The Evolution of Wine in America – Through The 1960s Until Now

While we know wine is essentially a drink as old as time, the United States wasn’t always the biggest fan of vino. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Americans started getting interested in wine.

But how did we go from a culture shift 60 years ago to a report on heart health that helped define American wine to wine in a can? Here’s a timeline of Americans’ evolving relationship with wine from the 1960s until now.

Starting point

We should mention that wine has been made in the US since the 1500s. A Spanish explorer named Ponce de Leon came to Florida in 1513 and was followed by Spanish and French settlers who began making wine.

While wine boasts a long US history, let’s speed things up a couple of hundred years until wine went from a ceremonial or religious drink to a commercial beverage.

Wine in America During the 1960s

While the sixties may have been dominated by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests, Americans also started to get more interested in wine during this time.

Some believe the spike was caused by more international travel. More Americans began traveling to Europe on commercial flights, got a glimpse of European life, and wanted to incorporate the culture stateside. Boomers were also coming of age and seeking a different alcoholic beverage from traditional Mad Men-era cocktails like an old-fashioned vodka gimlet, bull shot, dry martini, or bloody mary. Others say the uptick in wine consumption in the US started earlier and soldiers returning home from Europe during World War II began asking for wine in local watering holes.

Wine also changed during the 60s. The California wine industry adopted several technological advances during the 50s and 60s.

We should also mention that California wine production has been around since 1680. But it wasn’t until 300 years later that wineries started using cold fermentation, pure yeast cultures, and stainless steel to produce wines that tasted and smelled like the grape. This technology completely changed the flavor of white wine, in particular. White wine in America during the 1940s was made from grapes without much flavor. So American winemakers started making bottles using sweeter grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay. White Zinfandel also became increasingly popular among that generation. Sweet white wine was a natural shift from traditional soft drinks to alcoholic beverages.

Wine in America During the 1970s

As more Americans began ordering wine during dinner and sipping on a glass at the bar, there was another shift in 1976. The Paris Tasting of 1976, a blind tasting known as the “Judgment of Paris,” was a turning point for American winemakers. In a blind taste test with French wine experts, California winemakers pulled off an upset when the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon took first in the white and red taste test.

This was huge at the time. How could an American-made take first up against the best of France? Remember that French wines were recognized as the highest quality in the world. This event helped pave the way for future winemakers in America.

American wine wasn’t just able to keep up with that of Europe; it beat the best of the best. As you can imagine, this was a huge PR boost for California wineries. Not only were these bottles judged favorably by French experts, but they were also cheaper.

Wine in America During the 1990s

Before we jump into the TV show that doubled American wine consumption in the 1990s, we can’t rule out the 1980s just yet. There was a decline in wine consumption in the US. Many think the drop was partly due to President Reagan’s “just say no” to the drug and alcohol campaign. That said, baby boomers were still enjoying white wine throughout the 80s, and by the time the 90s rolled around, they were in their late 40s and early 50s. As boomers watched their parents age, health became more of a concern.

Then everything changed in 1991 when one man essentially convinced Americans to drink more wine. Morley Safer, a journalist, best known for his long tenure on 60 Minutes, talked about the “French paradox.” Safer went on the popular news magazine with a glass of red wine in hand and basically told viewers, ‘Hey, drink red wine — it’s good for you!’

According to Safer, the French ate as many fatty foods as Americans but had a lower rate of cardiovascular problems. This was a touchy subject at the time because, in 1991, white males’ leading causes of death in the US were heart attacks and strokes.

Phylloxera in the Napa Valley in the 1990s

The theory was that red wine could help flush fatty deposits that adhere to blood platelets in the arteries. He argued that the French had fewer cardiovascular issues because they drank much more red wine than Americans. Despite the popularity, the French Paradox has never been officially confirmed, but that didn’t stop Americans from buying red wine like it was the best thing since sliced bread.

What Happened After 60 Minutes?

After the episode aired, the American per capita consumption of red wine doubled during the 1990s. The demand for red wine spiked, and to this day, Safer’s story is credited with popularizing the theory that sipping a little red wine regularly can be good for your heart health.

Is Red Wine Actually Good For You?

This might still be up for debate. But if you’re a red wine fan, you’ll be glad to know that modern research suggests consuming red wine occasionally is good for you. For example, red wine has antioxidants and can potentially help protect against heart disease.

Tip: Red wine likely has higher levels of antioxidants than white wine.

Where is the American Wine Industry Today?

Americans are still making and enjoying wine – and a lot of it! The US is currently the fourth

largest wine producer in the world, right behind Italy, France, and Spain. The American wine market is expected to reach USD 66.97 billion in 2022, and it’s not slowing down.

Arguably one of the biggest changes in American wine isn’t the drink itself but the packaging. For example, boxed wine hit the shelves during the 1980s but didn’t reach pique pop culture status until around 2017. In 2022 we’re seeing more canned wine pop up in stores. While wine in a can may not get the French stamp of approval, canned wine is accessible, convenient, and sustainable for wine distribution.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Wine in America, The Evolution of Wine in America – Through The 1960s Until NowWine in America, The Evolution of Wine in America – Through The 1960s Until Now

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