The American Revolution
Published by Ellen Doggett on 25/09/2020
The year is 1976. Steven Spurrier is an Englishman who owns a wonderful little wine shop in Paris, just off the rue Royale. He is constantly on the look out for exciting new things and has a very open mind about wine. Quite unique for someone selling in Paris, where the clientele are Francophiles through and through. Thankfully for us, Steven’s outlook is very different, and he has become captivated by the wonderful wines being made in North America. However, he also knows that his French customers would turn their noses up at an American wine, no matter how delicious and exceptional they were. Therefore, he concocts a daring plan; a tasting event unlike anything the world had ever seen. He would gather together some of the best tasters around, and host one of the most infamous blind tastings in history. The year is 1976, and this is the Judgement of Paris.
Every wine tasted blind, with the taster having no idea which wine is from where. A mix of top Bordeaux and top Burgundy, pitted against their American counterparts. A bold move indeed, but when the tasting was over and the results were in, the winner was clear as day. American wines triumphed over the French, and in the course of a single day their reputation and demand sky rocketed. Steven even went on to star in a motion picture about the tasting, ‘Bottle Shock’ (although he does look remarkably like Alan Rickman in it …).
1976 put North American winemaking in the spotlight. It was proof that you didn’t need hundreds of years of tradition to make incredible wines. In fact, North American winemaking was a very young industry at that point. Two world wars, The Great Depression and Prohibition had brought it to its knees, nearly killing it entirely. Yet it still rose like a phoenix from the ashes as a personification of the American dream. Through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s it quietly worked hard at its craft, turning so little into so much. The Judgement of Paris proved this hard work paid off and the wine world would be forever changed for the better.
Unfortunately, the phrase ‘what goes up, must come down’ is quite apt for what came next. The rise of wine critics in the 80’s and 90’s saw the North American wine industry chase top scores, but lose itself in the process. Big, chewy, tannic, oaky, rich. The finesse started to disappear, and what remained were eye watering prices on wines that wouldn’t be drinkable for decades. North American wines lost their shine and appeal to wine drinkers, and were left to gather dust in dark cellars, never to see the light of day again... or so it may seem.
The next generation of North American winemakers were fed up with pandering to the critics. It was high time for a revolution, and boy what a revolution it would be. They set about to return to the glory of 1976; to make honest, vibrant, exciting wines that celebrated their unique growing conditions, and gave the French a run for their money. They wanted to make wines to be drunk and enjoyed, not squirreled away for decades.
1976 had Steven Spurrier to bring this about, and in the 21st Century the revolution was brought to the masses by Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘The New California Wine’ is a book we urge you to read. It is a love letter to modern North American winemaking (specifically California, but we find the story it tells is just as relevant to other states like Oregon). It catalogues the revolution of the ‘New Wave’ of Californian producers who breathed new life into the region, and sent ripples of change through the industry. The change they’ve effected is undeniable, and has also paved the way for a new generation of critics who champion this change and celebrate wines to drink not cellar (Antonio Galloni of Vinous being a notable example).
These producers are particularly important to us, because we are so deeply proud to import their wines to the UK. The likes of Corison, Mayacamas and Mount Eden, have always gone against the grain. They’ve bucked the trend and stayed resolute on their personal styles no matter the critics' opinions. The 80’s and 90’s were difficult, but with the new wave has come the long overdue acclaim they truly deserve. After all, if you believe in what you’re making and do it well, eventually the world sits up and listens.
The new American classics are also perfectly represented by Jamie Kutch, Domaine de la Cote, Arnot-Roberts, Kongsgaard, Hirsch, Josh Bergström and Sandhi. Taking the classic grape varietals that first brought North American wine such acclaim (namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), and putting a fresh spin on them. Then you have rule breaking mavericks, pushing the boundaries and going against the grain. Piedrasassi, Jolie-Laide, Tatomer and Broc Cellars are paving the way for new ways of working, and proving that you can still make exceptional North American wines in unconventional ways.
The Judgment of Paris made North American wine exciting 44 years ago. This ‘New Wave’ of North American producers, who’ve crashed onto the scene in the 21st century, are keeping North American wines just as mind blowing, and exciting now. There has never been a better time to drink US wines.
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