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 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 3, December 2002   
United States of AmericaUnited States of America  Contents 
Issue 2, November 2002 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 4, January 2003

United States of America

After the dark times of the twenties, also followed by the rebirth from prohibition's ashes, thanks to right choices and strategies, this country nowadays makes very interesting wines

 If one thinks of the United States of America, wine would not probably be what one mainly associates to this country, indeed, United States ranks as the fourth or fifth wine producer of the world, according to the year. Production of wine in the United States is mainly focused in California, about 90% of total production, whereas the rest of production is made by other wine producing states. In the United States of America there are two different kind of vines cultivated: native ones, where the most common one is the Vitis Labrusca species, and the Vitis Vinifera species, whose origin is European, that is the most common vine used for making wine all over the world. The former species are indigenous of the United States, whereas the latter was introduced to the country by emigrants or by local viticulturists who wanted to make wine in the “European“ style.

 Even though the majority of wine produced in the United States and which is exported outside the country is made with grapes of European species, production of wine using local grapes is pretty common, particularly in those states where wine production is considered as a marginal activity. Wines produced with local grapes have very particular and typical flavors and aromas, usually referred as “animal” or “foxy”, and Europeans do not usually like these kind of wines, maybe because of the habits and customs they have about associating the aroma and the flavor of wine to the ones produced with European vines.

 History of wine production in the United States began as a consequence of the settlements of European people, about 1500 A.D., that started colonizing these new lands. Those colonizers of the “New World” were attracted, from the very beginning, by the American grapes species and started making wine from them in the hope to obtain the same famed product that Europeans were accustomed to. Very soon they realized the result that could be obtained with American vines was very different and not much appreciable according to the expectations of the European taste. Therefore they started importing plants of Vitis Vinifera from Europe in the aim of planting them in the United States and in the hope to obtain a product much like the one made in the “Old World”.

The United States of America
The United States of America

 In order to be successful in this new “challenge”, they chose the state of Virgina as the best place to be used for the cultivation of the vine and about 1619 A.D., they planted the very first vineyard of European vines. This first “experiment” was repeated in other areas of the east coast of the United States as well where they planted many species coming from the most famed and renowned wine areas of Europe, anyway, they always got the same disappointing result: a complete failure. With no apparent reason, every time they tried to cultivate European species, the vineyards always got destroyed and it seemed almost impossible to cultivate European species in the United States. In the beginning, American viticulturists blamed themselves for not being able to cultivate vines, and as they could not explain nor understand the exact causes and remedies, after a very long series of failed attempts which did not lead to any good result, they gave up and decided to pay their attention somewhere else. Indeed, it was not viticulturists' fault. The real causes, which remained unknown for many centuries, were to be found in the American's soil which was full of true and terrible vine's devastators, diseases and parasites, the most fearful of them all was phylloxera, for which the European species had no form of defense at all and therefore they were unrelentingly destroyed by this true “flagella” that, unfortunately, two centuries later devastated most of the vineyards of Europe as well. The incredible effort of cultivating the European vine in the lands of the “New World” was also conducted by European experts that moved to the United States with this specific goal. Experts from France, Germany, Spain, Greece and Italy tried many times to cultivate the European vine, they also brought some plants from the place of their origin with them, but every attempt had the very same unsuccessful result because of the parasites and diseases that affected the European vine.


 Because of the results they got in those lands, they started to invest their time and efforts in new directions and in new opportunities. The best results were achieved by crossing the indigenous American species with the European ones, a practice that gave origin to a number of hybrids still popular in all the United States of America. The first and most important result was achieved in Pennsylvania with the hybridization of a vine that was named as Alexander and the creation of this new hybrid started, in the beginning of the 1800, the very first enological commercial success of the United States. The results achieved with the hybridization gave new hopes to the local viticulture and set a new direction for the enology of the country, gave origin to a number of hybrids which are still very popular and cultivated in the whole country, in particular, to the states of the east coast. In Cincinnati, Ohio, were established the first wine industries of the United States, they were subsequently forced to move towards north, mainly in the area of Lake Erie, because of the diseases and the contaminations that affected the vineyards.

