The Overnight Dominance of America, a Half-Century in the Making

In the long history of wine production and consumption, the United States has played a very minor role.

Cultivated grapes have been grown, and wine produced, for millennia. Recently discovered remnants of a winery in Armenia are believed to be more than 6,000 years old.

In the continuum of time since the Greeks and Romans spread wine production throughout Europe over 3,000 years ago, local growers and producers steadily plied their craft, enhancing their wines and reputation across the wine consuming world.

Here in the United States, the rudimentary beginnings of wine production date back a mere 450 years to a French Huguenot settlement in Florida. And this relatively short-time continuum has been fragmented.

The wine industry in the United States languished for centuries; it wasn’t until Western European immigrants settled in the Midwest and West in the 19th century that wine production, followed by wine consumption, began to flourish.

But then Prohibition brought the industry to a screeching halt from 1920 to 1933, effectively wiping it out across the entire country. (I don’t know a single soul who celebrated this centennial anniversary, especially during the pandemic.) It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Americans finally began to build a head of steam in producing and consuming wine.

As with many other entrepreneurial endeavors that spawned successful industries in the United States, so too did intrepid winemakers and marketers in the 1980s and ‘90s build a successful and highly-regarded wine industry.

As a result, the global wine world in the 21st century has been turned upside down. The mighty Europeans are losing their influence and the upstart United States has surged. With only 80 years of continuous winemaking expertise and experience since Prohibition – a blink of an eye in the world timeline of wine production and consumption – the United States is now a) the largest consumer of wines in the world, b) the fourth largest producer after Italy, France and Spain and c) home of a world-class wine cognoscenti.

How did we accomplish so much in such a short period of time?

  1. Winemaking Culture. American winemakers are an ambitious lot, constantly seeking the next great product/trend, coupled with a willingness to experiment. Since they are relatively new to wine, there are no allegiances to particular grapes or wine styles.

American winemakers are not burdened by the stringent regulations of Western Europe for growing specific grape varietals in specific regions. (In France, generally speaking, you may only grow Cabernet Sauvignon in the Bordeaux region and Chardonnay in the Burgundy and Champagne regions.) This provides the freedom to experiment, seeking the best grapes to suit a particular wine region or a specific plot of land.

  1. Consumer Enthusiasm. Americans are much more apt to experiment with different wines from different regions than their European counterparts. If you travel in Europe you will typically be offered local wines in restaurants. In Paris, French wines; in Rome, Italian wines. Rarely will American wines be on a wine list.

However, in New York or Los Angeles, many wine lists offer a broad range of international wines. This provides American consumers a means to expand their horizons and their appreciation (and consumption) of diverse wines. And catapult us to the top of the list of wine-consuming nations.  

  1. Consumer Knowledge. From Baby Boomers to millennials, American palates are evolving. Unlike the 1970s approach to wine (cheaper is better), today’s wine consumer is more likely to seek wine with a high quality-price ratio. Millennials are becoming especially astute wine consumers, willing to spend more for a well-researched wine.

Once again, American fervor and ambition have catapulted us to the top of an industry and a culture. What is next on the horizon? Will we be challenged by the growing interest in European wines produced as table wines (not meeting specific regulations)? Will our tastes shift to other alcoholic beverages? Only (a split second in) the time continuum will tell.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-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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