From Livermore to Lutetia

Tuning in, Turning on: the Original California Wine Revolution

One of the great names in California wine was Cresta Blanca, founded in 1882, with its first wine produced in 1886. Atypically perhaps it was not a product of Sonoma or Napa Valley: the winery was located in Livermore Valley, an hour’s drive east of San Francisco. This valley has a microclimate informed by its east-west axis, also atypical in the state, and the foggy winds that cool the soils off the Bay waters.

Cresta Blanca was founded by a Maine-born, San Francisco-based writer and journalist, Charles Wetmore.  He brought cuttings from Margaux and Yquem following research that suggested Vinifera would thrive in northern California.

The winery was a success out of the gate. It survived Prohibition and while Wetmore died in 1927, his brother ran the business until liquor giant Schenley bought it on the eve of WW II.

Later, the winery was shuttered but in the 1980s the equally historic Wente winery, established 1883, bought Cresta Blanca. Wente was a neighbour in Livermore, so no better successor could be imagined. The Cresta Blanca fields were replanted and the handsome stucco and tile centrepiece converted to the Cresta Blanca Event Centre and Terrace Lawn.

And so the fields that supplied the grapes for Cresta Blanca’s historic “Claret”, “Burgundy” and “Chablis” now produce fine red wine for Wente. One brand is named, appropriately, Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon, listed by our LCBO.

Well after WW II California wineries continued their long tradition to use European appellation names, which raised hackles of course in Europe. Sometimes they used just the grape type, as e.g., Riesling in the image shown above.

This became finally the approved model – varietal names on the bottle – but not without a long battle by French winemakers to protect their names of origin.

Today, the World Trade Organization and other treaties, including NAFTA, protect various distinctive names for alcoholic drinks. Champagne of course is the best example.

It wasn’t only in the U.S. that winemakers sought to use names they felt had become a mere type-description, generic. In Canada, a battle was fought for years in the courts whether a Canadian winemaker could use the term Champagne. Finally the name disappeared from Canadian and indeed all American labels.

In 1889, a world international exposition was held in Paris and Cresta Blanca won grand prize for its wines, the highest honour accorded. A second Livermore winery and one in Napa were awarded gold medals. This achievement cemented Cresta Blanca’s reputation and it became a template for the Vinifera revolution in America.

Cresta Blanca sometimes used qualified terms such as Margaux Souvenir, but also occasionally stated the brand names without qualification, as you see above (Chablis, Burgundy, Port, etc.).

At the next world’s fair in Paris, the Universal Exposition of 1900, California wines with labels using French terms were excluded from competition on the protest of French winemakers.  This extended to Cresta Blanca even though its wines,  and other wines similarly named, were accepted for judging in 1889.

Perhaps seeing the glories achieved by California in 1889, French vintners didn’t want a repetition, although trade literature in the intervening period suggests the origin issue was becoming more acute generally.

Certainly it was not new in the beer world, as the complex “Budweiser” litigation history shows. By 1900, brewers and winemakers shipping internationally saw what happened to the pilsener name, Dortmunder is another example, and sought to prevent a repetition for their distinctive names.

Due to the complexity of national and international laws progress was intermittent although today in western markets at least appellations have obtained a high level of protection. It is a problem that never entirely goes away, of course.

In 1900 the California press was replete with high dudgeon at the exclusion of many California wines from the competition, but articles and letters also appeared which cautioned the industry to be more nuanced in its labelling.

In Paris, a kind of compromise was reached when the decision to exclude the wines was appealed. The tasting panels were instructed to rate the wines and deliver the results to the exposition adjudication body, but the latter were instructed not to issue any awards based on the ratings.

The ratings when made public showed California wines excluded from the competition (some received awards whose labels met the grade) would have attained very high standing. Cresta Blanca, all of whose wines were excluded, received a mark of 17 out of 20, which would have meant a gold medal.

The cause célèbre fizzled out with the irresistible pressure leading to National Prohibition and the worries of WW I.

For a flavour of the élan caused by the wines of Cresta Blanca in the heady 1890s, of the hopes they raised for America to share topmost rank with the great European wine countries, read this 1896 story from the Livermore Herald. Its photos and proud but simply-stated narrative tell a potent tale.

A sample:

The beautiful and picturesque property known as Cresta Blanca is situated about four miles south of Livermore. It consists of 420 acres of rolling and hill land, on which are the vineyards, olive and peach orchards which have made Cresta Blanca so famous. The vineyards were planted in 1882 with cuttings directly imported from the celebrated Margaux and Chateau Yquem vineyards of France, and the first wine made, in 1886, showed a marked resemblance to the famous wines made at those vineyards. The wine was carefully handled, and, when ready for bottling, was sold under the name of Cresta Blanca Souvenir Vintages. This brand of wine became popular from the start, and has increased in favor to such an extent that it is now found on the wine lists of every first-class hotel, restaurant, and club on the Pacific Coast.

The wines in the colour ads and product list above are from an early 1940s issue of Life magazine. The war had by now enveloped America, and I’d guess Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley Distillers wanted a bulwark against the looming prohibition to distil alcohol for beverage spirits.

Final note, to which I may return shortly: note in the product list the reference to a “crisp, dry” sauterne (spelled without the “s” in the U.S.). This was obviously in distinction to the classic honey-rich version, denoted “Haut Sauterne” here.

I recall reading articles in the last half-dozen years how a dry Sauternes is attracting attention, a novelty that, like “orange” wine, captures the imagination of wine bibbers from time to time. Except that dry Sauternes is seen by many as more than a minor key item, something that may save the Sauternes Graves producers since sweet wines are not as popular as in former times.

Some stories suggest the style is new or newish. This New York Times report from four years ago notes that Château d’Yquem introduced its dry Sauternes back in 1959. Other producers have taken to the idea much more recently, suggesting again the idea of a post-Second War innovation.

As so often, one sees dry Sauternes is far from new. If California was drinking its version around the time of Pearl Harbor, it seems a safe bet, given the origins of Cresta Blanca’s wine tradition, that Sauternes in La Mère Patrie Vinicole always knew a dry version.

Note re images: The images above were sourced from Google’s Life magazine archive, here. Images belong to the sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.