Evolution of American Winemaking By Way of a Glass of Zinfandel

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GrapevineOver the weekend, I was enjoying a glass of Zinfandel for the first time in a long time. I began to contemplate an element of Zinfandel other than its terroir and unique flavor profile – its place in the grand scheme of America’s winemaking history.

My thought process was triggered by the words “100-year-old vines” on the label.

This unique attribute applies to Zinfandel as a reflection of several factors that tell the broader tale of the evolution of American winemaking. This history is not limited to winemakers’ ambitions or wine drinkers’ preferences. Rather, it is mainly influenced by several notable social and political factors.

In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted, due to the significant influence of the lobbying efforts of the Temperance Movement in the United States. This amendment made it a federal crime to manufacture, sell, transport, import or export “intoxicating liquors,” thus ushering in the Prohibition Era.

For 14 long, dark years in the social and political history of our country, the very fabric of our society was torn and strained. Americans could produce their own homemade wines (limited to 200 gallons a year) and they were able to consume wine at their religious services, but that is where the federal government drew the line.

We all know what transpired during those years. Wineries were driven out of business; terms like moonshine, bootleg and speakeasy were popularized; organized crime grew and profited in the black market; acts of crime grew at historic rates; and police corruption was rampant.

Most of the history of the era centers on distilled spirits, but there was a profound effect on the wine industry as well. Here is a short analysis of the state of the American wine industry before, during and after Prohibition.

Before Prohibition. There were more than 2,500 commercial wineries across America. Americans’ preference was for inexpensive, easy to drink, high-alcohol wine. Most of the wine produced was fortified and sweet. Italian immigrants found their way West in the late 1800s and planted Zinfandel, primarily for personal consumption. Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot were not popular (hence the exclusivity of the 100-years-plus Zinfandel vines still growing).

During Prohibition. Wineries were decimated; only 100 survived. Demand for wine increased 100 percent. New religious orders sprang up every day in unconventional venues, “nourishing” the needs of their flocks. The demand for permitted “religious wines” increased by 800,000 gallons in the first two years of Prohibition. The Italian immigrant winemakers who survived during this period continued to produce Zinfandels for their “family” consumption.

Post-Prohibition. States assumed responsibility for alcohol-control legislation. “Dry” states and localities continued to proliferate. It wasn’t until 1966 that the last dry state, Mississippi, legalized alcohol sales; vestiges of local laws exist to this day. The wine industry began a slow and laborious comeback.

  1. As American preferences changed, varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were planted. These varietals dominate wine production today.
  2. In the 1960s, jug wines came into vogue; entrepreneurs with labels like Gallo, Almaden and Paul Masson began to thrive.
  3. In the 1970s, dedicated winemakers began to produce world-class wines. In 1976, American wines won a competition against the finest French Bordeaux wines.
  4. By the late 1980s, American winemakers enhanced their techniques for growing grapes and producing wines. The United States became a highly respected wine nation.
  5. In the mid- to late 1990s, Zinfandel made a strong comeback, becoming a highly regarded and uniquely American wine in the world marketplace.

Despite efforts to destroy the wine industry less than 100 years ago, the industry has risen from the ashes as a testament to the resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of our young nation. Thankfully, today I can raise my glass of old-vine Zin in honor of those citizens who have toiled before us.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. 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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