The wine industry and market in North America began as soon as there were sufficient European immigrants to drink, buy and produce wine. The abundance of native grapes suggested that wine could be produced successfully in North America. However, the expansion from nascent beginnings was slow. In the sixteenth century wine was produced in both Spanish and French colonies of North America successfully enough that the home country industries blocked further development, which then stimulated wine production in the English colonies. In the seventeenth century attempts to establish Vitis vinifera in what later became the eastern United States failed, and grapes grown there even now are based on early native species (Lamar).
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries vines and wine were spread throughout what are now Mexico and the southwest of the USA by Spanish soldiers and missionaries. Like much else in the history of the state, the wine industry in California was created by the establishment and spread of the missions. Beginning in 1790 is San Diego, over the next four decades, Spanish missions moved up the coast bringing vines and winemaking abilities with them. The local grapes were of no use for winemaking, but a European-based variety known as ‘Mission’ did well, and became the basis of California wine production for many years. The mission vineyards and winemaking facilities fell into disuse and disarray when the Spanish were forced out after Mexico (which included California) became independent in the 1830s.
California joined the USA as a part of the settlement of the war between the USA and Mexico in the 1840s. The California Gold Rush, beginning in 1849, hurried California to statehood in 1850. Then the wine industry expanded rapidly in a state that was experiencing a population and economic boom (Anderson).
The actual process of winemaking began with the grape harvest in August and September. The clusters were cut off with special knives and collected in baskets. Sometimes they were then spread out in the sun (usually in the vineyard itself) for up to fourteen days in order to increase the sugar content of the fruit. Usually, however, the grapes were dumped at once into the winepress. This consisted of two round or rectangular basins, the press itself and a catch basin, hewn out of rock or dug in the ground, covered with stones, and coated with pitch. The pressing basin (gat) covered an area of about 16 square meters; it was 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 in.) deep, and tilted toward one side or corner. The catch basin was lower and smaller, about 1 meter (40 in) deep; it was connected to the press by a channel. The grapes were trodden down with large stones. There were also pressing beams with one end inserted into the rim of the basin, so that large round stones lashed to them could be pressed down on the grapes by lever action. The resulting grape juice was poured into the earthenware pots or wineskins made from skins of goats or lambs; within six to twelve hours it would begin to ferment (Unwin).
If the eighties was the decade of Chardonnay, then surely the nineties marked the emergence of Merlot as the darling of American wine consumers. This is not altogether surprising since Merlot, when grown in the proper areas and made with judicious viticultural practices and a knowing palate, can be a very attractive wine.
Merlot is often better suited to the table than its widely heralded kissing cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Blended with Cabernet, Merlot tones down some of big brother’s rougher tannic qualities and tames the savage beast.
Merlot has a great deal going for it. First off, it’s red. The wine boom of the 1990s, fueled in large part by the wide-reaching news of the health benefits of moderate red wine consumption, saw Merlot come of age. It has become the greatest benefactor of this positive health news, and this has sparked a feverish effort to plant new Merlot vineyards in virtually all parts of the world in order to capitalize in the new worldwide demand. The results of this boom have produced a lot of very drinkable Merlot along with many relatively mediocre and nondescript bottles.
In French, merlot means “little blackbird,” probably due to the similarities in color between the grape and the bird. Stylistically, Merlot can be very attractive for its soft, supple texture and forward fruit. Merlot’s most endearing qualities are its smoothness, roundness, and radiance. It plays a bright fruit character, which allows it to be partnered with a fairly wide range of foods.
In Bordeaux, Merlot dominates the varietal blend in the St. Emilion and Pomerol regions. In California, Merlot is often blended with the other great varieties of Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec – and bears the name “Meritage,” a term that is occasionally used by American producers for wines that are made from combinations of the five Bordeaux varieties (Goldstein).
Howell Mountain was the first area in Napa Valley to be planted with traditional Bordeaux varietals in the late 1800s. Today, the western face of Howell Mountain is home to a multitude of vineyards planted primarily to cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. The infertile volcanic soils that dominate the region’s terrain result in small berries with lots of concentration – and in wines that boast full fruit flavors and chewy tannins (Narlock and Garfinkel).