California Wine: Back to the Future

An 1893 article in San Francisco’s The Morning Call printed a report on California wine by an inquiring Briton, Charles Oldham. Oldham was appointed by the British Commission to study Californian wines on exhibit at the World Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

The title alone, “California Wines Are Good”, shows gaining international confidence in American wines, especially considering the time and immemorial reputation of European viticulture.

Although not clearly stated Oldham was part of the West Coast wine trade via his British wine agency, Grierson Oldham. So, he was an interested, yet still knowledgeable observer.

His report is a fascinating capsule of the California wine business after some 50 years’ steady development.

Unlike in the East as I discussed in recent posts, by 1890 almost all viticulture in California was European varieties, or Vitis vinifera. Oldham cites names familiar to us today: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chablis, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Burgundy, Rhine wine (for Riesling).

His extensive, modern-style taste notes on important Vinifera types are of great interest.

As he noted, European appellations and their related bottle shapes were being used for American versions. In time this would haunt winemakers in California and elsewhere in the New World.

He also noted that vintners often printed the grape type on the labels, a practise still followed today.

Oldham wrote:

As a rule California wine producers seem to have aimed at following the European types as closely as possible, and as they grew European varieties of grapes almost exclusively they describe their wines accordingly; that is to say, a wine made from sauterne grapes is described by them as being of Sauterne type, and so on.

He calls some red wines “strong” or “heavy” meaning, as period analyses showed, higher in alcohol and extract than European analogues, as often today. For such wines Oldham advised gently to blend them, i.e., with other wines to reach a pleasing balance.

But for many wines he had nothing but the highest praise, using terms such as soft, round, pretty, smooth – all stock-in-trade in wine journalism today.

Oldham firmly separated the California wines from Eastern wines using North American grape varieties. It was chalk and cheese in his view, if I may mix metaphors.

The Morning Call piece makes for oddly familiar reading today. It shows California winemakers headed in exactly the quality and reputational direction now achieved for some time, except National Prohibition (1920-1933) stopped progress in its tracks.

America had reached a peak of 2,500 wineries before the Prohibition march intensified in the early 1900s. Most production before Prohibition, about 80%, was Californian, reflecting the quality choice of American consumers.

Of course, American winemaking out West didn’t start with Bordeaux- and Burgundy-level production. California growers started with the Mission grape. Spanish priests planted it in Mexico and what today is California.

For a long time Mission was thought to be a hybrid type. Genetic research has shown it is identical to Listan Prieto, still grown extensively in Canary Islands and parts of Iberia. For good background see this account a few years ago by Lynn Alley in Wine Spectator.

Still, the Mission evolved differently in the U.S. due to geographical separation and long residency there. To call it, in California, Vinifera seems therefore a stretch.

The Mission is large and fleshy, and makes good sweet wine and grape juice. It was almost obsolete for winemaking when Oldham wrote, so taken were growers with Cabernet Sauvignon and other Vinifera, but it came back during Prohibition for table fruit.

Wine was made of it too in Prohibition under the 200-gallon home winemaking exemption, or sub rosa for illicit saleBut as table wine the taste did not compare to Oldham’s California-made Medoc or Burgundy.

The point is, California made a fateful choice by 1890: we will grow best Vinifera for quality dry wine, a decision that proved sage in the long term.

Of Oldham’s frank criticisms, port and sherry-types take the brunt. Fortified wines and brandy are today small beer in California: the dry wines are where the action is, reaching a quality and importance Oldham foresaw with bold independence of mind.*

He liked the distilled brandies but felt many were too young and some too sweet. Unlike for the best wines of California, he did not think its brandies could rival those of Cognac. So far, history has borne him out.

As viewed historically, some statements ring oddly, to be sure. He stated some white wine is too dark from being left on the skins. He would be nonplussed at the current fashion for orange wine.

What was once viewed as faulty is now a virtue, something we see in the beer world as well (eg. sour ale, hazy beer). This shows the relativity of palate, to a point.

Read Charles Oldham, as you are reading the future of American wine.

Note re image: image above was sourced and further identified in Wikipedia, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Despite his involvement in the trade, that is.