Archive for October, 2014

7 interesting facts about the history of California wine

October 31st, 2014

California wine history
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By Joseph Temple

As the world’s fourth largest producer of wine, California’s vineyards now generate over 120 billion dollars annually and are responsible for three out of every five bottles purchased by Americans.  Internationally, 47.2 million cases were exported to 125 countries in 2012 – up 51% from a decade before.  Never has the Golden State been more of a viticultural superpower than it is today.

But if you’ve studied the region’s history, you know that there have been many trials and tribulations on the path to prosperity.  So for this week, have a look back at seven decisive turning points that helped create the wines of California that we enjoy today.
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#1: A Second Gold Rush
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Whether it was the early studio moguls that created Hollywood or Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, California has historically served as a magnet for people looking to create a better life financially.  And during the mid-19th century, thousands of Americans migrated west when word spread that there was gold to be found.  Almost overnight, the population of San Francisco exploded as the first “forty-niners” arrived in 1849 with hopes of striking it rich.  However, when it all ended in 1855, almost the only ones who were making any money were the people selling shovels.

Unable to prosper in the gold fields of Northern California, many migrants turned to another potential source of revenue – the terroir of Napa and Sonoma.  Capitalizing on the region’s fertile soil and ideal climate, many traded in their pans for a new life as winemakers.  Some of these famous names included Charles Krug, Jacob & Frederick Beringer and Agoston Haraszthy who advocated tirelessly for the blending of European grapes with native rootstocks.
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#2: San Francisco, wine mecca
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Today, it might seem strange to think of foggy San Francisco as the wine capital of America.  But at the beginning of the twentieth century, with its wealthy wine merchants and close proximity to both rail lines and the Pacific Ocean, “The Paris of the West” controlled the production and distribution of nearly all Golden State wines.  Home to the powerful California Wine Association (CWA), its headquarters stored millions of bottles for shipment across the entire United States.

But in 1906 when a catastrophic 7.8-magnitude earthquake left the city in ruins, the wine industry learned a painful lesson on the dangers of centralization.  With nearly 10,000,000 unsalvageable gallons flowing through the streets of San Francisco, a major restructuring occurred resulting in bottles being stored more closely to the vineyards, creating what we now know as California wine country.
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California wine history
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Having almost ninety thousand acres dedicated to grape growing by 1920, Sacramento lawmakers understood how vital the industry was for the state’s economy.  It was no surprise then that Californians defeated four separate ballot initiatives to enact statewide prohibition prior to the Volstead Act.  With nearly seventy-five million dollars a year at stake and large Irish and Italian populations in San Francisco that were passionate about wine, those favoring temperance were never able to achieve much success in the Golden State – that is until the forces from Washington DC stepped in.
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California wine prohibition history
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Looking at back the many flaws of prohibition, one specific loophole that made millionaires overnight was a provision allowing each household to produce two hundred gallons of fermented fruit juice per year.  Suddenly, thirsty Americans everywhere became amateur winemakers eager to reap in huge profits by selling their surplus around the neighborhood.  All they needed now was a steady supply of grapes.

“Grapes are so valuable this year that they are being stolen,” wrote the St. Helena Star.  A new kind of gold rush had started in California as one acre of vineyard land shot up from $100 to $500 by 1921.  A year before Prohibition, 9,300 carloads of grapes traveled from California to New York.  By 1928, that figure had more than tripled.
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Alicante Bouschet grapes
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Unfortunately for the profiteers, Zinfandel and Chardonnay grapes didn’t travel well in freight cars across the country.  But with prices going through the roof, a new source that could maximize value was desperately needed.  And that source went by the name Alicante Bouschet, a grape that made for inferior wine with one novelist ranking it somewhere below the gooseberry.  However, it had numerous advantages that made it perfect for the lucrative east coast markets.

For starters, unlike other varietals, Alicante grew in abundance. And its thick, durable skin guaranteed that it could withstand the long train ride east.  On top of that, its dark red texture – even after three pressings and numerous dilutions made it look deceptively decent to all the novice winemakers and drinkers sprouting up across the country.

So throughout California, Alicante became the new fool’s gold as growers and traders cashed in on this new miracle grape.  Quantity trumped quality as generations of experienced vintners looked on in disgust as their craft was being tarnished for the almighty dollar.
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California wine history
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Prohibition may have ended in 1933 but the thirteen year absence of experienced winemakers cultivating the land would leave a terrible impact across the state.  And as the Alicante bubble burst, California’s reputation as a promising wine region went up in smoke.  During the postwar period, the state became infamous for producing cheap fortified blends that were the preferred choice of winos looking for nothing more than a quick buzz. 

How bad did it get?  By 1964, the tonnage of Chardonnay grapes in California was so miniscule that the state’s Agricultural Service didn’t even bother tracking it.  That’s because for many years, high-alcohol jug wines were the staple of an industry that had hit rock bottom.
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#7: rebuilding
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In beginning to turn the corner, the University of California at Davis started researching the terroir throughout the state in order to determine the best grapes to plant.  The report, issued in 1944 concluded that Napa Valley, which shared a similar temperature to Bordeaux, was the ideal spot to grow Cabernet Sauvignon while Sonoma should focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Titled “Composition and Quality of Musts and Wines of California Grapes,” this study would lay the groundwork for a wine making renaissance in the Golden State.

Putting this document into action, the early 1960s saw a whole new generation of amateur winemakers arrive with the goal of producing award winning vintages.  And within a decade, all their hard work would pay off as the quality improved dramatically.  The proof came in 1976 when California defeated France at a blind tasting held in Paris, an event that was later the subject in the 2008 motion picture “Bottle Shock.” 

