What We Eat: The Story of Wine in the Americas - #112

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the Americas for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF: In the year 1001, Leif Ericsson pushed his Viking long boat off the Greenland shore, and sailed west.  His landfall was on the northern coast of what we now call Newfoundland.  Ericsson and his crew split up to do some exploring and at the end of the day, one of them, Tyrker the German, reported that he had found wild grapes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Considering how far north Ericsson and his boys were, it is highly unlikely that they were looking at grapes. What they probably found were cranberries. You know there’s a funny thing about explorers, including Columbus, they have a tendency to find exactly what it was they were looking for, and so Ericsson named the place Vineland.  And figured that within a few years they’d be doing great grapes and making fabulous wine. He wasn’t wrong, he was just off on his estimated time of arrival by about a thousand years.

BURT WOLF: Despite their differences, all of the “classic” wine grape varieties—from cabernet sauvignon to zinfandel—are part of a species that was domesticated about 7,000 years ago. And by the time Columbus arrived in the Americas, wine had become the beverage of choice for the Spanish. It was what Columbus’ crew drank and he had dozens of casks on board.

CHARLES SULLIVAN ON CAMERA: The Spanish were big time wine drinkers.  They drank table wines, sweet wines, fortified wines.  They drank red table wines and white.  They were particularly enamored with wines which were fortified and had a little sweetness to them, like what we would call sherry today. When Columbus arrived in the Americas, there were grapes growing all over, even out in the Caribbean, South America, all the way up to southern Canada.  But nothing that you could make very good wine with. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Considering the importance of wine to the Spanish they were shocked to discover that the Native Americans, who were living in a world filled with grapes, were not making wine. Conservative priests became concerned if God had not given the native Americans the ability to make wine, perhaps this was a part of the world where Christians were not supposed to live.  Settlers less interested in these fine theological points just went ahead and made wine from the grapes and unfortunately the results were dismal.

BURT WOLF: New Spain needed wine. So in 1524, Hernándo Cortés, the commander of New Spain, imported vines from Europe, and ordered the planting of 1,000 grapevines for every 100 native laborers. But the plan didn’t work. The Mexican climate proved to be too harsh and the Spanish settlers never came up with a significant harvest.

The Spanish shelved their plans for the Mexican vineyards and concentrated on South America. A thriving wine industry developed in Peru, Chile, and Argentina. South American vineyards became big business and exported so much wine to Europe that the Spanish vintners back home felt threatened.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: America’s first wine makers thought they were going to end up producing something dry and acidic and similar to the wines they knew from Europe. But they were using a grape called labrusca which is also called foxy because it has such a musty scent.  It’s really much better for making grape jelly than making grape wine.  If you’ve ever tasted the Kosher wine made from the Concord grape you have a pretty good idea of what they ended up with.

CHARLES SULLIVAN ON CAMERA: The early attempts to grow wine in the English colonies were not very successful, particularly as you move north.  If you move north of Long Island, and into New England, you can forget it.  They simply had no success whatsoever.  But south of there, particularly in Virginia and the Carolinas, they tried, and they tried, and they tried.  It wasn't very successful.  It went on and on for 200 years.  And by the time of the American Revolution, you've got to say that it had been a series of very admirable failures. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Prospects for American wine were bleak. But that did not deter the wine lovers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was  a one-man committee promoting wine in America.  We’ve become a nation of hard drinkers and our beverage of choice was whiskey.  Jefferson saw wine as a more “democratic alternative” and throughout his entire life believed that his home state of Virginia was the perfect spot to grow grapes and make them into wine.


BURT WOLF: The story of winemaking on the east coast was the story of people trying to make top quality wine in a difficult environment. The story on the West coast—especially in California—was very different.

In Mexico and the Baja, Spanish missionaries were cultivating European vines—without major problems. In the middle of the 1700s, the Franciscans moved north and found California equally hospitable.

