Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 Podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Columbia Winery. As Washington’s original premium winery, Columbia Winery proudly carries a long legacy of discovering and celebrating exceptional Washington wine. Our rich history, as well as the distinct terroir of the great Columbia Valley, allows us to craft wines that embody Washington’s unique spirit and curious nature. Columbia Winery offers a collection of rich and deliciously enjoyable wines inspired by the diversity of Washington’s best growing regions. Created through visionary wine-making, and unrelenting curiosity: Columbia Winery.
In this episode of Wine 101, VinePair Tastings Director Keith Beavers steps outside California to talk about what winemaking looks like around the country. He traces back to early vine planting, and the factors that led Americans to eventually move away from European grapes to their own hybrids and native species. One such factor was a pesky louse called phylloxera, which wiped out 85 percent of European species, but was eventually resolved by a team of French and American scientists.
Unfortunately, shortly after finding a way to deter the louse, Prohibition came into effect. It was difficult for Americans to regain momentum after the ban was lifted, but winemakers and wine lovers alike reemerged with a new palate for sweet, high-alcohol wines. This shaped winemaking for decades to come until The 1976 Judgement of Paris crowned a California wine and reinstalled American fine wine values.
This excited American vintners around the country, and after the creation of American Viticultural Areas in the 1980s, U.S. winemaking began to look different. Today, the country’s producers are celebrated for the attention they pay to climate, soil, and a diversity of niche and native grapes. Consequently, there are new and exciting wines popping up everywhere from Long Island to Texas.
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My name is Keith Beavers. And just thinking like, wow, Disney bought “Star Wars.” And I get to watch “Star Wars”…
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 27 Of VinePair’s Wine 101 Podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. Hello, how are you? I’m fine. I mean, we’re not going to talk about all of the wine stuff happening in all the places outside of California, but there’s some places you have to understand that are really cool you probably already know about. But also let’s have a discussion about what’s going on in the future of American wine. Why not?
This title is a little insane, right? Outside of California, what do you need to know about wine in the United States? And we still haven’t talked about all of California, but this is going to lead into a very interesting conversation I want to have with you wine lovers out there. We’ve talked about Sonoma. We’ve talked about Napa. We’ve talked about the Central Coast. We did not talk about the southern part of California. We did not talk about the northern part of California. There are other wine growing and producing regions in California that are stunning. Stunning wine like the North Coast, Mendocino, Clarksburg. And in the south, there’s Temecula, which is an emerging wine growing region.
But in this episode I think we should talk about what’s going on outside of California because the United States is a wine-drinking, wine-growing, wine-producing, vine-growing, viticultural, vinicultural country. The thing that Thomas Jefferson aspired to back in the day with a bunch of hit or miss because of the lack of knowledge with plant morphology and science and botany and all the stuff that we have now that we didn’t have then. I mean, really it all began because we had people coming from Europe to this country, and it was just part of their lifestyle to have wine. It was part of their food, was part of their dinner, it was part of their meals. So planting vines and making wine from those grapes was a natural thing to do.
And the fact was that in the colonies and the Eastern Coast, there were a lot of problems with climate and pests and all this stuff. It didn’t really work that well, but while that was happening, we were still forcing it to happen, if you will. Before the Civil War, we had vines growing in the Ohio Valley. We had vines growing in Erie, on Lake Erie, which we still do now today. We had vines growing in Missouri, we had vines growing in Texas. We absolutely had vines growing in Southern California. That’s where California wine kind of began with the missions of the Franciscan monks over there in the West Coast.
And what we were doing on the East Coast, back in the day, we had no idea what the West Coast was doing. It was just kind of all over the place. I mean, I’m sure people knew what other people were doing, but there wasn’t email. It was hard to get information from one coast to the next coast and from one part of the country. From the Midwest even to the East Coast.
And it was a rough go for a while there. I mean, we were Europeans planting European vines in this new soil and this new land with tons of climatic and natural challenges, and it didn’t really work that well. But then we found, “Hey, there’s actually these native grapes here in the United States or the colonies or whatever. Let’s plant these.” And the result was wine, but not the kind of wine that we were used to in Europe. So we were like, nah, let’s try and make this vitis vinifera thing work. So we keep on trying to make that work and in doing so, it just so happens that every once in a while, a natural crossing of a European variety and an American variety would come about. It’s called a hybrid.
And this hybrid would have some aspects of the European variety, but it would have the hardiness and ability to survive in the climates in this new land. The only problem was: Wines made from American vitis labrusca or whatever they’re called now, and these hybrids, would often have this really odd distinct, musky, animal smell to them that they called “foxy.” I mean, we knew now that it’s a compound called methyl anthranilate, and it’s very unique to these American varieties and hybrids. And we also know now the best way to get rid of these is to pick early, harvest early, or age for a long time in cask, or just rack the hell out of it until it’s gone.
