American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, by Tom Acitelli. Chicago Review Press, 2015

With American Wine, Acitelli seeks to do for wine what his 2013 book, The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, did for the craft beer industry.

 

And for the most part he succeeds.

American Wine is an entertaining and fascinating look at the “popular history” of the rise of fine wine in the United States, which began in earnest in the 1960s and has culminated today with the news that Americans now drink more wine in a year than the second greatest wine consuming country, France. Media has embraced “grape expectations” (as Acitelli puts it) as well, with dozens of wine blogs and websites on the internet, half-a-dozen print magazines, TV shows on the subject, and syndicated wine columns in most major newspapers.

Acitelli begins his history – actually a roughly chronological series of 63 vignettes of the personalities and businesses involved in bringing American fine wine to the status it has obtained today – in 1948, with “French Connections,” in which he introduces us to Julia and Paul Child, who have stopped for lunch in a restaurant in the town of Rouen, France.

In 1948, Julia Child was a 36-year-old housewife, accompanying her Foreign Service husband, Paul, to his newest assignment in Rouen, France. They would live in France for five years, and Julia would become a devotee of French cuisine – and French wine.

Acitelli continues setting the stage with the story of Émile Peynaud, a Frenchman who spent his years after World War II as a consultant for several French wineries. Peynaud is a legend in wine-making circles, not only in France but also in the United States.

Peynaud’s efforts to improve wine-making ran in tandem with his approach to enjoying wine. […] Peynaud, ever the Frenchman, saw wine as a natural accoutrement to food, to living itself; he rejected the notion that a fine wine could only be appreciated after cellaring for years. He wholeheartedly ascribed to the notion that wines could be enjoyed sooner after bottling, providing they were made and bottled correctly. This belief in the viability of younger fine wines made them all the more appealing to consumers not intent on shelling out money only to wait years to enjoy the product.

After these preludes, Acitelli starts the history in earnest. It’s in 1962 that the Chicago Tribune starts publishing the first weekly column about wine in a major American newspaper – and they wouldn’t do that unless they felt there was an audience for the topic.

It had taken several decades for that audience to develop.  American wineries were not destroyed during Prohibition – they simply produced grape juice instead and to that end abandoned high-end grapes in favor of lesser varieties. It would take decades before many wineries would move back to planting those grapes that would produce a higher quality of wine, since Americans who wished excellent wine would purchase bottles imported from France rather than the despised American varieties.

Acitelli describes his book as “a popular history of American fine wine that draws a clear line from the late 1960s through today, connecting the dots [or should that be corks?!] – the people, the places, the events, the trends, and the simple twists of fate.”

He tells the stories of the entrepreneurs who founded the wineries in California’s Napa Valley and elsewhere, the critics who work to popularize and educate the public on wines in general, and the wine enthusiasts who made their hard work a success.

...stories of the entrepreneurs who founded the wineries in California’s Napa Valley and… Click To Tweet

Acitelli gives his vignettes titles, years, and locations – for example “Pink Chablis vs Premier Cru, 1965|Modesto, California,” “On Route 66, 1964-1966|Chicago,” “Still Only for Cooking, 1964-1974|Paris-Gainesville, Florida-New York City,” “The Tear of the Wine Writer, 1972|San Francisco-New York-Paris,” “A Monumental Vintage, 1983|Parkton, Maryland,” and “I Am Not Drinking any Fucking Merlot, 2000-2009|Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

Actelli is an excellent writer and brings all of the personalities in this history to life, but as you can see from the sometimes overlapping years given in his vignette titles, the narrative sometimes chops and changes as we finish with 1966 in one chapter, and then are brought all the way back to 1965 in another chapter.

However, all is usually explained – if Acitelli mentions someone or a seminal wine event in one chapter that you’ve never heard of, he will eventually identify that person or event in another chapter. Many personalities appear over the course of several chapters – such as “one particular individual from suburban Baltimore,” as Acitelli refers to wine critic Robert Parker in his introduction.  It will take a few chapters before he identifies this individual and his influence (or lack of it) over the rise of American fine wine in the United States.

Overall, an entertaining read, and a fascinating look into the world of wine.

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