A Perspective on the Evolution of the American Wine Industry

Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

The wine industry in the United States is thriving.

Consider this: The number of wine producers is growing, over 10,000 at last count; the amount of wine being produced is at a record high, and now ranks fourth in the world; the amount of wine consumed annually is at a record high, and now ranks first in per capita consumption.

The environment for this rising influence of American wine throughout the world is due in no small part to the emergence of gentleman (and lady) farmers and producers. Recent advances in technology and techniques, in the vineyards and the wineries, have culminated in new, high quality wines in every wine shop in the country.

And investors and entrepreneurs are staking claims throughout the United States, notably in California and more specifically in Napa Valley. For the last four decades, new wineries have been popping up in Napa Valley at an historic rate. And many have succeeded.

Yet the wine industry in the United States is quite young when compared to other wine regions around the world. Wine has been produced in the Middle East for 6,000 years. Its roots in Western Europe date back to the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago.

In the United States, the wine industry has peaked and ebbed several times since the first grapes were planted in Florida and California a mere 400 years ago by French Huguenots and Spanish monks, respectively.

A number of factors contributed to the fluctuations in wine’s popularity. I’ve begun to think about the wine industry in an historical sense, rather than focusing on the boundless agricultural and economic aspects of winemaking. I decided the subject of this week’s column would be a broad-brushed insight into the pioneers of Napa Valley winemaking.

Despite the legacy of early wine producers, the United States wine industry does not have the deep, sustained longevity of Western Europe. Legacy in the United States is rarely deeper than two generations. By contrast, in France, Italy and Spain, family wineries have been plying their trade for six, and sometimes more than 10 generations. The Antinori family has been continuously making fine wines for 26 generations, since 1385.

In the United States, winemaking began in earnest in the mid to late 19th century. The wave of European immigrants to California, notably Napa Valley, in pursuit of a better life, brought with them generations of winemaking heritage. And they were modestly successful.

The next wave of winemakers, in the early 20th century, discovered the unique terroir of the Napa Valley. Pioneers like the Mondavi family, the Gallo brothers, Georges de Latour and Louis P. Martini introduced wine lovers to high quality wines and refined winemaking techniques. Americans began consuming wine as never before.

Then a tsunami hit our shores. In 1920, Prohibition shut down the wine industry for 13 years. Decimated, it would not fully recover for nearly 50 years.

The most recent wave of winemakers to Napa Valley comes from all walks of life and with a broad range of experience. This new breed includes wealthy individuals who made their fortunes in other industries and became enamored with wine. Many considered wine as a means to be one with nature, escaping the capitalist trappings of mainstream society. Others considered wine as the ultimate trophy, and a winery the pinnacle of bragging rights.

One of the prime differentiators over the years is the investment required to own and run a winery. In Napa Valley, the cost of prime wine property can be as high as $300,000 per acre, compared to a more affordable $100 in the late 1800s. Very few aspiring entrepreneurs, or the progenitors of pioneers, will be able to create, or sustain, a longstanding legacy.

Whether considering wine as a vocation or an avocation, today’s California wine industry is a far cry from that of its early settlers.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.





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