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Wine growing in the United States of America has succeeded brilliantly after long years of frustration, and now it is beginning to spread to nearly every state in the union. The endeavor to make the New World produce wine like they had known and loved in Europe was begun by the earliest settlers and persisted for generations, only to end in defeat over and over again. In the beginning only the native grape varieties could succeed against the endemic diseases and severe climate of North America. Later with the settlement of California, the European grape flourished, and the state quickly became an abundant resource for wines resembling the familiar European types. During this time, new hybrid grapes and the increased knowledge of winemaking helped to produce a wonderful collection of wines in the diverse conditions of the country outside of California. By the beginning of the twentieth century growing grapes and making wine across the United States was a established and vital economic activity.
In February 2005, a Wall Street Journal writer living in France wrote:
The United States of America is arguably the best place to grow grapes in the world. Two fundamental economic reasons lead to this possibility. First, the U.S. enjoys world-famous growing areas that challenge France and Italy in wine quantity and quality. Napa and Sonoma Valleys are also key tourist attractions, providing a steady supply of consumers. Second, wine prices in the U.S. are rising as the wine businesses engage in intense competition, especially in Napa and Sonoma Counties in California, forcing continuous improvement in product quality.
The U.S. wine market has many merchants, regions, styles and varietals. It is difficult for a competing wine from outside the U.S. to compete on a varietal basis alone. Many wine regions in the U.S. produce wines of extreme quality, even within the higher-end regions of Northern California. Where the French and Italian producers aim for quality over quantity, U.S. wine sales and production seem to concentrate on bulk sales.
The majority of the great American wines are varietals (those wines made entirely or mostly from a single grape variety), and a growing number of wines made from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir are challenging their European brands with fine quality. Ratings for the very best Cabernets match those for the best Bordeaux. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are not as competitive as the very best Burgundies, but compare well in price. One of the newest and hottest categories is Zinfandel, which in the 1990s came into its own as a profoundly unique red wine. There is no European equivalent for Zinfandel. And as the quality goes up, alas, so does the price.
California is host to almost half this country's wineries. Situated in coastal valleys and foothills, nearly eight hundred wineries, producing nearly a half billion gallons of wine each year, await the wine country tourist with varied and scenic geography, and wines recognized worldwide. There are now more than 3,500 wineries in the U.S.
The quality factor has led to extraordinary innovations in American winemaking and in American wine styles. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay -- originally called Pinot Chardonnay -- took their places at head of the list of America's best wines. The distinguished chateaux of Bordeaux was an incentive to the Cabernet makers; the famous white wines of Burgundy inspired the creators of the best American Chardonnays. Merlot, long the most important grape of Bordeaux's Right Bank -- St. Emilion and Pomerol -- became an vital variety for American winemakers in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The temperamental grape, Pinot Noir, that formulates the outstanding wines of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, had eluded the skills of American winemakers. A few California wineries had made Burgundy-style Pinot Noir as early as the 1960s but Oregon's wine community was the first to successfully cultivate the grape in the early 1970s. A few California wine makers had some success in the 1980s, and from the beginning of the 1990s good-quality and occasionally superb Pinot Noir originated from American vineyards.
In the meantime even more difficult projects were challenging some new but daring wine makers. An entirely new wine region was created in the 1970s and 1980s on Long Island, in New York. Where once potatoes were the principal crop, hundreds of acres of premium wine grapes now grow, and the wines made from them are extraordinarily good. Since its climate is similar to Bordeaux's, Long Island wines tend to resemble Bordeaux wines even more than those from California.
In California, experienced wine makers have acknowledged the fact that their local climate is much more similar to that of Avignon than St. Emilion and have begun to produce wines in the style of the Rhone Valley. Grapes that were dismissed as coarse by California winemakers only a decade or so ago - Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, for example - are the wine country's new stars. In California, 17 percent of the total crush is chardonnay, more than cabernet and merlot combined.
Nor has the experimentation stopped there. Other innovators are working with Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo, Trebbiano and Sangiovese. The plantings were relatively new in the early 1990s and the first wines tentative, but no one close to the wine industry doubts that in a few years, these wines will be significant additions to the American wine scene.
A boost to wine sales in America came from the May 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that discriminatory bans on interstate, direct-to-consumer wine shipments in Michigan and New York are unconstitutional. This ruling will help wineries satisfy growing consumer demand for their wines, rather than being restricted by unfair state laws that keep them out of important wine markets. Many small wineries can only survive economically if they are able to ship directly to consumers.
The barriers to ordering wine online or by mail continue to crumble as the U.S. federal courts recently handed down a similar ruling in Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and New York.
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