Back to the Future of California Wine

This 1893 article from The Morning Call in San Francisco reprints in full a report on California wines by a Briton, Charles F. Oldham. He was appointed by the British Commission to report on California wines as exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The title of his article is, “California Wines Are Good”, the relative modesty of the wording showing a novel but budding confidence.

He had connections to the West Coast wine trade via (although not stated clearly in the story) his English wine agency, Grierson Oldham.

The report is a fascinating capsule of the California wine business in the 1890s, one that reflected some 50 years’ development.

Unlike the situation in the east I referred to in recent posts, by 1890 almost all grapes grown in California were European, Vitis vinifera. Names familiar to us today are recited – Cabernet Sauvignon; White Burgundy or Chablis (for Chardonnay); Zinfandel; Pinot Gris; Burgundy (for Pinot Noir); Rhine wines (for Riesling).

In this period European appellation names were still being used to describe many New World wines; this would come back to haunt the winemakers, in California and elsewhere.

The report states that the California vintners often printed the grape type on the labels to describe the kind of wine, as they do today.

He calls numerous of the red wines “strong” or “heavy” meaning, as other period analyses showed, that they were more alcoholic and richer than European analogues – as they are today.

For such wines, he gently states they are perhaps more suitable for blending. But for many he had nothing but the highest praise, using modern-sounding terms such as soft, round, pretty, smooth, and other words that are stock-in-trade to wine writers today.

Metaphor-driven wine writing is not new albeit beer’s is rather more novel; still it took its cue from wine-writing, largely.

The Morning Call’s story is all oddly familiar, and shows that the successful revival of the California wine business in the last 40+ years is really just a return to c. 1900. The industry was trashed of course by Prohibition and had to start again at its end.

America had 2,500 wineries at the industry’s peak before that epochal event. Most American-grown wine grapes before Prohibition, about 80% from my reading, were raised in California.

Only 100-some-odd wineries made it out of Prohibition to live another day.

California started with the Mission Grape which Spanish fathers had planted in Mexico and what is now California. For a long time, it was thought to be a hybrid but genetic research shows it is identical to a grape grown today extensively in Canary Islands and a few places in Iberia, Listan Prieto.

See the story as recounted some years ago in Wine Spectator.

Still, due to the long geographical separation the grapes evolved in many ways as different species.

To call Mission in California Vinifera is therefore a kind of stretch. But the point is California, unlike the middle and east of the country, had made the fateful choice by about 1890 to grow real Vinifera for quality dry wine, a decision which proved wise in the long term.

Mission is large and fleshy, and makes good sweet wine and grape juice. It was almost discarded by vintners by the time Oldham wrote but came back with Prohibition as did other varieties suitable for table fruit consumption.

You could make wine of them too, lots of citizens during Prohibition did under a 200 gallon home winemaking exemption, or sub rosa for bootleggingBut results could not compare to what Oldham calls Medoc, say, or Burgundy.

My suggestions earlier that a new, perhaps foxy domestic grape could become wine’s IPA and shake up the U.S. wine business are unlikely to prove applicable for California and probably Oregon simply because many Viniferas do well in their climates.

But can the rest of the country start to challenge California wine eminence? I think it can, and the way to do it is to take a leaf from beer’s story in the last 40 years, turn a negative – fox character in wines, dank/white pith/exotic fruit taste in American hops, into a positive.

Of Oldham’s frank criticisms, the ports and sherries came in for a bashing. He liked the brandies but felt many were too young and some too sweet. Unlike for the best wines, he doesn’t suggest the brandy can rival Cognac, indeed history – so far – has proven him right.

But fortified wine and brandy have always been small beer in California’s wine picture. The action is in the dry wines, where the state has distinguished itself especially in Napa and Sonoma.

Ironically, Oldham states some whites were too dark due to being left on the skins too long – how he would have been amazed at the mini-fashion “orange wines” have stirred in recent years!

Once again, what was a fault is now a virtue, and a lesson lies therein.

Read Oldham, as you are reading the future he predicted so well.

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