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USA Wines

Although several claims exist as to who planted the first vines in the US, it appears that French Huguenot settlers in Florida, using a local grape variety, made the first wines in the US in 1562.  However, it turned out that the wines made from these grape varieties were not appreciated.  Their flavors and high acidity did not appeal to wine drinkers, most of whom were accustomed to wines made from European (Vitis vinifera) varieties.

As a result, Vitis vinifera varieties were imported from Europe, only to have the plantings end in failure as the grapes succumbed to local vine diseases and pests.  To counter the situation hybrid varieties were developed.  The Alexander variety (a natural crossing) discovered in 1740 is the oldest of them and is still grown today.

Yet, ever so slowly planting vines and producing wines took on.  Missionaries established the first winery in California in 1769.  The first commercial winery and vineyard was established in 1799 in Kentucky.  Wine became more popular in the 19th century.  But commercial wine production was discontinued when the Prohibition was instituted in 1919.  Wines were permited to be used only for sacramental purposes.  It is said that during the years between 1919 and 1933 (at which time the Prohibition ended) the consumptiion of sacramental wines had increased by 100%.  The grape growing industry was saved; to some extent, by the Volstead Act.  It permitted to produce fermented fruit juices at home.  As a result lots of grapes were shipped during the period to make them into home wines.  Another way to circumvent the regulation was the use of a grape jelly called "Vine-go," which, after adding water fermented into wine.  However, the Prohibition damanged the, by then, well-established wine industry considerably.  Most estates and wineries were forced to close.  The quality of wines too suffered as most "home made" and "sacramental" wines were poorly made.

After the repeal of the Prohibition Act it took some time for the wine industry to get going again.  The wines which were produced were initially cheap and sweet.  This changed when Californian wines gained International recognition in the 1960s and 1970s by producing high quality wines made from European grape varieties (Vitis vinifera).  Since then the knowledge and techniques of growing and producing wines in the United States has increased tremendously.  In fact, the US has become one of the leading wine producers in the world not only by quanitty but also for the quality of its wines.  While Europe wine makers are bound by many regulations ensuring that established qualities and tradition are kept, wine makers in the US operate with very few restrictions.  They can experiment (among others) with the most advanced producing techniques, irrigate the vines and quickly graft on new grape varieties to change and adap their business to changing market conditions, if so desired.  It is almost impossible not to find a suitable wine in the US.

Today wines are produced in all 50 US states though only four of them account for 97% of all wines produced, namely California (about 89%), Washington (about 3,5%), New York (about 3,3%) and Oregon (with just about 1%).


California - Oregon - Washington

California back to list

California is by far the largest vine-growing region in the US accounting for almost 90% of the total US production.  More than 1,200 estates and wineries produce wines, some of them small boutique operations while others are huge, industrial corporations.  California alone would be the world's fourth biggest producer of wines.

In 1769 Missionaries established the first winery there planting the so-called "Mission" grape variety, in fact none other than the "common black grape" which Hernan Cortes introduced to the "New World" in 1520.  The grape is an all purpose variety which adapts easily to varying climatic and soil conditions.  It is linked to the pink Criolla variety in Argentina and the red Pais variety in Chile.  It is a vigorous plant producing high yields but the wines made from it lack character.  It has finally fallen out of favor, yet it remained the main Californian variety for a very long time.  Only about 400 hectares are still planted with it in California.  "Modern" European grape varieties have replaced it.  The Phylloxera pest, which had devastated the European wine industry in the late 19th Century, eventually also ravaged California.  But the remedy of grafting European vines to American roots had already been established and benefited the local wine industry which, as a result, recovered rather quickly.  The Prohibition on the contrary almost resulted in the end of the California wine industry.  Only about 120 wineries (out of over 800) still existed when the law was repealed in 1933.  It took many years to recover.  The wines which were produced after 1933 were mostly sweet "port-wine style"wines.  The turning point for the wine industry came in the years 1961-1968.  Joseph (Joe) Heitz (later Heitz Cellar), who bought his first estate in 1961, was the initiator of these "New" European-style quality wines.  He was later followed by Robert Mondavi and others.

