Home > History of Wine > A History of the California Barrel Tastings: Part 2 “Anyone Who Can Squeeze a Grape Is Competing”

A History of the California Barrel Tastings: Part 2 “Anyone Who Can Squeeze a Grape Is Competing”


This is the second in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting.

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The Wine Boom and Winegate

The wine boom began in 1969 when the annual increase in wine sales tripled to 10%. This followed the increase in an aging baby-boom population and a shift in consumer preference away from sweet wines. Sales continued to increase by at least 10% year after year. This put a strain on supply which, with the small 1972 Californian vintage, caused wine inventories to reduce.

Vineyard acreage in California increased dramatically to meet demand.  It also increased due to such reports as one from the Bank of America claiming the boom would last until 1978 and that wine consumption would double from 1973 to 1980. The 1970 Bank of America report stated that Americans would consume some 400 million gallons of wine by 1980.  The 1973 report stated it would be achieved six years earlier in 1974.

Beginning in 1969 the annual increase in acres of new vines planted nearly doubled as it went from 8,400 acres to 50,000 acres in 1973. The vast majority of the new vines were intended for wine production and not table grapes. It takes time for new vines to become productive so despite the new plantings grape prices were escalating as well. From 1968 to 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon grapes went from $305 to $702 per ton with Zinfandel outpacing it from $92 to $420 per ton. In 1971 alone, Californian wine prices increased by an abnormally high 10%.

Despite the massive increases in Californian vineyard planting it was estimated that the share of foreign wines sold in the American market would rise from 15% in 1973 to 20% by 1978. This meant that California’s share of the market was decreasing. The east coast markets were traditionally focused on Bordeaux and Burgundy but the boom in wine prices threatened this increase. The first sign of the increase in French wine prices occurred in 1972 when the smaller and not quite as good 1971 Bordeaux vintage opened at twice the prices of the 1970 vintage. A year later the poor 1972 vintage was released at three to four times the price of the 1970 vintage.

One reason for the price rise is due to the international currency market. However, these price increases far exceeded the effects of the revaluation of international currencies when the fixed Bretton Woods system was replaced by a free-floating system. This caused most European wines to increase in price some 10% to 20%.

By 1972, non-traditional countries were attempting to gain access to the booming American wine market. Threatened by the Argentines, Bulgarians, Greeks, Moroccans, and Yugoslavs the French “mounted a massive campaign” of “Country Wines of France”. These really were massive efforts. The Margnat Group was France’s largest producer of wine at 2 million bottles per day. It hoped to be the table wine of choice for one million Americans. The Bordeaux importer Cruse & Fils created a line of affordable, varietal labeled wines directly aimed at competing with Californian offerings.

The Cruse & Fils firm was soon in trouble. It attempted to take advantage of the tripling of prices by shipping some two million bottles of cheap wine labeled as high-end Bordeaux. Known as “Winegate” several men were found guilty in 1974 and fined $12 million dollars. Even Steven Spurrier, who received periodic coverage by Frank J. Prial in The New York Times, commented that he sent back 4,000 – 5,000 bottles of Bordeaux wine because it had been switched from what he ordered.

American buyers largely refrained from buying the 1971 and 1972 Bordeaux vintages. The 1973 vintage was better and larger than 1972 causing Bordeaux prices to fall in 1974. The shippers were now in trouble because their stocks of earlier vintages had run out so they purchased the 1972 vintage at any cost in anticipation of demand.

The wine boom started to fade in early 1975 as supply finally caught up with demand. The French wine industry responded to both inflated prices and Winegate by creating a Food and Wines of France organization. It promoted “French Wine Values” for appellation wines in the $2.50 to $5.00 bottle range. It was the second time in just three years that the French wine industry massively promoted their wines in America.

Nathan Chroman of The Los Angeles Times was pessimistic about the public relations method for creating wine drinkers. Instead of brand promotion he advocated encouraging people to taste wine, read books, and try good bottles. He felt the wine industry needed to go back to their “tasting rooms”.

By the Spring of 1975, the 1970 Bordeaux prices were lower than when they were first released. The shipping firm Austin Nichols had to dump the 1972 vintage at great loss. They had paid three times the amount compared to the 1970 vintage and accumulated several million dollars worth of inventory. There were management changes as a result.