And there were a lot of them that had this sort of unfortunate aroma to them, but there were also some that didn’t, there were some successes. And to this day they’re still being used. Hybrids with names like Catawba, Delaware, Isabella, and the really most famous one was Norton. There’s also ones called Seyval, Seyval Blanc, Vidal, all these different names. A lot of them are white. Not all of them are red. Norton is one of the most successful red ones. We have another one called Baco Noir. And if we weren’t forcing Merlot and Cab and Chardonnay into these soils, we were just using these hybrids and we were trying to develop our wine culture through these hybrids.
That’s why California is so important. Because in California, these European varieties tended to do well. The Mission grape, which is the grape that kind of started the wine thing in California, was brought to California by Franciscan monks. That grape is actually a native Spanish grape, and it traveled all the way around the world, and it finally made it to California. They call it the Mission grape because it was planted in the missions going all the way up from San Diego to Sonoma. So that’s a vitis vinifera variety, and it did just fine. So when Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cab Franc, all these varieties start doing well, then we start focusing on them.
Of course, the Mission grape is always around, but it’s a vitis vinifera, so this is how it starts working in California. It’s why all eyes were on California, but of course so was the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush happened in California. So there’s all this attention on this state. And it just so happens it was a great place to grow certain vines. But while all that was happening, wine was being grown in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, the Ohio Valley, Lake Erie, Missouri. Even though it wasn’t really working that well, we were doing it. We had these hybrids. And then what happened is this louse called phylloxera starts attacking all the vines in Europe and in the United States, kills 85 percent of European vines. It goes crazy in the United States as well, starts depleting our vines all over the place. It took us a while, I think it was four or five years to figure it out. We figured out through a collaboration between the Americans and the French. We figured it out. We never killed phylloxera. It’s still around, but we figured out how to combat it by using American rootstock, because phylloxera is an American louse, and putting American rootstock on European vines.
Therefore, the phylloxera is like, “Oh, I don’t know what that is, I don’t want to. I guess I’m not hungry. I thought I was hungry, but I’m not hungry.” And this whole thing led to us actually making hybrid vines proactively, instead of like, “Oh look, a new grape popped up because of nature.” No, we actually started making them, thousands and thousands of different hybrids to put out there. Not all of them made good wine or made wine at all, or could make anything that was remotely like wine. But a lot of them did. Hundreds of them did. We made thousands of them, and hundreds of them could make wine. And a lot of places in the United States held onto this for a while, because it was the one way the wine could be made. And we got out of this whole phylloxera thing. California had the eyes of the world on it after the Gold Rush. Things were happening, which we’ve talked about in previous episodes.
And then in 1919, we decided to make it illegal to drink alcohol. And that basically ruined all the progress we had made up until that point. And then in 1933, it decimated pretty much the entire alcohol industry. We emerged out of that, but we emerged out of that with a sweet tooth. The wine we were drinking in Prohibition wasn’t dry red wine or complex white wine. It was really sweet, high-alcohol hooch. That’s what it was. And that’s what we were used to. So coming out of Prohibition, it was very hard for us to figure out what fine wine or what good, fine dry red or white wine was. And it wasn’t until the 1960s that we kind of figured it out. People like Robert Mondavi were inspired by the winemakers that kept the thing going in Napa after Prohibition. And it was in California that we started seeing really nice fine red wines, and that kind of inspired other wine makers.
And there’s a lot of activity going on in California. Then in 1976, The Judgment of Paris showed that the wine from California was winning awards that would beat out French wine. And that was our watershed moment. And we became the winemaking country that Thomas Jefferson had always wanted. But before that, things were even happening north of California in Oregon in the 1960s. There were winemakers up there that had left California to go make wine there because they wanted to make Pinot Noir. They wanted to plant it and vitis vinifera wines in the hills of the Dundee Hills around Portland. And people were like, “Nah, that’s not going to work.” So they went and did it because someone told them they couldn’t do it. And in doing so, created what is now the Willamette Valley and one of the most sought after places for Pinot Noir in the country, and in the world. And that was all happening before we had these things called AVAs, and north of Oregon, you have Washington State, which just even a little bit later than that started saying, “You know what? We can do wine as well,” and that’s where the Columbia Valley started coming into play.
While all that was happening, wine was still being made in New York. Actually the Finger Lakes had a huge industry of wine being made. It was still kind of hybrid-y, and there was a Concord grape, and they were trying Riesling at this point, and all the different kinds of cold, like winter-hardy vines. And then in 1976, the Farmer’s Winery Act was passed in New York. And then you have these winemakers out in Long Island buying up potato fields and turning them into wineries. And then from 1978 to 1980, we created what’s called the American Viticultural Area, which is our way of having an appellation system in the United States. It is nothing like the Old World in Europe. It is a very loose, very lenient system. It’s basically used to demarcate an area if you can prove it has a certain kind of unique soil type and unique climate, but it can also be political — it’s America. It’s just what we do. But when we created that, the first one was awarded to Augusta, Mo., which is old school, they’re still making wine there. Even after Prohibition and through all this time with the Judgment of Paris, Missouri was still making wine, and they were the first ones to apply, they got an AVA. Then after that, the second one was Napa Valley. And then from the 1980s, until literally last week, we have been adding AVAs to our land. A lot of the AVAs we had rushed in between the ’80s and the ’90s. But I was told by one of the hosts of the VinePair Podcast last week that there was an AVA that was being awarded to Hawaii.