California is a large state encompassing 410,000km².  Vines are grown on about 200,000 hectares.  As can be expected in such a large region geologically and climatically, California is very diverse.  Soil conditions can vary between loan, sand, granite, clay, volcanic ash, gravel and seabed soil even within the same vineyard.  While most of California is classified as having a "Mediterranean climate" (warm to hot, dry summers and mild to cool, wet winters) other areas are considered to be under the influence of a "Continental climate" (warm to hot summers, cold to very cold winters, moderate rainfalls during the year).  Many of the better vines are grown along the long coastline of about 1,300km which brings cool air and often fog inland and into nearby valleys during the night and morning hours.  Bad weather rarely interrupts the sunshine.  The combination of hot days, cool nights with little rainfall during the growing season and refreshing winds from the sea ensures that the grapes can ripen fully and steadily.  When they are mature they are full of flavors and sugar all the while retaining a good dose of acidity enabling the wines to age well.

Given the soil and climate variations Californian wines offer, not surprisingly, a large variety of styles and also because of the diverse origins of the many estate owners whose ancestors immigrated to the US and often settled in California.  More than 100 grape varieties are grown here.  The most important ones are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.  Second in line are Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Mourvedre, Malbec, Petit Siray, Carignane, Sangiovese and Barbera for red wnes and Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Roussane, Pinot Blanc, Pinto Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Marsanne for white wines.  Upper level estates increasingly turn to craft European style wines based on the idea of individual "terroir."  Yet, the majority of wine makers still favor a traditional "New World" varietal wine style producing well structured, lush, rich and fruit forward wines.  The weather conditions are perfect to regularly produce this style of wines.  Generally the alcohol content of Californian wines ranges from 13,5-14,5%, some wines even exceed 15% but this should not be taken as an indication of higher quality.

California has four main wine regions which are compromised of 107 "American Viticultural Areas" (AVA):

  1. The North Coast:  The region starts north of San Francisco and extends until the state of Oregon.  The area has the largest number (47) of AVA.  Many of California's most famous vine growing districts are located in this region such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Los Carneros, Rutherforth, Saint Helena and others.
  2. The Central Coast:  The region starts south of San Francisco and extends until the Santa Barbara County.  With 32 AVA, it is California's second largest quality wine region.  The following AVA are well known for the quality of their wines: Monterey, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, San Antonio Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills area.
  3. The South Coast:  The region starts south of Los Angeles and extends until the border with Mexico.  It is a small area made up of 10 AVA.  About 50 wineries and estates operate in the area.  In recent years more Rhone Valley, Spanish and Italian grape varieties have been planted in line with changing market demands, all the while fitting the local climatic conditons.
  4. The Central Valley:  The valley stretches for over 700km from northeast to southwest.  It is a fertile flat and broad valley and California's most productive agricultural area.  Seventy-five percent of all Californian wines are produced here.  Most of them are volume (jug) wines, produced by and for the big industrial wineries.  Seventeen AVA are part of the region to which 7 AVA making up the Sierra Foothills are often added.  The best known areas are the Lodi AVA (in Central Valley) and the Sierra Foothills AVA.

Oregon back to list

The state of Oregon is the fourth largest producer of wines in the US, even though it produces less than 1% of all US wines.  Wines have been produced in the state since 1840, but the history of Oregon as a commercial wine producer is very recent, it only started in 1960.  About 30 varieties are grown but three-fourths of the wines made derive from two varieties only; 60% are Pinot Noir and 15% are Pinot Gris.  Chardonnay is a distant third accounting for only 2%.  Close to 8,000 hectares are planted with vines and there are somewhat less than 500 wineries and estates in the state.  Most of them are small and family owned producing, on the average, about 3,000 cases a year.  Almost all of them grow their own vines, purchasing grapes on the market (like in California) is not common.