Several writers recommended passing on the 1972s and only buying the 1971s at reduced price. For many merchants, they could not buy the 1973 and 1974 vintages until they freed up capital by selling through their inventory of 1972.

It was estimated that inventory in France reached 1 billion bottles mostly from Bordeaux. From this stagnant inventory of wine, another scandal soon surfaced. Merchants were re-labeling quality Bordeaux as common table wine to export to West Germany to qualify for a 10% export subsidy. The wines were then relabeled as quality Bordeaux before being shipped around the world.

Monterey

Back in California, south of San Francisco, the Monterey wine region received wide coverage in the press. It appears to have exemplified the wine boom. There were just over 2,000 acres of vines in 1970 but there was soon a staggering 37,000 acres in 1975. First Paul Masson Vineyards and Mirassou Vineyards planted vines. They were soon joined by Wente. Then the Monterey Vineyard Company moved in with a significant presence involving some 10,000 acres of vines. The nearly 40,000 acres of vines meant that Monterey was larger than Napa and Sonoma combined.

Gerald Asher left the Austin Nichols importing firm in 1974, before the management shake-up, to become the president of the distribution arm of the Monterey Vineyard Company. This new company had, according to Frank J. Prial “pots full of money, huge acreage” and “almost overpowering publicity”. Dr. Richard Peterson, who was Andre Tchelistcheff’s successor at Beaulieu Vineyard, was the president and winemaker. The first 1,000 acres of vines were planted in 1971 and yielded fruit for the first batch of wines in 1974.

Promotion of the new wine occurred right away throughout the country. Gerald Asher attended a Monterey Vineyard Festival at the Four Seasons in New York City during April 1975. For this festival guests paid to taste all four wines with a dinner made from ingredients flown in from the west coast. Gerald Asher debuted the wines in Chicago later that fall.

Monterey was described as “on the verge of an explosion that will loose an ocean of wine onto the national market”. Monterey Vineyard was soon to be part of that ocean. Gerald Asher was in charge of selling the Monterey Vineyard wine through the marketing arm Monterey Bay Company. In 1975 he had some 35,000 cases of wine to sell. That number was set to increase by 100,000 cases per year until it reached 500,000 in 1980. This was surely in mind for Gerald Asher’s Monterey Vineyard was one of the 17 wineries that showcased their wines at the Barrel Tasting held at the Four Seasons in 1976.

With this boom in wine, articles on how to stage a wine tasting followed. The Los Angeles Times reflected its California locality by discussing all Chardonnay and all Zinfandel tastings in 1972. It also suggested a Californian Cabernet Sauvignon versus Bordeaux tasting as well as Californian Chardonnay versus Chablis tasting. Robert L. Balzer explored the origins of Californian Zinfandel by tasting it with Sangiovese from Tuscany. Over in New York City, Frank J. Prial wrote in 1975 that wine tasting had become a popular social event. He even attended Gerald Asher’s 1970 Bordeaux tasting which was held in an apartment.

Later in 1975, Frank J. Prial wrote of two tastings in New York that “offered rather convincing evidence that fine American wines can now hold their own…with France.” The first tasting compared eight red wines from Bordeaux, eight from California, and one from Rioja. The wines were not ranked but the NV Sebastiani, Cabernet Sauvignon was found particularly attractive by all five judges. This tasting was soon followed by one organized by Manhattan East chapter of Les Amis du Vin which pitted ten largely “rare and expensive” Chardonnay from California with Burgundy. The favorites from a different panel of five judges were the 1972 David Bruce, Chardonnay and 1972 Heitz Cellars, Chardonnay.

There was of course the most famous tasting of all, the bicentennial Judgement of Paris, held on May 24, 1976. Organized by Steven Spurrier it was first covered by George Faber in Time magazine. The coverage then spread to numerous American newspapers.  However, two months before Steven Spurrier sent ripples across the Atlantic Ocean, Gerald Asher held his California Barrel Tasting.  The slow acceptance of Californian wine amongst east-coast wine lovers was soon to speed up.

Up next: The California Barrel Tasting

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