CHARLES SULLIVAN ON CAMERA: In 1769, they brought wine with them.  They needed wine, of course, for the mass.  And there was no successful attempt to produce any vineyards in the early days.  It was just too hazardous a life.  They depended upon imported wine.  But gradually, by the end of the '70s, Father Sera was able to get the officials in Mexico to get the southern missions to send cuttings to San Juan Capistrano.  And by the early 1780s, you had vineyards all the way up to what is today Sonoma.


BURT WOLF: In 1848, the U.S. took California from Mexico and adventurers poured into the new territory. When gold was discovered, the majority of people arriving were prospectors. A few got rich and moved on, but by the end of the rush most of the prospectors were looking for new ways to earn a living. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Agoston Haraszthy, immigrated from Hungary to California. He worked as a Assayer of gold, County Sheriff and a State Representative.  He believed that northern California was the ideal place to plant grapes and make great wine. So he imported thousands of vines from Europe.  He started his own winery which is still in operation.

BURT WOLF: The California wine industry centered itself around the San Francisco Bay and became the leading wine producing area in the U.S. Much of the work was done by the Chinese laborers who had been building the railroads. California was developing a worldwide reputation for its wines and exports were beginning to grow.


BURT WOLF: During the 1840s, a North American fungal disease began to infect European vineyards. It reduced the grape yields and almost destroyed the chardonnay and cabaret sauvignon harvests.  It took 20 years before French farmers learned to control the fungus and get back on their feet. But it was only a brief remission. During the 1860s, a far more serious problem appeared.

VINCE BONOTTO ON CAMERA: In the 1860s after they had solved the powdery mildew problem another disease occurred but they didn’t know what it was. The vines went into decline and after they investigated for number of years they realized that there was a root louse that had been attacking the roots of the vines.

BURT WOLF: The louse was named “the devastator,” because it fed on the roots of the vines and slowly killed them. It had probably been brought to Europe in shipments of experimental vine cuttings from North America—the French wine industry was on the brink of total destruction.

VINCE BONOTTO ON CAMERA: They traced it back to the fact that it came from The United States, the Eastern part of the country, and they looked around and they tried to understand what was causing it and how to combat it and then they realized that some of the American species of grapes that they had imported from the Eastern United States back to Europe were seemed to be growing rather well and hearty while the European varieties were in decline. They realized that they could put the European varieties on the roots of the American variety and have a resistant root and still have the same wine quality, the same Chardonnay and Cabernet that they had been growing from the European varieties. So that’s when the concept of grafting from the American variety to the European variety became a common practice.

Grafting is the art of taking one part of a vine and combining it with another part of a vine. For us in the wine industry, what we do is we combine the roots of a resistant plant and the top part or the scion as we call it of a European variety and to start this process we plant the rootstock in the ground and grow it for a year so it develops its root system. Then we come back in the fall and we will cut the top of it off and cut a notch in the side of the truck of this young plant and inject a bud that comes off the scion that we wish to use, wrap it up with a rubber band and cover it up and wait then for it to grow in the spring.

BURT WOLF: What you end up with is an American bottom with a European top. In the end, the entire continent and eventually much of the world, grafted their local vines to the aphid-resistant American roots.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the second half of the 1800s, there was a wide spread anti-alcohol movement in The United States.  It was pretty much limited to distilled spirits.  Wine was thought of as less as a threat.  The prohibition movement of the early 20th Century however, was much less selective, they saw wine as just another form of demon rum and when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, and alcoholic beverages were outlawed, wine makers were not spared.

BURT WOLF: Prohibition began in 1920 and ended the careers of many winemakers, a few, however, were able to ride out the dry years as producers of sacramental or medicinal wines.

One of the wineries that shifted into the making of sacramental wine was the Beaulieu Vineyards of Rutherford in Napa Valley. During the early 1900s, Georges de Latour, a chemist from a French grape growing family, founded his own winery in Napa Valley. During Prohibition, Beaulieu prospered while other wineries were forced to close. That was because Georges was under contract to supply alter wine to the Catholic Church.

