Sunday, March 25, 2007

Kiss French, Drink American

Kiss French, Drink American

By JP Saleeby, MD

A few years ago an aesthetician I once worked with presented me with a T-shirt that read “Kiss French, Drink American.” It remains one of my favorite shirts to wear in public, as I am expressing my worldview on wine. While not making reference to any right-wing mantra of a few years ago by those disillusioned by France’s participation in the war on terror, it is rather a bit of American schadenfreude in the events of a day in 1976. That year was the start of a revolution. The American wine industry would come out as victors over the often-perceived patronizing French, stepping onto the podium and donning international respect.

The affair was a blind tasting of California and French wines held in France on June 7th, 1976. A day that will live in infamy for the French wine industry. A very well known British wine merchant by the name of Steven Spurrier organized a tasting amongst some highly regarded French wine judges. The caveat here was that unlike tastings in the past where labels were displayed, thus immediately biasing judges, the labels were hidden (what is called a blind tasting). The results? Well to everyone’s surprise the American wines trumped their French counterparts. Of course when news of this reached the shores across the pond, it was a boom for American wines, specifically Californian. Even the father of Napa Valley wine, Robert Mondavi was quotes as saying, “The Paris tasting was an enormous event in the history of California wine making. It put us squarely on the world map of great wine-producing regions. I saw the impact everywhere I went. Suddenly people had a new respect for what we were doing. They saw we could make wines as good as the best in France.”

The news reverberated violently in France. There were stories of vineyard owners and winemakers chastising and berating the judges. There were stories in the French press about a conspiracy. But the fact of the matter is that at the time a $7.20 bottle of Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon trumped the $25.00 Muton-Rothschild and the $23.00 Haut-Brion.

This tasting was yet another bitter reminder to the French that in fact their highly touted industry was once again at the mercy of the Americans. For in truth wine would not be in existence in Europe today had they not recovered (with the help of the Americans) from the great wine blight of the 19th century.

JP takes a picture of Sharon (his wife) in front of Opus One Winery in Napa Valley

In the late 1850’s as Europe imported vines from America a little known aphid known as the grape phylloxera hitchhiked along and once on French soil essentially devastated the many famous vineyards of France. Over a fifteen-year period the aphid (which affects are minimal on native American vines) would cause the sudden death of European rootstock. Some 40% of French grape wines were killed in this period. The Americans brought the great French wine blight to an end. As the French would have to concede (almost a century later as Americans soldiers landed on their shores to save their derriere from the Nazis) American entomologists and viticulturists came to the rescue.

American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley (1843-1895) announced in 1870 that the aphid D. vitifoliae was responsible for the European root form and the American leaf form of the blight. French winegrower Leo Laliman discovered that French vinifera vines would resist the grape phylloxera if grafted to American plants (rootstock).

The term “reconstitution” was what the French used to describe grafting vinifera shoots to pylloxera-resistant American rootstock. Of course this cure was not too palatable for the French. There were two camps in France: those who wanted to treat with insecticides such as carbon bisulphide and potassium sulphcarbonate called the “chemists” and those that pushed for grafting called the “Americanists.” This latter group was also referred to as the “wood merchants”, and they pretty much won the day.

A Texan by the name Thomas Volney Munson (1843-1913) was instrumental in supplying American rootstock to the French and Europeans. Reconstitution was eventually widely accepted by France and other European countries as well. All over the world with few exceptions vines are now planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.

With the French, when wine is concerned, passions run high as do egos and nationalism. For years the French wine industry dominated as the best of the best. Along came the lowly colonialists in the mid-70’s from across the pond and with surprising quality wines that continue today. As California wines prices soared in the last two decades, wine drinkers are looking for the baton to be passed to yet another wine producing region such as new world southern hemisphere wine regions of South America, South Africa or Australia.

JP Saleeby, MD is medical director of the ED at Marlboro Park Hospital, Bennettsville, SC. He writes medical and wellness articles for numerous regional and national magazines and sits on the advisory board of AFAA. He was a co-founder of the Savannah Wine Club in the mid-90’s.

© 2007

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