 The beginning of the success for California as a wine producing state, started in the second half of the 1700 because of the work of some Franciscan missionaries; in this place they had, without the viticulturists of the east coast to know it at all, the very first successes in cultivating the European species. The so called “gold rush” moved lots of people towards west and with them the cultivation of vine and the production of wine as well; this event will drastically contribute to the success and to the development of wine production in California. The flourishing development of the wine industry in California and in the other states, was drastically stopped by the sadly famed “eighteenth amendment” of the constitution, which set the beginning of prohibitionism. The amendment was introduced in January 16, 1920 and stayed in force until December 5, 1933, for almost 14 years. This law actually forbade the production and the commercialization of any alcoholic beverage, a law which annihilated the commercial production and gave a strong boost to the home and clandestine production. The only wines to be legally allowed for production were the ones destined for the service of the Mass or for liturgical purposes, as well as the beverages that were considered as pharmaceutical remedies or tonics; one of the wines that was considered as special was the Marsala wine. When prohibitionism ended, wine industry of the United States tried to recover from the long inactivity, and during this time hundreds of new wine industries were established, however because of the period of strong economy recession as well as of the negative influence of the prohibitionism, wine was considered as a useless luxury good and therefore it never became much popular.

 The real and ultimate boost to the wine production of the United States, particularly the one of California, began in the early 1970 and the interest for wine production in the country increased even in those states of the east coast where the first experiments of the 1600 were conducted. Despite the fact wine production of the United States has now reached a level of quality equal to the one of the European wine producing countries, wine consumption has never had a relevant place in the customs and the habits of American people, maybe because of the effect of prohibitionism still present in the country and this probably denies a better and just position. Even nowadays the country has, although in different ways but still having the very same prejudicial and precautionary forms, disapproving behaviors towards the consumption of wine. The most famous and evident one is the imposition for producers to write in wine labels a warning which reminds consumers about the risks for health as a consequence of wine consumption.


The American Quality System

 The definition and the introduction of a quality system for wine production in the United States of America is a relatively recent matter. The process of definition of rules in order to safeguard of quality production of wine, began in 1978 and the regulation of the system was entrusted to BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) which gave origin to a system called AVA, American Viticultural Areas. Compared to other legal quality systems, such as the French AOC or the Italian DOC, the American AVA is more lax, generic and permissive; the main factor guaranteed by the system is the area of origin of a wine. The most criticized aspect of the American quality system is that, in regard to other appellation systems, it does not give any indication or guideline about wine making practices, such as the permitted grapes varieties, the maximum yield permitted and other kind of indications usually found in other quality systems regulations, such as the ones in use in some European countries. It seems that quality and safeguarding of products is completely dependent on producers' discretion and initiative, indeed, they can legally use any wine making practice or technique and any kind of grape they wish, provided it was cultivated in an area designated as AVA.

 The current number of AVAs recognized by the American quality system is a little more than 140 and they define production areas spread in many states. The system, besides defining proper and specific viticultural areas, also defines and introduces other generic denominations as follows:


  • American or United States - defines varietal wines, which are produced with a single grape species, as well as assembled wines, which are produced by mixing more kind of wines, whose origin can be from any place of the country. These wines cannot have the year of the vintage written in the label
  • Multi-State Appellation - defines a wine whose composition is made of wines from two or three bordering states. The percentage of every wine coming from a specific state must be indicated in the label
  • State Appellation - defines a wine produced in a specific state and that was produced with at least 75% of the grapes cultivated in the appellation state, the rest of the grapes can be from any other state
  • Multi-County Appellation - defines a wine produced with wines coming from two or three bordering counties. The percentage of every wine coming from a specific county must be indicated in the label
  • County Appellation - defines a wine produced in a specific county and that was produced with at least 75% of the grapes cultivated in the appellation county, the rest of the grapes can be from any other county

 Any wine produced in a specific area designated as AVA, must have at least the 85% of the grapes used from the designated area, whereas varietal wines, that is wines produced with a single grape variety and whose indication must be written in the label, must be produced with at least the 75% of the named grape, however it should be noticed that in Oregon this value has been increased to 90% with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon grape that can be at least 75%, as usual. In case the year of vintage is indicated in the label, at least 95% of the wine must be of the named year.

 Every label of wine produced or imported to the United States must have a warning that should advise consumers about any potential risk for health in consequence of alcohol consumption. The disastrous effects for health, not because of moderate consumption of alcohol, but for the abuse of alcohol, which is evidently not the same, are well known in every country of the world. However this warning, that could be considered as a real and true deterrent, does not say it is the abuse of alcohol which is cause of indisputable and serious health problems, indeed, it simply says alcohol consumption can be cause of potential health problems, this could make one thinks that even a single sip of wine could be cause of devastating health problems. What is advised in American wine labels actually seems to be in perfect opposition with what the many and modern scientific researches, conducted everywhere in the world, say about the evident and beneficial effects a moderate consumption of wine can have on health. American wine labels also say wine contains sulfites, and this is true, of course, as sulfites are naturally produced during alcoholic fermentation and sometimes they are added to wine during the making process, but it should be also reminded that the quantity of sulfites contained in wine are far lesser than the quantity of sulfites the food industry deliberately adds to the foods we eat every day.


