The longevity of Californian wines – survivors of fires, earthquakes and the Prohibition

Yet Zinfandel is still misunderstood.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

New York may be the city that never sleeps but it’s the state on the other side of the continent that never stops moving. People have flowed into California for centuries, looking for food, or gold, or a place to plant homes, dreams or vines. Fog flows in too, exhaling cool air across the valleys so that grapes can ripen without becoming raisins – although California also produces plenty of those. Even the land moves, hunching upward and eastward a few millimetres each year, tectonic plates preparing themselves for an almighty correction.

The wines shift too, out into the world – although the vast majority, particularly the fine wines, don’t make it very far. There are an awful lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be thirsty.

I, meanwhile, slide away from world-famous Napa Valley, with its high alcohol and higher prices, and wander through the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, a little farther northwest. Here, that sea-laden fog curls through the Petaluma Gap to cool the grapes at night, allowing for a long growing season that makes for elegant Chardonnays and fruity, persistent Pinots from wineries such as Benovia Estate, Williams Selyem and Joseph Swan. Then there is Zinfandel, the red grape that was once unjustly unloved for being native (actually, it comes from Croatia), and is still viewed askance thanks to its fame as white Zinfandel, in sweet “blush” wines that became so incomprehensibly popular in the 1970s.

Treated well, Zin makes spicy, rich reds, and the vines can have incredible longevity. Joseph Swan has Zin vines from the 1880s, planted by Italians who were employed logging trees for railroad sleepers: a wonderful blend of restlessness and permanence that still produces superb wine.

It’s a paradox how few fine Californian wines travel across the Atlantic, given that the early vines came from Europe, brought by Spanish Jesuit and Franciscan monks, or later by Italian workers.

In the 19th century, Californian winemakers traded vines with post-Napoleonic France, a place where gourmandise and godlessness were both on the rise. Did the monks see it as divine judgement when sturdy American vines, unaffected by the phylloxera louse, infected European counterparts that turned out to be horribly susceptible? Salvation lay in grafting European vines on to American rootstock – but only after the ebb and flow of vines had brought diseased European shoots to infect Californian vineyards too.

California’s wine industry survived that disaster; it even survived Prohibition, although only by pulling up most of those faithful old Missionary vines and planting thick-skinned table grapes that could stand the trek to New York.

This destruction of vines, some of them pre-phylloxera, was a tragedy akin to burning libraries. Yet the Golden State forges on, withstanding earthquakes, vine-killing insects, insane government-sponsored alcohol bans and an insane government: Trump, famously, hates the place.

There is a lot to be said for continual change. F Scott Fitzgerald thought there were no second acts in American lives, but as a novelist who worked in Hollywood, he should have known that isn’t true. American lives are nothing but second acts, and that constant reinvention is something to which, in hard times, we can all raise a glass, one preferably filled with good Zin. 

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum