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The American Wine Culture, Fact or Fiction

Posted on | April 15, 2011 | Written by Evan LaNouette | 3 Comments

During my recent blog surfing, I’ve come across two contrasting articles that discuss a controversial subject – the presence, or dearth, of a uniquely American wine culture. Mary Orlin of The Huffington Post, argues for the presence of such in her piece “Birth of a Wine Culture in America.” She begins her work by heralding an accomplishment of American enolophilia (love of wine) and cites that in 2010 Americans drank more wine as a country per volume than the French, a measure that Ms. Orlin suggests is evidence of our flourishing wine culture. From this present accomplishment, she pulls back to its roots, marking the birth of this subculture between 1966 with the opening of Robert Mondavi’s Winery, and 1977 when the lowly Chateau Montelena and Stags Leap out-tasted the crème de la crème of French vignerons in what has been coined “The Judgment of Paris.” However often Ms. Orlin cites facts, I don’t believe her article is intended to be objective; it is clear the basis of her article is to promote the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit “How Wine Became Modern,” which likewise argues for an American wine paradigm by highlighting evidence and concepts central to an evolving American wine culture.

On the other side of the fence, the blog site Wine – The View From Orlando on April 4th posted “The Myth of an American Wine Culture,” and the writer clearly takes an opposing view to Ms. Orlin’s piece and the SFMOMA’s efforts. This work’s dissent focuses on a academic definition of culture as “the full range of learned behavior patterns” that are specifically “intergenerational” in their being learned. Essentially, the argument reads, we haven’t had enough time for intergenerational norms to take root across cultural social boundaries, which are necessary for us to consider ourselves culturally wine focused. The writer argues, “While wine drinking is no longer reserved for society’s upper crust, there are still large geographic and socio-cultural swaths of the country that remain oblivious to the pleasures of wine drinking.” Of these claims, the only point I can agree with is sense that, yes, America is newly coming to terms with its wine culture.

I agree: there are parts of the US that find a can of beer more exciting than a bottle of wine they haven’t seen before. However, there are plenty of European countries that don’t possess the producer-based wine culture of France, Italy, and Spain, yet they undeniably possess their own wine culture and perspectives. In particular, I feel the US, although juvenile, falls in line with the likes of Switzerland and Germany who produce world-class wine, but do not fully self identify as a country whose wine culture rests on the idea of a producer, nor do they hold central to their wine culture the relationships between wine, people and food. Germany and the US share a perspective, to an even greater extent, in that many people prefer beer alone as a favorite libation, while others drink solely wine or a mix of beverages.

Nevertheless, the above could easily be simply a generalization. There are many elements that help define America’s wine cultural, some of which Ms. Orlin touches on in her work. For example, I believe the US is responsible for bringing the celebrity of wine into the modern industry. Robert Parker, as a critic, and Robert Mondavi, as a figurehead, are both by products of the value Americans place on celebrity that has naturally suffused our wine culture. Furthermore, SFMOMA in their exhibit showcase clips from 60 Minutes’ segment on the health benefits associated with drinking wine. This is an aspect I feel Mrs. Orlin overlooks, and it should’ve been put on the same level as “The Judgment of Paris” and Robert Mondavi as a foundations of the modern American perspective. We like to think of wine as “healthy.”

Yet, on the whole, I believe when you look at the US, region to region, you get an understanding of the myriad nature of our wine culture. I see the US being so stratified from West to East Coast that you have to focus on cultural norms in each individual region to get a sense of America’s wine culture as a whole. In regions close to wine production, you see the necessary intergenerational relationships that supports an academic definition of culture, while in those more removed from wine production, that awareness lessens. However, there is a genuine ever-present curiosity that is indicative of our evolving perspective on wine. Whether we have the right opinion today is unimportant, for we are seeking out better explanations and dogmas that speak to the truth behind wine. Those in the US who are shaping our cultural direction are realizing that the path to great wine is through a focus on wines indicative of their vineyard. Terroir is the necessary element in yielding a healthy wine, and one that we Americans take to heart regardless of where we live. A great quote I feel sums up America’s evolving direction comes from The Wall Street Journal’s “The Most Powerful Grower in Napa” by Lettie Teague, who quotes winemaker Andy Beckstoffer. He says, “The time of legendary men may be over. The vineyards are the next Robert Mondavi. The vineyards are what matters.”

If that’s the case–and I believe it might be–then US wine culture may be in for some very interesting changes.


3 Responses to “The American Wine Culture, Fact or Fiction”

  1. David Bertot
    April 15th, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    @Evan, nicely written article, sir.

  2. wineORL
    June 13th, 2011 @ 5:35 am

    Please note that in my article I was not writing about a “uniquely American wine culture. I had not made such a fine disyinction. My argument was that America did not have a wine culture, the implication being that there was a broad definition of wine culture and that we did not exhibit the characteristics that bound. Very well done article.

  3. Evan LaNouette
    June 13th, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    Hi wineORL,

    Thanks for taking a look at my follow up. I’m happy to hear you give it praise. I find this discussion most interesting. Most importantly because it allows us to size ourselves up, and know how we as a society are different then the rest of the western world and in China in how we look at wine and agriculture. The end goal I guess is to see if different countries develop congruent paths toward wine appreciation, or is each country takes a unique path to placing wine in their lives?

    Feel free to let me know what you think, and as ways check out or site for daily updates and stories from our Team in NYC, Hong Kong, and Aspen. Cheers. – Evan

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