Wynton Marsalis & The Traditions of Wine

It occurred to me as I watched Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra offer a musical history of Duke Ellington’s ballads that there is a distinct lack of exploration into wine’s history and traditions here in America. Is this because there is no interest in such a thing, because there is no money in it or because there is very little tradition and history of American winemaking to warrant the effort?

Marsalis will certainly go down as one of this era’s most important and most accomplished jazz musicians. But when his story is told, it will be his devotion to educating the masses on Jazz history and the traditions of jazz that mark him as among the most generous jazz musicians that ever lived. Marsalis brings a 14 piece orchestra across the country. Though the leader of this remarkable group, Marsalis is in no way the focal point of the group. Instead, he generously gives the spotlight to all the other members. More importantly, between each piece, Marsalis delivers short tales about the song just played and the next on the docket, providing the audience with something of an historical context for the evening’s playbook. It is a wonderful experience for anyone with a curiosity about jazz traditions and history.

Does anyone care about the history and traditions of American wine?

Is anyone inclined to make a career, or even a practice, of celebrating the traditions and history of American wine? We have Copia in Napa Valley, but this not so much an organized effort to communicate the history of American wine as it is a celebration of culinary pursuits in general.

What might a celebration of American wine and its traditions look like? What could possibly be said?

-There is a distinct ethnic character to the history of wine in America that tells the story of what was brought to America with the Italian, German, French, English and Portuguese immigrants. In fact, some have pointed out that the various field blends planted throughout California can be separated out by the ethnicity of those who planted them; that is to say,  an Italian field blend would be different than a German field blend

-Social policy in America clearly could be explored through wine by looking at the response to Prohibition by winemakers across the country.

-The westward movement could be explored by looking at how vineyards moved across the country

-There are of course a number of individuals helped move forward the wine industry in America who are fascinating folks.

It’s not as though there is nothing of substance and interest to look at when considering the history and traditions of American wine. I simply suspect there is no interest in making this effort by those that could do it well and little interest to boot by Americans in general in learning about the history and traditions of wine. There is, in short, no call for an evangelist for American wine.

This will change. But I think it will be a couple decades before there is room in American’s minds and the kind of market to support an effort to educate and celebrate. I’m hoping I’m around to see this turn of events.

8 Responses

  1. Jim Eastman - January 28, 2008

    I actually found a bit of this when I was touring wineries in New Mexico a few weeks ago. A few wineries like to celebrate the fact that their techniques and styles date back to the grape-growing and wine-making of Spanish missionaries in the 17th century.
    Still, it’s not exactly a massive celebration of the American history and traditions of wine, but it’s something, no?

  2. Thomas Pellechia - January 28, 2008

    Strange…my account on Fermentations seems to have vanished. Had to sign up again!
    Anyway, Tom, I’ve submitted a treatment to two production companies for a TV documentary on the history of American wine. Couldn’t get them interested. My agent is trying right now to sell a book proposal that I have put together on the subject. The history pre-dates what many people have been led to believe is the beginning of American wine.
    My prediction is that it can happen only when a celebrity lends a name to the project. I know that Jancis Robinson has a pilot in the making about American wine, but as far as I can tell, hers is not about its history.

  3. Steven Mirassou - January 28, 2008

    Wine history plays a major role for me…but the context needs to be right. I am a sixth-generation member of the oldest winemaking family in North America. My great, great, great-grandfather, Pierre Pellier is a possible source for the introduction of Pinot Noir in North America (John Haeger, North American Pinot Noir), and my family has made wine in California under the Mirassou (and now Steven Kent and La Rochelle labels) since 1854.
    We have seen just about everything that can happen in wine production and the wine business for over 150 years. There is very little interest for this “story” when I sell wine in the broad market, but at our tasting rooms, where pictures of the “dead …sou’s hang, there is much more fascination with the story.
    As always, we are competing for the very tiny bit of mindshare that exists today. Though the history of wine in the US is a very interesting subject, I would gladly trade more everyday enjoyment of this greatest of drinks by a growing audience of new wine drinkers for a spot on a television show.
    -Steven Mirassou
    6th Generation Winemaker

  4. Tom Wark - January 28, 2008

    The great California wine families like yours, the Foppianos, Seghesios, and others probably appreciate the history and traditions of the CA wine industry more than most…for the obvious reasons. I think in time we’ll see more interest among “civilians”, particularly as wine consumption continues to grow and particularly as the various states get something of a history under their belt.
    That said, I think the tales and traditions are not utilized enough even in California’s various “wine country’s”.

  5. Gordon Rappole - January 29, 2008

    I feel that we have struggled as Americans to remain connected to our past. I remember my father’s comments about how Prohibition had shaped attitudes even now 75 years after repeal regarding alcohol and wine(My grandfather was a hotel & restaurant owner in Western NY…Prohibition “offered” him the opportunity to be a bootlegger with Lake Erie to the north.). And yet no serious discussions reflect back on the reverberations that touch us now (i.e. campus binge drinking, 18 vs 21, drunk driving etc.)
    We also have a unique trait for celebrating the winners…those who “lost” or are not with us now fade from our collective memories very quickly. It becomes more tempting to utilize terroir as a marketing concept rather than connect with one more key piece to the puzzle that makes a vineyard and region special to American wine-making “lore”.
    The love of the marketplace and the revenue our economy seeks to gain now makes the thread all that more tenuous to our sense of place and the past . Silent vineyards waiting to be ripped out for more development cannot speak about this rich history. Terroir is as much about history and a real sense of place as it is about what that location produces & creates.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - January 29, 2008

    With all respect to you, Tom, and to Steve, I am not trying to diminish what you’ve posted, but you make the same mistake that most people seem to make and center American wine history in California.
    That’s fine, after the Gold Rush, but the history of American wine predates California, as does the first commercial success in American wine. That story is largely ignored.

  7. Tom Wark - January 29, 2008

    You are of course correct. For myself, I think like a marketing person and see that folks will LOOK to California for that history, despite the fact that places like Ohio were critical in this long history.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - January 29, 2008

    Yes, Tom,
    Commercial success began outside Philadelphia in the 1820s and then made its way to Ohio next, with New York in a close race for time. But even before then, the wine history is rich, from New Mexico to Florida, to the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, where the British crown sent reps of the Virginia Company with explicit instructions to start a wine industry here.
    Back to California: I am certain that not many people know that the first major commercial successes in wine in Anaheim involved the Catawba grape.
    It’s a marvelous history that even has a connection with the Phoenicians, hard as that may be to imagine.

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