 


With branches in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, Chula Vista, La Jolla & Pasadena, the International Wine & Food Society has a strong presence across California.


Sources:

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2000.
Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2011.
Taber, George. Judgement of Paris: California vs. France and the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized wine. New York: Scribner, 2005.

California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
Online Archive of California.
Florida Memory Project.


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Ask Sid: How is climate change affecting wine and wine growers?

October 29th, 2014

"Wine grapes07". Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wine_grapes07.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Wine_grapes07.jpg
fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

Question: How is climate change affecting wine and wine growers?

Answer: Big important question with not enough space to fully answer here. Certainly there seems to be more weather extremes in wine growing regions than ever before. California used to be almost perfect with their late October picking in Napa in the early years like those successful 1974. Now a shorter hang time usually is necessitated by the higher temperatures. There are similar issues in other hotter regions including Australia, South Africa, South America etc. Alcohol levels usually go up with riper fruit. Even in cooler Piedmont especially in Barbaresco the best sites were generally considered to be south facing (Montestefano, Montefico) in order to ripen the grapes but now many growers feel the south east or even south west sites (Asili, Rabaja, Ovello) are preferred in hotter vintages. Naturally frozen grapes for ice wine is becoming more difficult to depend on every year with global warming. The 2003 European heat wave affected Bordeaux which now is looking for more heat-resistant vine stocks and are reluctant to replant the Merlot variety on gravelly sites when it is so much better on clay when the weather is hot. Burgundy is suffering with reduced crops from inopportune hail storms in recent years. Everywhere elevation of vineyards (Mendoza in Argentina) and acidity are back in vogue (Chablis) as are formerly cooler regions (Okanagan in Canada, Tasmania in Australia & Bio-Bio in Chile). Good article last year in The Guardian on how climate change will threaten wine production areas suggesting global warming will make it difficult to raise grapes in traditional wine country, but will shift production to other regions: See http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/apr/08/climate-change-wine-production


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Retrospective on 6 Special Chefs by The New Yorker

October 27th, 2014

A look at celebrity chefs
By David Shankbone (Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Charles Haynes (Charles Haynes’ flickr account) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By David Sifry (Alice Waters at dinner – 9722.jpg) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Celebrity chefs are in your face almost everywhere these days from cookbooks to reality TV shows. Wonderful to look back to the times when chefs really lived the simpler true culinary life. The New Yorker magazine has produced over the years some excellent pieces on the lives of chefs. They have released a “Double Take” collection on October 11, 2014 of six earlier insightful stories on Julia Child “Good Cooking” (1974), Alice Waters “The Millennial Restaurant” (1998), Anthony Bourdain “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” (1999), Mario Batali “The Secret of Excess” (2002), David Chang “Chef on the Edge” (2008), and Grant Achatz “A Man of Taste” (2008). You can read these and enjoy them here.

Do you have a chef story? Do you have a preferred chef?


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10 Halloween Candy & Wine Pairings

October 24th, 2014

Halloween Candy and Wine
By Joseph Temple

Next Friday is Halloween!  And if you’re handing out candy to all the trick or treaters knocking on your door, you might want to consider putting aside some of your sugary stash for later.  That’s because we’ve concocted ten wine pairings in our labratory to go with your all-time favorite sweets.  Of course, if you have any additions, post your own graveyard smash in the comments section.  Enjoy!
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candy and wine pairing
By Windell H. Oskay from Sunnyvale, California, United States (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Red Licorice and Pinot Noir
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candy and wine pairing
2. Chocolate Wafer Bars and Malbec
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candy and wine pairing
3. Peanut and Caramel with Grenache
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chocolate and wine pairing
4. Coconut Dark Chocolate and Syrah
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candy and wine
5. Caramel Squares and Port
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Chocolate and wine pairing
6. Milk Chocolate and Moscato
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Chocolate wine
7. Peanut Butter Cups and Chardonnay
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champagne and candy
By liz west [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

8. Candy Corn and Sparkling Wine
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skittles and wine
9. Fruity Candies and Riesling
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chocolate raisins and wine
10. Chocolate Covered Raisins and Muscat
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Ask Sid: Pairing craft beer with food

October 22nd, 2014

Craft beer pairing
Uri Tours (uritours.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Question:  What are your thoughts Sid on pairing craft beer with food?

Answer: Just go with the potato chips and beer nuts. Just kidding! Craft beers are a strong market and often the beverage of choice particularly with the younger crowd. Having a beer seems to be a more casual relaxed and less intimidating activity for them than the more formal wine service. Small independent traditional microbreweries continue to explore different experimental brews so there is always a brand new one to try. Craft beers are very diverse from dry to sweet and subtle to assertive – just like wine. Certainly quality craft beers can work very well with different foods – especially where you want to refresh your palate with a gulp. Wine is more suited to sipping and consuming less liquid volume but this is only a generalization. Some craft beers now are nearly the same alcohol as wine and in the same 750 ml size bottle. Be open minded and experiment yourself as to how you enjoy craft beers with food. There is a lot to learn.

Also check out the dinner party fare served with beer at www.brooklynbrewery.com/blog.

I participated with their Brew Master Garrett Oliver in a competition where chefs prepared the same food for both beer and wine pairings. The large audience vote was for beer but many of the dishes were quite hot spicy and BBQ styled. Tomorrow they are matching beer with sustainable seafood including oysters. I already know that I prefer top Chablis with that matching!


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