I was talking to a winemaker in Washington State that said about two weeks ago, since the recording of this podcast, there’s two new AVAs in Washington State. And I guess you could say for a long time, we didn’t think about any of this stuff, right? I mean so what? It’s California! That’s what’s important.
It’s New York. It’s Washington. It’s Oregon. Those are important places because of the track record. But there’s other places that work in the United States that make great wine. The thing is, we’re a big country. And it’s not going to work in every place, but if we’re smart — we’re getting smarter and smarter, the people making wine in this country, the things that they’re coming up with is incredible. They’re thinking about the soil, not the vine, they’re thinking about the climate, not the vine. And then once they get the climate and they get the soil, then they find the vine that works in that soil. We’re finally at a place in our history in America where we’re willing to try whatever does well in whatever soil.
There’s an Austrian grape called Grüner Veltliner. It is awesome from Long Island. It is delicious, but the thing is no one knows what Grüner Veltliner is, so it doesn’t do as well, but in the future, it could. ‘Cause once it catches on, people will know that variety as well there.
And maybe Long Island Grüner Veltliner will be a thing. And it could be. We’re only 240-something years old. We had 10 years of Prohibition, and we had to come back as a country from that. Our drinking culture is still kind of young. We actually had a stunted growth, if you will. So the thing is, what you should know is that, yeah, Oregon makes amazing Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley and all of its sub-regions, but Oregon also makes amazing Cab Franc, amazing Pinot Gris, amazing Riesling, amazing Müller-Thurgau. And there are other wine regions in Oregon in the south like Rogue Valley that are doing great things.
You should know that in Washington State, they were once really well-known for the Riesling, but now they’re really more known for their Merlot. And now they’re also really known for their Cab, but they really should be known for their Syrah, but not enough people are making Syrah in Washington State because it seems like it’s just Cab and Merlot and Riesling are more popular, but if you’ve ever had a Syrah from Washington state — Columbia Valley, Rattlesnake Hills — they’re beautiful. They’re peppery and dark and wonderful. You should know that in New York State, they make absolutely stunning, amazing Riesling, and now they’re known for it. But there’s also a great Cab Franc coming out of the Finger Lakes.
There’s also a great Merlot coming out of Long Island. The Grüner Veltliners coming out of Long Island. There’s a lot happening. In that area now it’s getting more and more popular and more people are understanding the soils. You should also know that Virginia is making absolutely stunning wines right now that sets it apart from every other wine region in the country. They’re making amazing wine from a grape called Petit Manseng, which is a blending variety from Bordeaux. They’re making amazing Viognier, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay. And the beauty of Virginia is all these wines are elegant. There’s more acidity in the wines in Virginia than anywhere else in any other region in the country.
You should also know that there’s wine being made in Arizona. Actually I had some great red wine in Arizona. I had one of my favorite white wines ever. A white wine from the grape Malvasia from Arizona that was absolutely delicious. You should also know that there is wine being made in New Mexico. Some of the best sparkling wine in America is being made in New Mexico. You should also know that Texas is doing something really special. The thing about Texas, fun fact is that’s the home of T.V. Munson. That’s the guy who worked with the French to figure out that American rootstock on European vines helped stem the tide of phylloxera. So that’s pretty cool. So he was also a hybrid guy, so he created hundreds and hundreds of hybrids. So Texas has always been kind of a hybrid winemaking place. And the few AVAs that are emerging out of Texas, like the Texas High Plains up in the northwestern part of the state or the Texas Hill Country, which is right smack dab in the middle of the state. There are things happening here, where vitis vinifera vines are being grown and they’re successfully being grown. Like Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, and some of them are being blended with hybrid grapes. And the success rate is stupendous. I recently had a Texas red: It was Merlot, Tempranillo, and a hybrid called Ruby Cabernet. The wine was awesome. And for me, it was like, this is an American wine. It is absolutely an American wine because of the blend.
And they’re still making wine in Augusta, Mo. It’s the first AVA in America. I recently had a red wine from the Norton variety from Missouri, and it was awesome. It was meaty, juicy, and soft, and great. But when it comes to vitis vinifera, the thing is, we are still working on it in the United States. We still have a long way to go. And the best way that we can help this along, is we have to understand that we’re not always going to be a place that makes a lot of wine to get all over the place. We also have really weird laws. Post-Prohibition laws gave every state its own, “Go ahead and create your own law.” So every state is its own country of wine and liquor laws.
But the way we can do this is we have to visit these places. We have to go to Virginia, go to Texas, go to New Mexico, go to Arizona. Go to New York, go to Oregon, go to Washington. Of course, go to California. I mean, the places that you can get wine all over the place is one thing. But go to places that don’t do the production to get across the country. And it’s not because they don’t make good wine, it’s because they’re making good wine, but in smaller amounts, because they’re concentrating on quality not quantity. And that’s where America’s going. And I think that’s what’s exciting about American wine.
I want to thank Sean Hails, winemaker at Columbia winery in Washington for some great info on this episode.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.