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Classic Wine Hits of the 1980s

The era for big hair and shoulder pads was also a major moment for wine

Janice Williams By March 3, 2022
illustration of neon designed wine bottles dancing
Illustration by Pix

Leg warmers and boxy shoulder pads were all the rage, as were big hair and bands like Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe. Americans were living under Reaganomics, and political activism was as high as the box office sales for Steven Spielberg’s extraterrestrial wonder “E.T.”

And then there was the wine. 

The 1980s were a defining era for wine in the U.S., despite First Lady Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign against drug and alcohol use. It was the era of wine-by-the-glass, though the wines weren’t nearly as sophisticated as those gracing restaurant menus today. But ordering a glass of wine at a restaurant was an easy way to signal your status. 

“My God, was that stuff hard to drink. We weren’t real sophisticated winemakers. We were definitely learning our way,” says Harry Hansen, the director of winemaking at Gloria Ferrer, who started in the wine industry in 1982. 

Hansen adds, “But everything was really new. There was that feeling that we could do anything. I remember the enthusiasm and the newness of the industry like it was yesterday.

The rise of California Chardonnay 

Chardonnay sales boomed in the 1980s, according to a 1990 Orlando Sentinel report, but was made in a style that’s fallen from fashion. Back then, the wine was made with a short period of skin contact before it was sent through the crusher and deposited in fermenting tanks, according to the Jancis Robinson website. Malolactic fermentation — the process in which bacteria converts malic acid into lactic acid and carbon dioxide, resulting in a wine’s rich, buttery flavors — wasn’t a thing. Nor was aging white wine in oak barrels. 

“They were all bone dry for the most part. We hadn’t learned to do some of the more sophisticated winemaking techniques that people take for granted now,” says Hansen. “We were pretty clumsy with barrels, so barrel-fermented Chardonnay often meant fermenting in a tank, and then the wine was sterile filtered into a barrel. It wasn’t real sexy. The finishes were kind of astringent and hard.” 

The wines weren’t as high in alcohol back then either. “If the alcohol was at 14%, that was excessively high. Wines were generally pretty lean if they were whites,” Hansen adds. 

But the 1980s were also the dawn of more science-driven winemaking, and winemakers embraced experimentation. It helped that a number of viticulture and enology students from the University of California, Davis graduated at a time when winemakers were in high demand. 

The cost of traveling to Europe was falling, too. And several young winemakers who would later become influential in the development of California wine — like David Ramey, Jim Clendenen, and John Kongsgaard — made the voyage to learn the techniques of Bordeaux and Burgundy. They brought their newfound skills back to California and helped redefine what a Chardonnay could be. 

Kongsgaard’s trips to France were particularly significant. A winemaker for Newton Vineyard, Kongsgaard was the first winemaker to produce a California Chardonnay with malolactic fermentation and matured in oak barrels for two years without filtration in 1988.

Of course, Chardonnay wasn’t the only wine with a grip on American drinkers and winemakers back then.

“… But everything was really new. There was that feeling that we could do anything. I remember the enthusiasm and the newness of the industry like it was yesterday.”

The trends

Interest in sparkling wine and Champagne increased too. 

“By 1980, Americans had begun to shed the notion that Champagne was reserved for weddings and anniversaries. Sales of bubbly soared for most of the decade, and though they have leveled off, sparkling wine has become one of the most popular aperitifs,” wine journalist Barbara Ensrud wrote in a 1990 Orlando Sentinel report. 

European wines like Riesling also grew in popularity, with German wineries like Blue Nun and Black Tower selling millions of cases globally in the early 1980s.

“We drank a range of stuff. Back then, you could get Rieslings and Gewürztraminer pretty easily,” says Hansen. “And we drank a lot of Zinfandel, too. White Zinfandel was extremely popular in those days.”

Another major trend of the 1980s: wine coolers. Cheap, bulk wines were mixed with artificial flavoring and carbonated for vibrant, colorful, low alcohol spritzers that dominated the market. By 1987, wine coolers made up 22% of American wine consumption. However, that fad tapered off quickly. By 1991, sales dwindled, and only brands like Bartles & Jaymes and Seagram’s Coolers are still around.

magazines from the 80s featuring wine coolers

A look back at wine coolers gracing magazine covers. Photo courtesy of WineFolly.com.

“To some extent, I think wine has become more part of our culture in the United States. We’re less of a buzz-driven culture, and we’ve become more of a curiosity and maybe even flavor enthusiastic kind of culture,” says Hansen. “You can find a lot more variety now that you couldn’t get back in the day. Maturity of flavor, the ripeness of tannin, and the purity of expression — I think those are values that emerged back then have become more and more important. We have a deeper understanding of the value of wine tasting like the place that it comes from.”

Bottles to try:

bottle of Sutter Home White Zinfandel 2020

Sutter Home California White Zinfandel 2020 (~$5)

Sweet, fruity, and pink—white Zinfandel was one of the most popular drinks of the 1980s, and consumption was heavily influenced by Sutter Home, a California winery that’s been around since the late 1940s. Delicate berry aromas are followed by flavors of strawberry, melon, and crisp acidity. 

bottle of Riunite Lambrusco Emilia IGT

Riunite Lambrusco (~$8)

Easy-drinking and effervescent, this Lambrusco still has the same fruit-forward and floral aromas and crisp, semi-sweet flavors today that made it popular in the 1980s. The wine is produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy with more than 1,700 families of vine growers contributing to Cantine Cooperative Riunite wines. 

bottle of Black Tower Riesling

Black Tower Germany Riesling 2019 (~$10)

This is one of Germany’s most widely exported branded wines from the Rheinhessen region. It’s fruity and off-dry with simple peach flavors. 

bottle of Robert Mondavi Private Selection Chardonnay White Wine

Robert Mondavi Private Selection California Chardonnay (~$10)

Robert Mondavi Winery, established in 1966, played an important role in the development of California wine with its plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This particular bottle of Chardonnay is a classic rich and creamy California style, exuding notes of baked apples, poached pears, and pineapple that intertwine with spicy oak flavors and citrus. 

bottle of Mateus Dry Rose 2020

Mateus Portugal Rosé 2020 (~$11)

Lively with berry flavors and floral aromas, Mateus rosé was an icon wine in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s, its popularity fell as consumers gained interest in more dry styles of wine. However, the soft rosé from Portugal has reemerged from the ashes as more wine lovers turn to the pink drink. 

bottle of Georges DeBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2021

Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2021 (~$12)

From Beaujolais comes this simple sipper made with the region’s most important grape, Gamay. Events like Beaujolais Day helped this smooth red wine gain traction in the 1980s with drinkers appreciating its drinkability and lush red and black fruit flavors. 

bottle of Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay

Beringer Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay 2019 (~$19)

Beringer Vineyards has been around since 1876, and even stayed in operation during America’s Prohibition era. The Chardonnay displays toasty aromas and flavors of tart citrus, apple, and white peach that have long been appreciated by drinkers. 

bottle of Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay 2017

Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay 2019 (~$54)

One of California’s most historic wineries. This rich and complex Chardonnay was among the winners, beating out French rivals, at the famous Paris tasting in 1976.

bottle of Opus One 1980

Opus One Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend 1980 (~$409)

A partnership between renowned winemakers Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi resulted in one of California’s most refined and elegant wines. Power and finesse, structure and texture, this Bordeaux blend was one of the bottlings that proved California was a ripe land for producing quality high-end and collectible wine.