California Wine: Back to the Future

This 1893 article from The Morning Call in San Francisco reprinted a report on California wines by an inquiring Briton, Charles Oldham. The British Commission had appointed him to study the Californian wine exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The title of the article, “California Wines Are Good”, shows a budding confidence in American wine quality, considering the time, and the immemorial reputation of the Old World for wine pre-eminence.

Although not clearly stated in the article Oldham had connections to the West Coast wine trade via his English wine agency, Grierson Oldham.

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

Unlike the situation in the East I discussed in recent posts, by 1890 almost all grapes in California were European, or Vitis vinifera. Names familiar to us today are recited by Oldham – Cabernet Sauvignon, White Burgundy or Chablis, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Burgundy, and Rhine wine (for Riesling).

In this period, as he notes, European appellations and the related wine bottle shapes were being used to describe New World wines; this would come back to haunt winemakers in California and elsewhere in the New World.

Oldham notes that vintners often printed the grape type on the labels to indicate the type of wine, a practise still followed today.

He calls some red wines “strong” or “heavy” meaning, as period analyses showed, they were more alcoholic and richer than European analogues, as similar today. For such wines Oldham advised gently to blend them (with other wines). But for many wines he has nothing but the highest praise, using terms such as soft, round, pretty, smooth – all stock-in-trade to wine writing today.

Oldham also firmly separated the California wines from Eastern wine made with North American grape varieties: chalk and cheese, to mix metaphors.

The Morning Call makes for oddly familiar reading today. It shows that the great success of California wine in the last 40 years is really just a return to c.1900. The industry was levelled of course by National Prohibition and had to start again at its end.

America had reached some 2,500 wineries (the peak) before that epochal event. Most American-grown wine before Prohibition, about 80% from my reading, issued from California.

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

See the background as recounted a few years ago in Wine Spectator.

Still, due to geographical and temporal separation the type evolved differently on the West Coast. To call the Mission in California Vinifera is, therefore, a kind of stretch.

The point is, California, unlike the middle and East of the country, had made a fateful choice by about 1890: we will grow true Vinifera for quality dry wine, a decision that proved wise in the long term.

Oldham noted:

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 ac-
cordingly; that is to say, a wine made
from sauterne grapes is described by them
as being of Sauterne type, and so on.

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

As you could make wine of it too, lots of citizens during Prohibition did under a 200-gallon home winemaking exemption – or sub rosa for illicit sale and consumptionBut certainly as table wine the taste did not compare to what Oldham described as California’s Medoc or Burgundy.

Of Oldham’s frank criticisms, port and sherry-type wine came in for the most bashing. He liked the (distilled) brandies but felt many were too young and some too sweet. Unlike for the best wine of California, he did not think the brandy could rival that of Cognac. History, so far, has proven him right.

But fortified wine and brandy are small beer in California’s wine scene. The action is in the dry wines, where the state has distinguished itself, in the Napa and Sonoma valleys especially.

Ironically, Oldham states some white wine is too dark from being left on the skins too long. He would be amazed at the mini-fashion today for “orange wine”. What was then a fault is now a virtue, something we see in the beer world as well (sour beer, hazy beer).

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

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