Accordingly, he shipped hundreds of boxcars of his finest wine to churches in the Midwest and along the East Coast. As those boxcars passed through Chicago many of them mysteriously disappeared. Somehow, the fine vintages that were being presented at the mass, were also showing up in the speakeasies.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Beaulieu was producing quality wines, but Georges was always interested in improving his wines and so in 1938 hired Andre Tchelistcheff, a Russian born, French trained wine expert, who had studied in The Pasteur Institute in Paris. Tchelistcheff revolutionized wine making throughout California.

JOEL AIKEN ON CAMERA: Andre Tchelistcheff was the, a lot of us consider him the father of California winemaking. When he came to California and BV he was really the first trained winemaker, trained in the technical aspects. Everyone else here knew the practical aspects of crushing grapes and letting it ferment but he really understood technology and really helped turn the industry around when there were a lot of spoiled wines at the time, a lot of fortified wines were made at the time because it was easy to keep those from spoiling.

One thing that was great that he did at BV was he always pushed to have open top fermentation for our reds, which is a little bit unusual. Today everyone tends to have closed fermenters that once you finish fermenting red wine in them it can be a storage tank.

Basically when you ferment a red wine, all of the skins rise to the top and that’s what we call a cap and that’s where all your color and your flavor is. So that cap needs to be mixed to extract all of the color and flavor that we get in a red wine. It needs to be gentle so you don’t get too much harsh bitter tannin so these open top tanks where you can see the entire surface and as we punch the cap down or pump juice over the top we get every bit of that surface very gently and completely. If you have a tank that has a tiny opening in an enclosed top it’s really hard to see what you’re doing and get that full extraction. So it’s been a great thing that Andre really kind of brought to Napa Valley and some people finally now are realizing, “Wow, this is something that can help.”


BURT WOLF: Charles Sullivan is the author of A Companion to California Wine which is the definitive work on the history of wine in California.

CHARLES SULLIVAN ON CAMERA: After World War II, if you look at the California wine industry, you see a fairly large institution that's producing huge amounts of dessert wine.  Over three quarters of all the wine produced in California in those years was sherry, port, muscatel and such.  But something happened.  It’s a very complex thing.  Something happened to American taste, at least the taste of Americans who were thinking about living a better life.  And gradually you see the consumption of table wine with meals growing, and growing, and growing.  From the 1940s up until the 1960s.  This process took about 20 years.  By 1966, 67, Americans had turned the corner, you might say, and were drinking slightly more table wine than they were dessert wine. 

BURT WOLF: During the late 1960s and early 1970s hundreds of small boutique wineries were founded in California’s Napa Valley, and neighboring Sonoma County. In the process

California became synonymous with premium American winemaking.

Young winemakers—many of whom were educated at Davis and had started their careers at the larger California wineries became interested in growing premium grapes. They were joined by an increasing number of wealthy hobbyists, who had turned to serious winemaking as second careers.

These winemakers explored various European styles, and defined Napa Valley as the home of artisanal winemaking in The United States. By the mid-1970s, many of them believed their wines could compete with the best European wines.  And soon they were able to prove it.


BURT WOLF: The new generation of Napa Valley winemakers had been a wealthy one to begin with, but during the 1970s and 1980s money poured into the area. Celebrities bought vineyards and wineries, and larger concerns hired star architects to design major new winery buildings. A perfect example is Sterling.


WAYNE RYAN: Well Sterling was founded in 1969 by Peter Newton who was a very wealthy industrialist. He moved to California, he wasn’t in the wine business previous to this but he fell in love with the place, bought some vineyards and it was he built this fantastic structure here on top of the hill.

