Wine is becoming a more
multi-dimensional product in the US, with the public showing a growing appreciation
of the different varieties and styles of wine.
In addition, grapes are being
grown, and wine is being made, in a ever wider range of places
throughout the country, from Alaska to Florida, from Hawaii to
In the first part of this
series, primarily focused on visiting wineries in Washington, we
provide some background information on wine growing in the US in
Wine in the US in General
The United States is the fourth largest wine producing country
in the world. Unsurprisingly, France is top of the list,
then comes Italy and Spain. In fifth place, after the US,
is Argentina, closely followed by Australia. You're almost
sure not to guess the seventh country, however - the answer is in
the last paragraph of this section, in case you want to try and
guess before reading the answer.
There are over 3,000 commercial vineyards in the US,
and there is at least one winery in all 50 of the states (yes,
this does include Alaska).
To put this number in perspective, there are over 12,000
wineries in the Bordeaux region of France, alone.
The US has its own native types of grape (most notably Vitis labrusca,
Vitis riparia, Vitis
rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis), but these are
seldom used in wine making - instead they may be used for table
grapes, grape juice, and raisins.
It was the
introduction of Europe's classical Vitis vinifera grape
varieties (grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah,
Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as more than
one hundred other varieties) by European immigrants that
underpinned the growth of wine making in the US.
Everyone automatically thinks of California, and the Napa Valley
in particular, when thinking of US wine producing regions.
In terms of ranking, currently the top states are California,
followed by Washington, then New York and then Oregon.
Just two years ago, the order was CA NY WA OR (followed by FL NJ
KY OH TX).
It is true that California is by far the largest producer of
wine in the country, but continued growth in Washington has now propelled the state
to become the second largest producer of wine in the country, with (as
of 2008) 32,000 acres of vines (for wine making purposes), 11 official regional
appellations (AVAs), 610 wineries and 102 million bottles (20
million gallons) of wine produced.
By comparison, California has 2843 bonded wineries, 480,000
acres of grapes (for wine making purposes), 107 AVAs, and produced 2.4 billion bottles of
wine in 2008. To answer the question in the first
paragraph, the seventh largest wine producing country is China. It will be a long time before WA overtakes CA's massive lead!
Wine Controls and Labeling
Initially, winemaking was subject to few if any controls on its
labeling and marketing, with such controls as there may have
been being developed at state levels rather than nationally.
In 1978 the then Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (since
2003, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) first
released regulations to define specific geographical regions as
part of an appellation system similar to that found in other
countries, where wines can be officially labeled as coming from
a particular named grape growing area. These regions
became known as American Viticultural Areas (or AVA for short).
To be approved as an AVA, an area needs to show a distinctive
characteristic that applies only to that region such as climate,
soil type, or elevation. And for a wine to use an AVA
name, it must comprise at least 85% of grapes from that AVA.
Some AVAs are sub-sets of larger AVAs - for example, the Santa
Clara Valley AVA is part of the larger San Francisco Bay AVA
which in turn is part of the still larger Central Coast AVA.
The first AVA was established in June 1980, although the
previous vague state and country labelings that had previously
been used were grandfathered in to the new system. This
first AVA was in Augusta, MO.
Nowadays there are 193 different AVAs (as of Feb 2009), ranging
from a mere 62 acre designation (the Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino
County, CA) up to the massive 26,000 square mile Ohio River
Valley AVA that spans four states (IN KY OH WV).
Most of the wine that is sold in the US does not have an AVA
rating on its label. Citing an AVA on a wine label is no guarantee of any
level of quality at all, and a wine that is not from an AVA may
be as good or better than the AVA wine. It merely
signifies the grapes used to make the wine as coming primarily
from one specific area.
In addition to AVA labeling requirements, some states have
requirements associated with claiming a wine comes from that
state. California, for example, requires that wines shown
as coming from California must have 100% Californian wine in
them. Washington state requires 95% Washington wine
International labeling conflicts
In addition to domestic US labeling requirements, there are some
international issues that are becoming more prominent.
For many years, makers of sparkling white wine freely referred
to their product as 'champagne', much to the massive annoyance
of the French, who claim that champagne refers uniquely and
specifically only to wine made in the Champagne region of
France, and via a special bottle fermentation process.
French have successively managed to get almost every other
country in the world to accept their claim over this word, and
these days US wines have modified their naming slightly, now
claiming to be 'American champagne'. Similar restrictions
are starting to be imposed on other wine styles such as Claret, Burgundy
Internationally, it is probably true to say that wine consumption
and production has been rising slightly, or at least holding its
own and taking market share from other alcoholic beverages, due
to wine becoming increasingly
valued as an alternative to both harder spirits and beer.
But in the US, the amount of land for grape growing has remained
more or less constant over the last decade, hovering around
940,000 acres. Prior to that, however, grape growing
expanded during the 1990s, rising from about 750,000 acres in
the mid 1980s.
There are some regional shifts in grape growing across the US,
most notably the much greater than normal growth of wine growing
in Washington state. In addition, wine growing is becoming
more widely found, with more small wineries appearing in new regions not
formerly closely associated with grape growing and wine making.
Increasing globalization has created - and continues to create -
the potential for competition from other countries, and
improvements in wine making in some of these other countries is
increasing the strength of the competition they offer.
This is perhaps one factor that is limiting the growth of US
domestic wine production - although US wine consumption is
growing, much of that growth is coming from imports rather than
from domestic production.
one of a series on wine trail touring in WA, see
About the US wine industry in general
2. Wine making in Washington state
Wine touring in Washington state
4. Wine costs, pricing, and quality
tours and tasting around Seattle - the large wineries
boutique wineries in the Woodinville area
Wine trail tours
Wine tasting in downtown Leavenworth
If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.
15 May 2009, last update
02 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.