Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Time on a bottle

September/October 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Researcher views wine labels as tangible pieces of history

Wine historian James Lapsley is one of the world's leading experts on California wine. He specializes in the history and economics of wine making and marketing, including how wine labels have evolved over time. Photo: © 2017 Jock Hamilton

The next time you walk down the wine aisle at your local supermarket, pause for a moment to take in the variety of wine labels. They range from the formal and stately to the humorous and colorful—each designed to appeal to a specific target audience. University of California, Davis, wine historian James Lapsley, who recently prepared a presentation for the state historical society called "California Wine History in 20 Labels," talks about his research.

What inspired you to research California wine labels?
To be clear, my research thrust has been the history of California wine production as a business. Wine labels are tangible pieces of history that contain information and are fun to show to students. The idea for the talk came from the UC Davis Library and the California Historical Society, when they approached me to give a lecture about their label collections. I suggested using the labels as a means to discuss California wine history.

About how many California wine labels are there?
We don't really know. There are over 5,000 wineries in California. If each produced 10 different wines, that would mean 50,000 labels. Probably there are more. The U.S. Treasury Department's Tax and Trade Bureau, which reviews and approves all wine labels, receives more than 100,000 labels annually for review and estimates there are about 200,000 labels in use at any given time.

What are some of the earliest labels?
Until the 1940s, most California wineries shipped wine out of California to regional bottlers who bottled and labeled the wine before selling it to retailers. Some wineries, such as Inglenook, did bottle their own wines, and other wineries bottled some of their wines at the winery, so we have examples of California wine labels from the 1860s and 1870s. Most wines were not labeled with a varietal name—the rise of varietal labeling begins after World War II—and instead called their wines after European regions. Thus, we have California wines labeled as Burgundy (a well-known wine region in France).

Robert Louis Stevenson, in the chapter "Napa Wine" in "The Silverado Squatters," describes a visit to a San Francisco merchant who had numerous fake labels to put on California wine, since European wines fetched a higher price than California wines. Of the wines that were labeled with a variety, probably cabernet sauvignon was the most used, but very little California wine was labeled with varietal designations until the 1950s

Stony Hill was one of the first small wineries in California focused on producing varietal wines of high quality, Lapsley says. Founders Fred and Eleanor McCrea began with pinot blanc, then grafted over to chardonnay. Photo courtesy of Special Collections/UC Davis Library

How and when did the Napa Valley come into prominence?
I wrote a book on this, "Bottled Poetry," and condensing it down is difficult. Coastal grapes tend to have lower yields but more varietal intensity, color, acid and flavor than the same grapes grown in warmer regions. If the same variety received the same price per ton no matter where grown, coastal growers could not compete. So they had to find a market for more intensely flavored wine. The Napa wineries began promoting their region in the 1950s and became associated with more expensive and more flavorful wine.

Fortified wine used to be much more popular. When did that change and why?
During Prohibition, it was legal to make wine at home, and most of California's vineyard output was shipped back east to immigrants from the southern Mediterranean who wished to make wine at home for personal use. Following repeal, many of these immigrants continued to buy grapes and make wine at home, and about 25 percent of California's output continued to be shipped out of state until the 1950s.  What could not be made at home was fortified wine (so-called "port" and "sherry") since it required distillation. The commercial market for wine at repeal was for fortified wine. Even in the late 1950s, about two-thirds of the commercial volume of California production was fortified wine.

This changed in the 1960s, as the baby boomers came of legal drinking age and began to consume "table" (unfortified) wine. The first boom in wine was in white wine. Part of this was a result of new technology—cold fermentation in stainless steel, pure yeast cultures, sterile bottling, which allowed the production of slightly sweet wines—developed in the 1950s that created a new, fruity style of white wine that appealed to a new generation. Today, fortified wine is less than 5 percent of wine consumed in the U.S.

Thinking back to the historic 1976 Paris wine tasting, in which California wines bested their French counterparts: What effect did that have on the recognition and consumption of California wines?
The "Judgment of Paris" was not an official judging, but what it showed was that the best of California wines were on a par with the best of France—at least to this group of French judges. Most of the publicity of the judging was in the U.S., and it encouraged Americans to respect their domestic production. But we need to realize that growth in table wine consumption had been increasing throughout the 1960s and early 1970s prior to the Paris tasting, so I think it is a bit incorrect to attribute increased wine consumption of California wine to the tasting. If Americans had not been becoming more interested in wine (and increasing consumption), the story of the tasting would not have been widely reported. It wouldn't have been news.

What impact did Morley Safer's "60 Minutes" report have on the popularity of red wine?
In 1991, Safer reported that the French consumed as much fat per person as Americans, but had lower rates of cardiovascular disease (strokes, heart attacks, etc.). Some researchers attributed this to a higher rate of consumption of red wine. This came as interesting news to baby boomers, who were entering their 50s and growing conscious of their own mortality. In the decade of the 1990s, adult per-capita consumption of red wine tripled. This led to increased prices for wine and increased plantings of red varieties throughout California. It also led to some wine companies importing red wine in bulk and bottling the wine here in California. Today, consumers are confronted with a plethora of choices. 

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