North Coast California: How prestigious wineries’ recognition came along and how these wineries challenge old world counterparts

It started with better varietals
Then viticulture and wine making techniques improved
Finally international competitions paved the way for world wide Cali-wine recognition

It started with better varietals

From the 17th til the 19th century only 1 grape was grown in California; the Mission grape. But in the 19th century, more precisely in 1833, Bordeaux-born Jean-Louis Vignes had Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc shipped in from his home country because he didn’t fancy the quality of wines made with the at the time available material. And ever since wine producers, consultants and likewise like Michel Rolland and Christian Moueix have passed on the torch of Jean-Louis, thus continuing the French wine making influence in California (1:p.2)

Then viticulture and wine making techniques improved

After Jean-Louis came several other crucially talented people, among these Hungarian-born Agoston Haraszthy, generally credited as the “Father of Californian Viticulture” and the man who had more than 150 different vine cuttings imported from Europe’s great vineyards to California. He hired Prussian Charles Krug (who had worked for John Patchett, the man who opened Napa’s first winery in 1858) (1: p.3). Charles had arrived to the country only in 1852 as a 27-year-old, without nothing more than “a pioneering spirit and a willingness to work hard” (2). In 1861 he founded the winery “Charles Krug” (1: p.3) which is today run by part of the Mondavi family. Run by part of the Mondavi family because in 1943, Italian immigrants Rosa and Cesare Mondavi bought the winery for their sons Robert and Peter and started developing quality in the vineyards and winemaking techniques (2). Robert later left his family’s winery in 1965 (1:p. 5) to establish one of his own -which he did in 1966- determined to “create Napa Valley wines that would stand in the company of the world’s finest” (3).


Krug-protégés Karl Wente and Jacob Beringer who both bought lands of their own and founded wineries in the late 19th century, Jacob Beringer being the oldest continually operating Napa Valley-winery (one of approx. 100 allowed to continue production throughout the 1920-33 Prohibition period. Before Prohibition 2500 wineries operated) (1:p. 3), also helped to the improvements by producing and passing on what they’d learn from Krug.


As phylloxera devastated Europe, Farmers from Italy, Spain, Croatia and France were forced to abandon their vineyards and seek work elsewhere. Northern California became a preferred destination for many and with that, important knowledge on viticulture and wine technique were brought to the country (1:p. 3)


Winemaker, mentor and influencer André Tchelistcheff is too credited to have done his part on the improvements in the state. In 1938 Beaulieu winery’s founder, George de Latour, met Tchelistcheff at the French National Agronomy Institute and offered him a job as chief winemaker back in Napa Valley. Tchelistcheff is among the first to have aged wines in French oak focusing on premium quality Cabernet Sauvignon, as well is he known to have contributed importantly with regards to understand and implement now-a-days common wine techniques, such as MLF, cool fermentation and vineyard protection (although cool fermentation is credited to have been introduced to California by Peter Mondavi Sr) (1:p. 4-5).


In 1955 UC Davis acquired land for wine research and education. Many of the University’s best students are today’s notable wine makers and wine managers. These talented people have also helped greatly to the wine improvement in California as well as to the revolution that was about to rise: Post-Prohibition and post-WW2 fortified wines were cheaper than light wines and dominated the domestic market (1: p. 5). But in the 1960s an interest towards French cuisine took hold of the Americans when Julia Child started appearing on National TV promoting her -and the country’s first- step-by-step cookbook (4) leading to a development in consumer taste buds preferring dry wine over sweet and fortified ones (1: p. 5)


Right after Prohibition in 1933, Ernest and Julio Gallo founded their winery and by 1960 (and ever since) theirs was (and is) thee largest brand throughout the country while Robert Mondavi, who had left his father’s estate in 1965, was focusing on varietal wines made from Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the wake of 20th century pioneers, like these two important ones: Gallo and Mondavi, operating wineries in the state 15-folded from 232 in 1965 throughout the following 50 years (1: p. 5)

 

Finally international competitions paved the way for world wide Cali-wine recognition 

Thanks to improved viticulture and wine techniques, in the late 19th century and early 20th century Californian wines started participating in international competitions. And started winning important medals like when the first American Bordeaux-styled wine won gold for “Captain Gustave Niebaum’s Inglenook Wine” at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. (1:p.4)

Then in 1976 something completely spectacular happened. Today’s Decanter journalist Steven Spurrier, then a Paris-based wine merchant, organised the famous “Judgement of Paris” competition on May, 24 (1: p. 5), a competition which has become an important piece of wine history and Cali-wine’s take-off to reach world wide wine recognition. ‘

A blind tasting was set up to confront premium quality Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon with premium quality Burgundy white and the finest Bordeaux-reds: Calistoga-Napa Valley Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 beat Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973 made by Joseph Drouhin, Ramonet-Prudhon Batard-Montrachet 1973 and Domanine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet les Pucelles 1972. The winning red wine was Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars which beat wines such as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion (1: p. 5-6). 

The fact that a Californian, New World wine, was able to beat the world’s most recognised, well-established and sought after wines in 1976 has since then till today become a challenge to the Old World counterparts by default. Because if other places in the world (besides especially France) are capable of fostering world-class premium quality, then anyone in the right conditions for making high quality wine can win. Right conditions like adequate viticulture and wine technique skills, location, money and patience. 

(1) Desimone, Mike., Jenssen, Jeff. Wines of California. Special Deluxe Edition). Canada: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

(2) https://www.charleskrug.com/estate/people

(3) https://www.robertmondaviwinery.com/About-Mondavi

(4) https://www.biography.com/people/julia-child-9246767

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mikael bøje Larsen says:

    Imponerende, flot beskrivelse

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