The history of American wine shaming starts from the top. Wine educators and sommeliers in the United States have fallen into the trap of romanticizing European wines while belittling American wines — a tradition of self-hatred that began before the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting, where California wines triumphed over top French picks. American wine has always played second fiddle in reputation, relegated to a small back section in a local wine shop or a bottle or two on a restaurant list.
Wine industry professionals are the ones steering the conversation for wine consumers — if the pros don’t respect American winemaking, why should consumers?
When studying for the prestigious WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers exams, textbooks and materials devote only a handful of pages to the whole United States, with France and Italy taking up most of the space. If there’s any conversation about American wines, it’s mostly about California. Out of the seven pages total of U.S. coverage in the WSET’s book “Understanding Wines,” six are about California, while New York, Oregon, and Washington share a single page. I’m not saying European countries deserve less study — I’m simply saying the U.S. makes wine in all 50 states and has a unique winemaking history. We should be devoting more of our study to our local winemaking industry and not relegating it to the kids’ table.
It’s just ignorance
A couple of years ago I was speaking to a wine professional I respect and mentioned my interest in spreading the word about American wine. They told me that was nice but that they had an “Old World palate” — meaning they prefer the wines of Europe — and didn’t really drink American wine. Several wine industry pros I’ve spoken to about my love of and interest in American wine have made similar comments.
Where does the Old World palate come from, and what does it actually mean? People who are saying they have an Old World palate are trying to signal that they have refined tastes. They prefer European wines, which they think will make them sound like they have excellent palates and understand the nuances of flavor in wine. European wines are thought to be more sophisticated than American wines, which they consider simple and lacking a certain je ne sais quois. In reality, it depends on what’s in your glass — there is plenty of incredible wine coming from the Americas, and tons of bulk, uninteresting wine coming from Europe.
This Old World palate thinking goes back to a romanticism of winemaking landscapes. People equate European wines with elegance and pastoral vineyards, and American wines with industrialization and chemicals. Although there is a history of manipulated wines made in the U.S., it’s not particularly different from wines made in Europe. The EU allows for 59 different additives in the winemaking process, for example — many of your favorite European winemakers are using the same pesticides, herbicides, and additives as America’s biggest wineries.
Not all European wines are elegant and refined, either. Bad wines from any region are just that — bad — with poor quality wines from even famous regions like Burgundy or Tuscany falling flat. The European wine industry has a deep history of bulk wines made with little attention to detail, intended for blending with wines from all over. Italian wine was mostly sold in bulk until well after WWII. In fact, 51% of France’s wine production comes from cooperatives that vinify grapes under their own myriad labels. Some of these wines can be quite good — others, not so much. Today, saying Old World is a huge generalization, clumping wine regions with great diversity into a single statement. It’s like saying “I only listen to guitar music.” Well, which kind?!
It’s fine to have preferences, but specifically not drinking wines from the Americas means intentionally staying ignorant of the excellent, artisanal wines our local regions produce.
The wines speak for themselves
The U.S. is amazing for the wine consumer. We don’t have the same antiquated laws of production of countries like France or Italy, where winemakers are relegated to specific grapes grown in a specific way, with little room for experimentation or variety. Instead, U.S. makers can grow whichever grapes they want to, and make wine in whichever way they like. In today’s winemaking landscape, small local producers and consumer buying habits are trending toward organic viticulture, sustainability, and a minimal approach to wine additives. Small local winemakers are environmentalists — they’re able to look to the future by planting hybrid grape varieties that adapt better to their environment than vinifera vines. They can experiment with pruning and planting methods that help naturally ward off fungus and pests. Our local makers have the freedom of expression that many European winemakers don’t get, and they can use it to their advantage, making wines that are easier on our soils and waters, and exciting to our palates.
I see sommeliers take wine trips to Europe, when they have never been to the wine regions in their own backyards, or experienced a harvest going on a short drive away. It’s too bad — when it comes to variety, the U.S. has it all. There are 27 native grape species and hundreds of existing hybrid grapes that grow in this country. California alone grows 82 different grape varieties. Whether it’s Malvasia, Valdiguié, Viognier, Tempranillo, Arneis, what-have-you, you can find an interesting variety growing locally, expressing itself in a different way based on where it is grown.
“It’s fine to have preferences, but specifically not drinking wines from the Americas means intentionally staying ignorant to the excellent, artisanal wines our local regions produce.”
Who benefits from the idea that European wine is better than American wine? Our local winemakers and wine industry certainly don’t. We support our local businesses, our local breweries — why not our local wineries? When will this antiquated view of American wines being lesser than die? Supporting our local makers means supporting an industry that is driven, creative, and tenacious. Small American winemakers don’t, mostly, have chateau money. Many of our winemakers raised their own money, bootstrapped their businesses with the help of their communities, and are passionately and urgently working on their dreams to bring us a well-crafted product. We need to support our winemakers like we support our breweries, and take pride in the product that comes from our local areas.
Small American winemakers create a product that is diverse, steeped in local history, environmentally conscious, and most of all — exciting. I’m proud to support my local winemakers, and you should be too. To get the most out of American wine, reach out to your local wine shop and ask which local makers are inspiring them lately. When thinking about your next wine-related trip, check out the wines of Oregon, California, Ohio, New York, Washington, Virginia, Maryland, Texas, and other states nearby. Seek out local winemakers like Ryan Stirm, who works with old Cabernet Pfeffer vines in Santa Cruz, California, La Montañuela, who makes electric wine from hybrid grapes in Vermont, Patois Cider in Virginia — they find old homesteads with cider apples and create dazzling products. Steep yourself in the wines and ciders of our area and champion them.
Outside America, our wines are the toast of the world. It’s time we appreciated them too.