The ‘New World’ may be the home to many so-called wine bargains, but Northern America has shifted its position so that in comparison to a great many other New World countries its wines, whilst often being of very high quality, are comparatively poor value.
The world's fourth biggest producer began making quality wine in the 18th century. Although wine was made from the native Vitis Labrusca and Vitis Rotundifolia (and still is in some places) the wine is not generally regarded as particularly good quality and isn't drunk in significant quantities outside the country. It wasn’t until Vitis Vinifera vines were imported from Europe in the 17th century that good wine could be produced, but native pests and diseases made life for the vines very difficult. It took over 200 years for these problems to be addressed and confronted in any successful manner – just about everyone who knew anything about wine (almost solely from Europe) played a role in trying to find a solution, and hybrid vines sorted part of the problem. These varieties – Norton, Isabella and Delaware - are unfamiliar to many of us today but they proved to be successful for winemaking. Around this time the dreaded Phylloxera struck and many vineyards were wiped out. This pest managed to get across the Atlantic with truly devastating results and the majority of vineyards in Europe suffered the same fate as their American equivalent.
It was the Spanish settlers in areas such as Texas who planted the European Vitis Vinifera vine and made wine from the grapes. These ideas were successful and spread northwards during the Gold Rush and the Mexican War in the mid 19th century into The United States and the north American wine industry was born. California became the centre of production, and after experimentation several grape varieties were established including the variety we know as Zinfandel. Despite California’s domination vines were grown in many other states across the country before prohibition provided a temporary setback. After the law was repealed the wine industry took a few years to sort itself out and the great depression didn’t help matters. It was the Second World War which forced the winemakers to improve standards and processes as no wine was available from Europe, but even then the greed of many companies who cashed in on the distilleries they bought caused the market to crash once the war was over. The wine industry was once again in a state of chaos, and it was not until about 1970 that things began to improve. Genuinely skillful winemakers took over the reins of American wine production and the current boom is a result of this. More and more wineries were set up which planted classic grape varieties and with large scale foreign investment they flourished. All this made wine somewhat fashionable and an endless series of groups and societies were formed, a trend that has spiraled to the present day. Wine consumption over the next two decades or so grew at an extraordinary rate and smaller boutique wineries sprang up around California, and indeed other areas such as New York and Ohio. Despite the increase in the amount of wine the Americans consume they are still comparatively small drinkers, with countries such as France and England leading the way…
Wine law can complicate matters in the USA. Whereas wine can be moved from state to state in Australia, in America there are various restrictions and taxes that prevent ease of movement; some states won't allow any wine to be brought in at all. Health warnings on bottles often read as rather alarmist but in the last few years the positive aspects of moderate wine drinking have been pointed out to the Americans thereby increasing consumption further. It is this health trend that has been partly responsible for the massive growth in the amount of Merlot planted and drunk in America.
Wine is made all over the country, but it is obviously California that leads the way in both quantity and quality. New York isn't far behind in terms of production but much of this is wine made from America's own Concord grape for the domestic market. Concord is part of the Vinis Labrusca vine species, with its classic 'foxy' character, and not a great deal finds its way to Europe. Californian wine needs no introduction; the state produces America's finest wine and is home to E & J Gallo, the world's largest winery. Although the wine produced in California has an average price of less than £5 per bottle it is generally considered that these wines are very limited in character and quality, with little or no value to be found. Once the price tag reaches £10 wine of an acceptable quality is available, although of questionable value compared to countries such as Australia, South Africa and even France. At the higher end of the quality scale there are some truly outstanding wines but prices are usually over £20 and can reach levels where even premium Claret prices are dwarfed. Wines such as Colgin and Caymus are well over £100, and should you decide to purchase a bottle of Screaming Eagle you'll pay around £500 a bottle. There is little doubting the quality of these wines, but when it comes to value… well, even First Growth Claret is a bargain in comparison! Key wine growing sites include the famous Napa Valley, Russian River and Sonoma Valley.
The market share for California is very healthy, with the UK being its main export destination with around £100m worth of wine arriving in the UK alone in 2000.