Oregon has three major vine growing regions, twelve AVA (American Viticultural Areas) within the state boundaries and four AVA which overlap with adjacent states (three with Washington and one with Idaho).  The three regions are:

  1. The Willamette Valley:  the Willamette Valley is Oregon's largest wine region.  It stretches from the Columbia River (Portland City) in the north to the area of Eugene City in the south.  About 250 estates and wineries are located in the valley.  The climate is rather mild during most of the year.  Winters are cool (rarely cold) and wet while summers are mostly dry and warm (rarely hot).  The region is reputed to produce excellent Pinot-Noir and Gris, though small quantities of other varieties are also grown.
  2. South Oregon:  South Oregon is in fact made up of two quite distinct areas, the Umpqua and the Rogue Valley.  In the Umpqua Valey, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Gris are the main varieties grown.  The climate is warmer and drier than in the Willamette Valley to the north.  The Rogue Valley is a small area.  Vines are grown on about 550 hectares, mainly on the hills around the river areas rather than on the valley floor.  The highest elevation is about 600 meters.  Mostly Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown in the area.
  3. The Columbia Valley:  The area includes four AVA.  The Columbia Gorge AVA, the Columbia Valley AVA and the Walla Walla valley AVA which overlap the border with Washington State.  The Snake River Valley AVA straddles the border with Idaho.  All AVA are small.  Together they make up less than 800 hectares.  Given the differences in climate and soil conditions a large number of grape varieties are grown.

Washington back to list

The first wines in Washington State were produced by German and Italian immigrants in the 1860s to 1870s.  The Prohibition almost wiped ou the nascent industry.  After the repeal of the law the wines made were, like in California, mostly fortified and sweet.  Millions of liters of jug wines were produced.  This situation lasted until the middle of the 20th century when the first efforts were made to produce higher quality wnes.  Like in California the years from 1960 to 1970 were the turning point, growing quality grape varieties expanded rapidly as many more estates and wineries were established in the state.  In 1989, the quality of the state's wines was recognized when five wines made it into the list of the top 100 wines of the Wine Spectator magazine.  Today more than 750 estates and wineries operate in the state and grow vines on about 18,000 hectares.  It is now the second largest wine producing state in the US, after California.  Its wines are exported to over 40 countries.

Almost all growing areas are located in the eastern half of the state, the Columbia River Basin.  The Cascade Mountain range stops the rain from crossing over and creates a rather dry climate on the other eastern side.  Sunshine hours during the summer are said to be longer than in California.  Irrigation from the rivers is thus primordial for the wine industry.  The rivers also contribute to moderate winter temperatures which can be very severe.  The soil is composed of a mixture of gravel, sand, loan, loess and volcanic dust resulting in excellent trop soils and which permit good drainage.  Considerable daytime and nighttime temperature variations further help the grapes to ripen fully and retain a good dose of acidity.  The dry conditions also contribute to make the area rather disease free.

Washington has 9 AVA (American Viticultural Areas) within its boundaries and shares three with the neighboring state of Oregon.  However, in fact there are two distinct regions, the eastern half and the Puget Sound AVA which is the only area in the western (rainier) part of the state.  Wineries in the western part often grow vines in the eastern part (or buy grapes from there) but produce the wines in the west.  That means the grapes have to be trucked a long distance over the Cascade Mountains.

  1. The Columbia Valley:  The Columbia Valley is practically the only vine growing area in the state, producing more than 99% of all wines.  The Columbia Valley though includes several other AVA.  Most vines are planted along the rivers at heights varying between 300 to 600 meters.  The AVA included in the Columbia Valley area are:  the Horse Heaven Hill, the Wahlupe Slope, the Lake Chelan, the Yakima Valley, the Red Mountain, the Rattlesnake Hills, the Snipes Mountain, Naches Height and three AVA which straddle the border with Oregon namely Walla Walla Valley, Columbia Gorge and Snake River Valley.
  2. The Puget Sound:  this is the only AVA located on the western side of the state.  The AVA produces just 1% of the state's wines but covers a very large area.  Rainfall (mainly in the winter) is considerably higher than on the eastern side and similar to European areas and to the Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon.  The climate is dry and sunny in the summer and cool in the winter.  Cool climate varieties grow well in the area.  Many of the 12 wineries operating in the area get their grapes from the eastern side of the state.
While over 80 varieties are grown in the state, many of them are there to be tried out and do not (yet) produce wines commercially.  Among the red wine varieties Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah account for most of the wines.  Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewuerztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc are the four most important white wine varieties.  Quality wines produced in Washington State have acquired a reputation for combining the structure of "Old World" wines with the fruit forward character of "New World" wines.

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231-0862 Yokohama,Naka-Ku,
Yamate-cho 155-7, Japan

Tel : 045-232-4499
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