» Wine Reviews by Denman Moody » A Brief History of Wine

A Brief History of Wine

| January 1, 2018

 (L-R): Michael Mondavi and Denman Moody in 1978.

(L-R): Michael Mondavi and Denman Moody in 1978.

It took Americans a few hundred years to get onboard as a wine culture

Unlike distilled liquors, wine can almost make itself. The ingredients are soil, vines, water and sunshine, which produce grapes, and yeast acting as a catalyst gives birth to wine.

Wine has been produced for thousands of years, with its origins believed to be in countries like Turkey and Iran. Analysis has revealed wine residue in amphorae dated back to 5,400 BC.

Nobody knows exactly when “modern” winemaking began, but Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) described certain wines made in France as “excellent.”

The true “modern” era of winemaking is thought by many to have begun in France much later. The first mention of a specific vineyard, to my knowledge, is from a report in the records from 589 AD that the Steinklotz Vineyard in northern Alsace was owned by Merovingian King Childebert II. Moving through the Dark Ages, we eventually find in Samuel Pepys’ Diary of 1673, a mention of a wine from Chateau Haut-Brion. And by the mid-1700s, the four great Bordeaux chateaux of Haut-Brion, Margaux, Lafite and Latour were already known as among the greatest red wines in the world.

In 1855, the best red wines of Bordeaux were classified, with these four being named Premier Cru, or first estate and best of the classification. In only the second change ever made, in 1973, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was elevated to a Premier Cru, possibly from a gargantuan lobbying effort by Baron Philippe de Rothschild — not that it wasn’t deserved.

In the early days of the United States, wine was made on the east coast from native grapes like Concord, but were only average wines at best. The great wines of the world were made from vitis vinifera vines such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc. The attempts to make these wines failed miserably here until around the mid-1800s when Agoston Harazthy engendered the first “premium” winery in Sonoma County.

Around the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the vineyards of Europe began dying out. After years of anguish and consternation, it was determined that a tiny plant louse, phylloxera, which had somehow made its way from the U.S. East Coast to Europe, was the culprit. Our East Coast vines were immune to phylloxera, but the vinifera vines of Europe were not. Thousands of these little creatures would attach themselves to a rootstock and literally suck the life out of the vine.

Interestingly, a Texan named T.V. Munson was one of three Americans who sent thousands of East Coast U.S. rootstocks to Europe to have their vines grafted thereon, thus resurrecting their wine industry. Each of the three received the Chevalier du Merite Agricole of the French Legion of Honor — the first Americans to do so since Thomas Jefferson!

Around the end of the 1800s, phylloxera hit the vinifera vines of California. Not too long after full recovery from that, the nascent wine industry took a worse hit — Prohibition in 1920. Only small amounts of homemade wines were allowed, and wineries were only allowed to make sacramental wines, so most shut down. It is said that just before Prohibition ended in 1933, one of the Gallo brothers bought options on some grapes to be produced the next year, feeling certain that Prohibition was to be repealed. When it was, he supposedly said to his brother that they should start learning more about making wine since they were about to get all those grapes. To get started, they went to the local library and checked out a large volume about wine written in the 1800s!

Wine did not catch on quickly in the U.S. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the wines that were popular with a public used to sweet drinks like Coke and 7-Up, were a sweet red, Lambrusco from Italy; a sweet white, Liebfraumilch from Germany; and the sweet, fizzy rosés from Portugal — Lancer’s and Mateus. Also, inexpensive but technically sound jug wines like Almaden Mountain Rhine Wine, Gallo Hearty Burgundy and others from Swiss Colony and Inglenook took off.

The great winemaker/consultant Andre Tchelistcheff was hired from France in 1938 to make the wines at Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley. He had earned the degree of Engineer-Agronomist from the Institut of National Agronomy in Czechoslovakia, completed graduate work at the National Institut of Agronomy in Paris, and studied horticulture and floriculture at the Trade Aboriculture School at the Chateau de Versailles. By 1939, he had already made a huge impact on American wines by winning the grand prize for red wines at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Ironically, it was a Beaulieu Burgundy made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes! Although Beaulieu (BV) and Inglenook with its “cask” series made great wines, there was little interest outside California, because we were not yet a wine-drinking nation.

In fact, as late as the early 1970s, at a good restaurant in Houston — after mixed drinks became legal — most customers, if drinking at all, ordered a scotch and water, bourbon and water, other mixed drink or a beer before dinner, and then had dinner and went home. If there was any interest in wine, the waiter would say with a slight scowl, “Would you like a domestic wine?”, and then with a big grin, “Or one from our French selections?”

It was in the ’60s that a paucity of California wineries became known nationally — at least to oenophiles — for their superior wines. Among these were Stony Hill, one of the first boutique, mailing list wineries, for its white wines; BV with its Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; Heitz with its Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; and Ridge with its Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate Monte Bello Vineyard.

By the ’70s, other great wines sprung up, such as Joseph Phelps Insignia, Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and others. And by the ’80s, we had the fascinating French/American joint ventures — Opus I, between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild (first vintage 1979), and Dominus, between the daughters of John Daniel Jr. and Christian Moueix, owner of Chateau Petrus (first vintage 1983) — and numerous other big players. And by the ’90s, the ultra-expensive cult wines like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate were rolled out.

Unfortunately, the rootstock that was prevalent in California in the 1980s turned out not to be resistant, and phylloxera hit again, causing billions of dollars of damage. By 2000, all was well, and since then there has been an explosion of wineries in California, Washington, Oregon and Texas, which, according to the trade association WineAmerica, is now the 10th largest wine-producing state.

(L-R): Andre Tchelistcheff and Denman Moody in 1980.

(L-R): Andre Tchelistcheff and Denman Moody in 1980.




DENMAN MOODY USE DSC_0007Denman Moody was the Editor and Publisher of Moody’s Wine Review for six years and Con­tributing Editor on Rare Wine for International Wine Review in New York for six years. He has published or had published over 400 articles on wine, including The International Wine and Food Society Journal in London, Revue du Vin de France in Paris and The Robb Report in Malibu. He is or has been a member of The Inter­national Wine and Food Society, Confrerie Saint-Etienne d’Alsace, The German Wine Society, Commanderie de Bordeaux, Chaine des Rotisseurs, Les Amis d’Escoffier and The Knights of the Vine.

Category: Wine Reviews by Denman Moody

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