Production Areas

 The United States of America are, according to the year, the fourth or the fifth wine producer of the world. The most important state concerning wine production is California which produces more than 90% of the total country's production. Besides California, in the west coast of the United States there are other wine producing states which proved to have, in recent times, good vocation for the production of quality wine, in particular, Oregon and Washington. In the east coast of the country we have a different condition where indigenous grapes and hybrid varieties are cultivated the most and the wine made with these grapes is added with sugar at the end of the making process. However the east coast is rich of nice “surprises” and in many states they make wine from European species as well, in particular the states of New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

 Despite the fact the United States of America are by now considered among the most important wine producing countries of the world, domestic wine consumption is not that high like the one of other European countries. Other beverages and, last but not the least, the many prejudices on wine and alcoholic beverages, still strong in the whole country, does not allow the nectar of Bacchus to have a better and proper consideration among the preferences of the people. If we consider the most important state for wine production of the country, California, the average yearly wine consumption per capita is less than 10 liters (about 2.64 gallons) whereas in France or in Italy, the European countries where the wine consumption is the highest in the world, the yearly consumption per capita is more than 50 liters. (about 13.2 gallons)

 European grape varieties cultivated in the United States include the so called “international” varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, however, in recent times, many Italian species have been introduced in the country as well such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera. A special mention goes to a red berried species, considered as local, Zinfandel, whose origins are not certain: some researches conducted on its DNA would show that this grape actually is the Primitivo, a species cultivated in Apulia, Italy, whereas other researches would show this grape is Plavac Mali, a grape cultivated in Dalmatia. The only certain thing is that this grape was imported from Europe but it is now so well established in the the United States, mainly in California, which is considered as a local grape.



 California is by far the most renowned and important state of the country for wine production and here the production is more than 90% of total wine production of the United States. The quality of Californian wines is by now considered as excellent and this is mainly because of the drastic, but necessary, changes Californian producers introduced in the local enology in the beginning of the 1980, as a natural consequence of the changes introduced in the first years of the 1960. The most cultivated white grapes cultivated in California are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, whereas the main red varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel.

 Among the production areas of California, the most important and renowned ones are Napa Valley, Mendocino, Sonoma and Carneros. Napa Valley, the most famed and renowned wine area of California, is located, like the other areas we just cited, north from San Francisco. The most cultivated grape in this area is Chardonnay followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, which are used to produce excellent wines, probably the most representative ones of Napa Valley. Wines produced with Zinfandel grape are interesting as well, and good and interesting examples are also produced with Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Napa Valley's enology is particularly known for the usage they make of wood both for fermenting wines, including white wines, and for refining wines; this is a sure sign of the successful cooperage industry of the area.

 The area of Sonoma, after having suffered the prestige and notoriety of Napa Valley, which is not far to the east, has been successful in getting more and more renowned thanks to its high quality production, in particular with wines produced with Chardonnay, however here we also find excellent wines produced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Good examples of Cabernet Sauvignon are produced in the Alexander Valley as well, whereas the areas of Russian River Valley and Green Valley are particularly suited for Pinot Noir. Another interesting Californian area is Carneros, located at few kilometers north from San Francisco, thanks to its particular climatic conditions, also favored by the vicinity of San Pablo Bay, here we have, besides sunny days, beneficial streams of cool air and fog, factors that allow the grape to slowly mature and develop elegant aromas. The main grape cultivated in this area is the Chardonnay followed by the Pinot Noir, a combination of grapes that, besides producing interesting white and red wines themselves, allow the production of quality sparkling wines, a condition also favored by the particular and cool climate conditions.

 Mendocino and Lake County areas, north from Sonoma and Napa Valley, produce interesting examples of wines made of Chardonnay as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. In these areas are also produced interesting wines made of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah as well as sparkling wines of excellent quality. Other interesting wine areas of California include Sierra Foothills, Livermore Valley, Monterey County, Carmel Valley and Paso Robles.



 The state of Oregon, located north from California, has a wine production far less than the one of California, just like any other American state, however here are produced the most interesting wines made from Pinot Noir of all the United States of America. Oregon's climate conditions are cooler than the neighboring California and are well suited for Pinot Noir, the most representative grape of Oregon. The most cultivated white grapes in this state are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, whereas, like we said already, Pinot Noir is the most cultivated red grape.

