This viticultural explosion is electrifying. New York had 118 licensed wineries at the end of 2000; by the end of last year there were 328. Maryland had 12 in 2000 and has 61 today. Virginia’s list grew from 59 to 230 over the same period.
California still creates the vast majority of wine made in the United States, and three companies produce more than half of the wine Americans drink. But while Big Wine may dominate the market, the proliferation of small, family-owned, artisanal wineries throughout the country is driving the story of American wine. Even more important than this dramatic growth in numbers is the improvement in quality. Advances in viticulture, farming techniques and technology in the winery have helped make local wine better than ever before.
That story is captured in a new book, “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States,” by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy (University of California Press). Robinson, the prolific British writer who was the first woman to achieve the prestigious master of wine certification, is a hero to wine geeks as the editor of the Oxford Companion to Wine and main author of the recent “Wine Grapes,” an encyclopedic tome of biblical proportions. Murphy, based in Sonoma County, is the James Beard Award-winning former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine section.
The book follows a format similar to that of the “World Atlas of Wine,” which Robinson co-authored with Hugh Johnson. There are richly detailed maps displaying the various sub-regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, allowing the reader to dig deep into history, geology and viticulture. Snapshots of each region give shout-outs to trailblazer winemakers, “steady hands” who produce consistently good wines, and superstars who are setting ever-higher standards. We meet the usual luminaries, such as Robert Mondavi and Paul Draper, but also young trendsetters such as Jared and Tracey Brandt of Donkey and Goat winery, or rock musician-turned-vintner Maynard James Keenan of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.
Although much of the book concentrates on California, Oregon and Washington, as it should, the authors make it clear from the beginning that the story of American wine stretches from coast to coast. New York is covered in 16 pages, while Virginia garners eight.
In the preface, Robinson mentions “a few wines that either are or should be regarded as American classics.” They are “the best Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from California, Washington, Virginia, and Long Island; the finest Pinot Noirs from Pacific-cooled California and Oregon; sumptuous Chardonnays from all over the country; subtle Syrah and other Rhone grape varieties from eastern Washington; admirably precise Rieslings from New York’s Finger Lakes and, increasingly, Michigan. These are joined by bright-fruited Tempranillo from Texas and southern Oregon; and uniquely characterful Nortons from the Midwest.”
At the turn of the millennium, only a few visionary winemakers might have put the words “Virginia” and “American classics” in the same sentence. That one of the world’s most eminent wine writers does so today illustrates not only how far the Old Dominion’s vintners have come but also how exciting is the story of modern American wine.
Robinson will discuss her new book with Dave McIntyre in Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History on March 21 at 6:45 p.m., followed by a book signing and wine tasting.
McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.