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November 20, 2007

Vino Americano  

Every state in the U.S. is now in winemaking. Now you can have riesling from Michigan or New Jersey cabernet—and some of it’s even good.


The crowd at the tasting bar was several bodies deep, packed with people eager for their glasses to be filled. Behind the bar, an amiable vintner poured Bordeaux blends and his signature cabernet franc, pointing out its clean, earthy aromas and spicy cherry flavors—characteristic, he said, of the classic French style.

But this wasn’t France, or even California. Mark Carduner is based in New Jersey, and he was showing off his product just off the Garden State Parkway, where two dozen local wineries were participating in a festival at Allaire State Park.

In addition to traditional fruit wines, New Jersey winemakers offered a surprising range of Bordeaux varietals, unusual French-American hybrids such as the earthy chambourcin, and even a vintage port or two. Chateau Lafite they weren’t, but many of the wines had a refreshing acidity that suggested they would pair well with food. 

New Jersey’s wine industry has seen impressive growth in the past several years. The state has some 38 vineyards today, up from a dozen in 2001. Other unlikely locales are overflowing with wine too: Colorado now has 60 wineries, Missouri 72, Texas 90, and Virginia more than 100. In 2002, North Dakota became the 50th state to produce commercial wine.

“Wine has gone mainstream in America,” says Kevin Zraly, wine author and founder of Windows on the World Wine School in New York.

There are several forces behind this expansion of American winemaking. Technological advances have made it easier to produce wine in challenging conditions. A 2005 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for more wineries to ship their product directly to consumers—bypassing distributors and retailers, who take a hefty chunk of the profits. 

More than anything, though, the renaissance is driven by the U.S. love affair with wine. Americans consumed a record 259 million cases in 2006, up from 140 million in 1991, according to the Wine Market Council. And it’s about more than just what’s in the glass; consumers want the whole wine-country experience. There were more than 27 million wine-related tourist visits throughout the U.S. in 2005, which generated an estimated $3 billion in revenue, says a study released in January by MKF Research, an industry-research firm located in Napa Valley. 

Sure, roughly two-thirds of that revenue can be attributed to California. But other states looking to replicate Napa’s appeal have passed laws to encourage their budding wine regions. Wine trails linking clusters of small vineyards and B&Bs have sprouted across the country, from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Wine Trail to the Hermann Wine Trail in Missouri. Many wineries host concerts and festivals to attract visitors to their tasting rooms, where they make the most of their sales. In Missouri, more than 750,000 wine tourists shelled out $190 million in 2005, according to MKF. Pennsylvania’s 100 wineries contributed $661 million to the state’s economy in 2005, while New York’s more-established wine industry generated $3.3 billion, according to state data. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s, winemaking flourished across the United States. Early colonies, such as Jamestown, Virginia, were given a directive to make wine that could be shipped back to England. Despite the fact that transplanted European vines were vulnerable to pests and disease, and wild native grapes were difficult to cultivate, by the mid-1800s the industry had blossomed.

Then came the long, dry years of Prohibition, in effect from 1920 to 1933. Many vineyards were plowed under, and the once wine-loving nation gradually lost its taste for the stuff—and its viticultural know-how.

Interest revived in California in the late 1960s, when a few winemakers attempted to show that the state could make a quality product. But only in the last decade or so have other states begun to regain their grape groove.

Each region is trying to find its own wine identity. While European classics such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot thrive in California’s long, warm growing season and have shown promise in Texas and Virginia, they don’t do as well in places prone to meteorologic extremes. In the humid South, for instance, many vintners have adopted the indigenous muscadine grape, which produces distinctive, perfumed wine in sweet or off-dry styles. In Minnesota, Frontenac, a cold-hardy red cultivar developed by the University of Minnesota, is flourishing. Today, Michigan makes some of the finest riesling in the country, while Virginia has made a name for itself with outstanding viogniers, notes Adam Dial, co-founder of Appellation America, a San Francisco-based wine website. 

“We’re still figuring out what to do,” says Cameron Stark, a winemaker for Unionville Vineyards, which grows European varieties as well as native grapes in Ringoes, New Jersey. 

To recognize the country’s varied winemaking regions, American Viticultural Areas, modeled on the French and Italian system, were created in the 1980s by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Today there are 188 A.V.A.’s stretching from Altus, Alabama, to Walla Walla, Washington. 

Newcomers stress that their wines should be judged in the context of their various regions. “We’re never going to out-California California,” says Jennifer McCloud, proprietor of 10-year-old Chrysalis Vineyards, in Middleburg, Virginia. She also acknowledges that Virginia will never match the quality of the first-growth Bordeaux she collects on the side. 

She does, however, make a lush viognier, blockbuster reds from the native Norton grape, and some fine examples of lesser-known wines such as petit manseng, fer servadou, and albariño. “I want to grow world-class wines that can stand on their own,” she says. “I’d rather make the world’s best Norton than the world’s 400th-best merlot.” 

That sort of ambition seems to be catching on among the country’s newest vintners. Where they were once content to make something merely quaffable, many are beginning to draw on the latest viticultural science and the expertise of trained winemakers. 

Ste. Chappelle, founded in 1976 in Caldwell, Idaho, now makes 160,000 cases of wine a year. In 2000, it lured winemaker Chuck Devlin from California, where he had a small winery and acted as a consultant. “I’m sure they thought I was nuts,” he said of his West Coast colleagues. 

Devlin has just finished his seventh harvest at Ste. Chappelle—now owned by giant Constellation Brands—where he makes luscious riesling, gewürztraminer, and ice wine high above the Snake River. “When I go back West, I bring wine, and they just about fall out of their chairs when they taste it,” Devlin says. 

Similarly, when Cameron Stark left an enviable career in California—where he had worked with renowned winemakers such as Robert Sinskey, of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, and Bob Levy, of Harlan Estates—he took a lot of ribbing. “I still do,” he says. “Maybe that’s a private motivation for me, to be the first [in New Jersey] to break 95 in Wine Spectator.” 

That’s a lofty goal, given that the big critics and publications typically ignore these winemakers, at least according to them. And when they are reviewed, their scores don’t exactly start a stampede (just as well, given their volume). They’ve had better luck at competitions such as the Tasters Guild International. In 2007, wineries from states including Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri took home dozens of medals. 

“I don’t care if nobody knows about us,” says Ed O’Keefe, owner of Chateau Grand Traverse, known for its excellent rieslings, on Michigan’s scenic Old Mission Peninsula. “We’re seeing 20 percent growth annually.”



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