 The most interesting area of Oregon is certainly Willamette where, thanks to its climate conditions, cooler than in any other place in the state, excellent examples of wines made of Pinot Noir grape are produced, and they are often compared for their quality to the ones produced in Bourgogne. Other interesting areas are Umpqua Valley, Rouge Valley, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.

 Wine production laws in Oregon are slightly different from the rest of the other states. Mono varietal wines where the grape is named in the label, must contain at least 90% of the named variety instead of 75%. Wines produced with Cabernet Sauvignon are an exception to this because they can have the very same percentage as determined in other states, that is 75%. In case a wine has indicated in the label the name of the place or area of origin, the wine must be entirely produced in the named area.



 This state is progressively getting better and better results with its wines produced with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it is by now considered among the most important wine producing states of the United States of America. Wine areas of Washington, which is located north from Oregon, are all located in the eastern side, warmer than the western side and does not suffer from rains. The most important white grapes cultivated in this state are Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, whereas among red varieties we find Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which actually represent the most important production of the state. The most important wine area of Washington is Yakima Valley, followed by Columbia Valley and Walla Walla, which is actually an area belonging both to Washington and Oregon state.


New York

 The state of New York, located in the east coast of the United State, produces excellent wines from European species and recently it is getting more and more famed among the most interesting wine producing states of the country. In this state the production is divided between wines produced with European species and wines produced with hybrids and local varieties, a custom which is widely spread in every wine producing state of the east coast. Among the most important hybrids varieties of the state we find the white berried Cayuga, Niagara, Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc and Vignoles, whereas red varieties include Baco Noir, Catawba and Concord. The white hybrids varieties are mainly used to produce sweet dessert wines, whereas Vidal Blanc and Vignoles are used to produce interesting examples of “ice wines”. European white grape species cultivated in the state of New York include Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, whereas Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most cultivated European red grapes.

 The most important wine areas of the state are Hudson River Valley, Finger Lakes, Long Island and Lake Erie, this latter area is shared with the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.



 Texas is one of the emerging states of the American enology and has a very ancient tradition about wine making; the first attempts to cultivate the vine in this state are dated back to about the second half of the 1600 and they were conducted by some Franciscan missionaries. Recently the attention of the Texan enology has been focused on European species, with interesting results, in particular on the so called “international” grapes and which are the most cultivated European species in the United States of America. The main white species cultivated in Texas include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and, in a lesser extent, Riesling. Among red species we find Cabernet Sauvignon and, in lesser quantities, Merlot.

 Climate conditions of Texas force viticulturists to harvest the grapes in advance, usually at the end of July, two months in advance before the harvest takes place in California. The main wine areas of Texas are High Plains, located to the north of the state, Trans-Pecos and Texas Hill Country, both located to the south side.



 The state of Virgina can be considered as the precursor of the enology in the United States of America. In this state were conducted the very first experiments about vine cultivation, with the specific purpose of making wines, in the beginning of the 1600. At the end of the 1800, Virgina was the most important wine producing state of the nation, the flourishing wine industry was subsequently annihilated by prohibitionism, and only in the beginning of the 1970 the local producers started investing on quality production again. Currently, the production of wine is mainly focused on Chardonnay, the grape which is capable of giving the most interesting wines of Virginia. In this state are also produced wines with local varieties and hybrids, just like in the other states of the east coast. Among the most cultivated white hybrids in this state we have Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, whereas Norton and Chambourcin are the red hybrids most cultivated here. European species cultivated in Virginia are practically the same cultivated in the other states: Chardonnay, Riesling and, in lesser quantities, Viognier for white species, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Barbera for red species.

 The most important wine production areas of Virginia are Eastern Shore, Shenandoah Valley, Northern Neck, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob and Monticello.


Other Production Areas

 Almost every state of the country produces wine, however there are some which deserve a better attention instead of others. Arizona certainly is one of them and here they make excellent examples of wines produced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc as well as other wines which resemble the style of the French's Rhône Valley. In Missouri are produced good wines with the Norton grape, a red berried American hybrid. Among the states which deserve a particular attention we also have Pennsylvania where interesting wines produced with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are made. The very same grapes are also capable of giving interesting wines in Rhode Island, where the Gewürztraminer is cultivated as well. Lastly, a special mention goes to Ohio where in the north side of the state, particularly in the Lake Erie area, good and interesting examples of wines are produced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling.


 Editorial  Share this article     Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 3, December 2002   
United States of AmericaUnited States of America  Contents 
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