BURT WOLF: Unusual architecture

WAYNE RYAN: It is and I think it was considered more unusual back then.  If you think about the fact that most traditional architecture for wineries, stone buildings, chateaux, and here’s this austere, white structure, Newton lived in Mykonos on the Greek Islands for a number of years, loved the whole architecture, the ambience and then when he moved to Napa Valley, our hot, dry Mediterranean climate reminded him so much of that he asked the architect to duplicate that style architecture and this was the result.

BURT WOLF: There was a tasting in Paris in ’76. Tell me about that.

WAYNE RYAN: The Spurrier Tasting.  The Judgment of Paris is what you’re talking about and that certainly did put Napa on the world wine map than it was.  We were making great wines here before that but it focused a lot of attention, so Spurrier, that was the gentlemen’s name, he had a blind tasting in Paris, all top ranked French wine judges and they’re going to be judging California wines.  So these guys are looking down their nose at the California wines but what happens Spurrier also puts top ranked Bordeaux in the tasting as well. They don’t know they’re tasting California versus French.  The end result of the tasting -- the top white wine was a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the top red was a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.  So the French of course called foul -- saying we can’t do this.  They hold the tasting again the next day, the same results come out, and when it hit the press, this was big news and great news for Napa Valley.

WAYNE RYAN: I’ve traveled all around the world and seen a lot of different grape growing regions but there’s no place that has the microclimates that we have here so there’s many different climates available from the cool area in Carneros all the way up here in Calistoga where it’s hot. And you just adjust what grape varietal you’re growing to that climate. It’s like nature’s gift.

BURT WOLF: Napa is one of the great wine making centers in America and the center for Napa’s winemakers is probably Meadowood.  In 1979 Bill Harlan and a couple of his friends purchased a small country club and turned it into a place where local winemakers could get together.

BILL HARLAN ON CAMERA: I was looking for some vineyard land. A place to build a winery and through the 70’s I was looking never quite found what I was looking for but a friend brought me in here and he said, “Let’s just go sit on a deck and look around.” So, saw the place, drove in. It was absolutely beautiful and that was about 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. By 5 am on Tuesday I had made a deal to acquire the land.

Our goal was to create a little country resort for people to come to the Napa Valley where they can really enjoy what goes on here in the Napa Valley, meet the people who live here and enjoy the weather and the wine and the food that goes along with it.

BURT WOLF: It was also important to Bill to make Meadowood a common ground to the Napa Valley wine growing community. Every year Meadowood hosts the Napa Valley Wine Auction.

BILL HARLAN ON CAMERA: There are between 1500 and 1700 people who come to the wine auction and they come to enjoy the wine country, to have some parties and to buy wine. And it’s really to raise money for the hospitals. It’s been a fantastic charity event.

BURT WOLF: Meadowood has also built a wine education program for its guests.

BILL HARLAN ON CAMERA: I’d been making wine for a while and all of a sudden I met this fellow--kind of curly haired guy--his head pops up behind some barrels. We started talking and his name is John Thoreen.  He had been a humanities professor but he was really into wine, wine making and drinking the wine and enjoying the wine. And I said, “Well, John, you know we have this little resort, how would you like to come in and teach our guests about wine?” So it wasn’t long before John joined us. We call him the wine tutor and he just puts on wine classes for the people and they love it.

BURT WOLF: Bill Harlan’s a serious sportsman, but he limits his sports to those which don’t interfere with his wine drinking…croquet being a perfect example.

BILL HARLAN ON CAMERA: One of the things we learned is that croquet is a very highly competitive sport and it does not interfere with enjoying nice wine. Whether its sparkling wine or whatever you get to dress up in whites, you can play with friends. They can be young or old, male or female. It’s a level playing field out here and sipping a glass of champagne. It’s a wonderful sport.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: saWe are not yet a nation of wine drinkers but we’re getting pretty close—we make wine in every state but Alaska and Wyoming. Ericsson would be pleased.  Thomas Jefferson would be proud. And Columbus, who brought the first wine grapes to America, would undoubtedly have poured himself a glass. For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.