa Valley. Cabernets and Merlots known for their ripe berry flavors are grown here, and produced the two wines that won in 1976.

    The neighboring area, Sonoma County, has been producing high quality wines as well. Russian River Valley, which is damp and cool, produces wonderful Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Some big-name wineries here include Sonoma-Cutrer, DeLoach and Rodney Strong. Nearby is Dry Creek Valley, which produces many Sauvignon Blancs, Zinfandels and Cabernets. Preston Vineyards, Dry Creek Vineyards, and Quiviria Vineyards are some of the top wineries in that area.

    The Central Coast produces some of CA's best Chardonnays because of the cool climates. Look especially for Chardonnays and Rieslings made in Monterey. Keep an eye out for Jekel Vineyard, Estancia and the Monterey Vineyard.

    Further south below San Luis Obispo lies Edna Valley, also well known for Chardonnays because of its cool ocean climate. Edna Valley Vineyards produces some of the more notables ones from this area.

    Lower on the California coastline is Santa Barbara County, where the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valley AVAs produce all varietals, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabert, Merlot and Syrah.

    The Pacific Northwest is the up-and-coming region of American winemaking. Washington State wines are reasonably priced because they are still unknown-- the very top of the line being little more than thirty dollars. Here, Merlot and Cabernet are the most produced wine types. The main growing regions are Yakima and Columbia River Valley, which are far enough inland from the coast to get long, hot days and cool nights. Reliable producers in this region are Columbia Crest, Columbia and Chateau Ste. Michelle.

    Oregon is emerging as a Pinot grower. The main wine region of Oregon is the Willamette Valley, which runs along the Willamette River between Portland and Eugene, is often chilly and damp.

    Surprisingly, New York has the oldest established wine industry in this country and is second in wine production after California. The three most popular regions for growing wine are Finger Lakes (near Buffalo), the Hudson River region, and the North Fork of Long Island. There's a reason why you haven't heard much about the wines from New York: the grapes don't grow well because of the weather and therefore aren't able to produce high quality wines.

    You may find wine from New Jersey, Connecticut, Georgia, even Texas, but stick to the more well-known wine regions for now.

    American Wine Vs European Wine

    California wines are based on grape varieties (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinor Noir) that were imports from France. But the style and attitude towards the grapes is different because of the University of California at Davis, located near Napa Valley. The prestigious Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis trains winemakers, grape growers and oenologists (the people who head the wineries' laboratory operations), who go on to run the wineries of America. Research at UC Davis has also generated new technology and findings about grape growing, which has had a tremendous affect on wine-making worldwide.

    Therefore, the attitude here has mainly been towards creating wines based on science of grapes, not the quality of grapes. Some American vinters have even achieved a quasi-celebrity status because of their "creations."

    Reading the Labels

    A quick look at the label will tell you a lot about your bottle of wine. Law requires that each wine have at least 75% of that grape variety. A winemaker may claim a bottle is Merlot, but in reality the winemaker blended in 10% Cabernet Sauvignon to give the wine a more flavorful balance.

    Like French wines, American bottles will display the appellation, or the region where the vineyard. The region could be something a simple as the name of the state, "California," or a region, such as "Central Coast," or even a specific region, "Edna Valley." This means that at least 85% of the grapes used to make the wine came from that AVA. Keep in mind however, that the winery may not be located in that AVA, only that the grapes were grown there. If a winemaker mentions a vineyard on the label though, it's a clue that he or she is proud of it. There may be something interesting in that bottle.

    Labels may also boast "Reserve" as opposed to regular labeling. Reserve is just a fancy way of saying it's the winery's pick, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it better.

    Try these Wines

    Now that you've read about the fabulous wines produced here, why not try some? Here are five that taste great without the extravagant cost.

    • Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma County, CA)
    • Kendall Jackson Chardonnay (Monterey, CA)
    • Sebastiani Vineyards Merlot (Sonoma County, CA)
    • Christopher Creek Syrah (Russian River Valley, CA)
    • Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon (CA)

    Interested in developing your taste for wines?
    • Take a wine-tasting course. Let an expert teach you about quality wines. Many colleges and restaurants offer classes, but they may be pricey to cover the costs of the wines.
    • Host a wine-tasting party. Highly recommended, since after all, the best wines are the kinds you like. Invite 5 to 6 friends and ask each to bring a bottle of wine. Sample the wines over music and hors d'oeuvres.
    • Talk to a sommelier. At dinner, ask your waiter, maitre'd or if the restaurant has one, the sommelier, to recommend a wine to complement your meal. Find out why they chose that particular wine.
    • Read up on the subject. Flip through Wine for Dummies or browse http://www.wine.com.
    • Tour a winery. Almost all wineries that are open to the public will have a tasting room, where samples are free or just a few dollars. Many also conduct tours of the grounds and outline the processes they use to produce the wines. Check out http://bayarea.citysearch.com/feature/5681/ for more information.

    Sources: Leslie Brenner's "Fear of Wine," Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine

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