Major Ben C. Truman, a long-lived American newspaperman, author, and expert on California wines, wrote a prescient piece in 1911 for the Pacific Wine and Spirits Review. It is worth reading as he essentially predicted the future of the industry. The major difference was the hiatus of Prohibition and the post-Prohibition re-set, which proved a difficult challenge for the domestic wine industry.
It took years for Californian vineyards to recover e.g., by uprooting table grapes and re-planting with varieties suitable for good wine, and considering also the Depression and WW II.
By the 1950s a revived European economy, boosted ironically by the Marshall Plan, was sending a lake of wine to the U.S. and establishing good markets in popular and premium categories. As a result, and due to the lost momentum of 1920-1945, California achieved in that period mainly a jug wine reputation and perhaps for decent table wine, but not more.
The ascendance to pre-eminence that occurred finally in the 1970s would have arrived much earlier, but for the events noted.
Hence why American gastronomic dinners into the 1970s could regularly feature only fine European wines. Many wine events I have reviewed of influential gastronomy societies showed this pattern from the 1940s into the 70s.
This doesn’t mean American wines were ignored, and I’ve highlighted exceptions in earlier posts. A low-profile appreciation for the topmost products of California viticulture, e.g. Beaulieu vineyard, Cresta Blanca, later fed into the world acknowledgement of California quality inaugurated by the 1976 Judgment of Paris.
This created a surging confidence in California wine quality based especially on Vinifera varieties such as Cabernet sauvignon and Chardonnay, that has never ceased.
It was something hard won. Truman foresaw this future, employing often a dry humour and not a little boosterism, as befits a good salesperson. These passages are telling, from the 1911 article:
Forty years ago no pretentious club house in California, and not a score of genteel home entertainers placed native wines on their tables — partly because they were inferior and partly because they were cheaper, and their use “not in good form.” All this has been metamorphosed, as all the clubs keep dry and sweet California wines altogether for general use, while their use in families and hotels and restaurants is quite as general and in perfectly “good form.” There are clarets and hocks, burgundies and rieslings and other red and white dry wines in our leading wine and grocery stores at present, as good and much purer than many of those whose bottles are bedecked with pictures of some old chateau on the Gironde or old crumbling castle on the Rhine; while such sweeter offerings as Cresta Blanca, Angelica and many muscatels appeal to palates that enjoy a luscious savor without an undue exhilaration.
Much more praise, even, may be bestowed on our ports and sherries and brandies — and especially those made in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California — whose flavors and other delicious qualities are quaint and fascinating, something one cannot describe any more than one can impart an idea of the different shades of mauve. The California port is the truest, the purest and best that can be obtained anywhere in the world at present, as all the imported ports have been sophisticated and most of them basely adulterated; and it is matter of fact that nearly all eastern physicians, in prescribing ports as a tonic or otherwise in a medicinal way, recommend California ports on the ground that they are honest and pure, while the Oporto ones are not.
Regarding our sherries, it may be truly said that, while they are honest and pure, and of great medicinal value, they do not as yet possess that nutty flavor given the “high-priced sherries” manufactured from cheap American whisky, water, burnt sugar, prussic acid and other chemicals in New York, and from potato spirit, maidenhair, capillaire, prussic acid, water and coloring chemicals in Hamburg, which sends out more “Genuine Amontillado” annually than leaves Cadiz in ten years. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as pure sherry— except the California sherry — in England or the United States today, and there has not been for more than fifty years.
Some wines he praised did not receive eminence after Prohibition, port-style and perhaps fortified wines in general. In part this was due to importation finally of unadulterated wines from Iberia, but also I think the fact that these styles became less popular after WW II.
The greatness was reserved for Bordeaux- and burgundy-style wine, and here clearly he clearly foresaw the future accurately.* His essay (pp. 26-27) is well worth reading in full to get the larger picture.
*Possibly German and Alstatian styles as well but I am not as familiar with these on the West Coast.