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Life Before Chardonnay: California's Lost White Varieties

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Agoston Haraszthy, one of California's most influential early vineyard owners.
Agoston Haraszthy, one of California's most influential early vineyard owners.

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Before Prohibition California's most popular white wines were made from grapes like Green Hungarian, Burger, Sylvaner, Tokay, and Riesling. Chardonnay, now virtually synonymous with California white wine, was almost nowhere to be found. There's no mystery to how many of these grapes became California's calling card varieties, though; during the state's formative winemaking years in the mid 1800s many of the immigrants that settled in Napa and Sonoma were of Germanic origin and, naturally, they looked back to the Rhineland for inspiration.

But now more than a century after the reign of these grapes in California, only inglorious ruins remain. Burger—a grape of French origin whose capability to produce big yields and its tolerance for hot, dry weather made it a successful grape throughout California in its heyday—now almost only appears in jug wines and wine coolers; its only present-day starring role is playing one-half of the blend (along with Golden Chasselas a.k.a. Palomino, one of the principal grapes used in sherry production) in those magnificent jugs of California "Chablis" that lined shelves in depressing liquor stores for decades.

Green Hungarian has been identified in some of California's ancient inter-planted vineyards—some of which are being bottled as field blends—that have managed to elude the mass re-plantings during the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc boom. Last year Scribe Winery cheekily reintroduced Sylvaner—which used to be grown on their property in the 1800s—to the state; it was the first time the variety had been bottled since Prohibition.

Riesling is perhaps the only white variety popularized before Prohibition that has maintained notable relevance. In The U.S. Wine Market: Impact Databank Review and Forecast, 2010 edition, Riesling is listed as the 9th most consumed variety in the U.S. with a total consumption of around 5.3 million cases in 2009; 900,000 of them came from California. That's certainly something, but not a whole lot considering that we drank more than 53 million cases of California Chardonnay that same year.

So how is it that the grapes that made California white wines famous before Prohibition reemerged only as elegiac reminders of the state's not-so-distant beginning? The short answer: changing tastes and new a new breed of winemakers and, thus, new European muses.

From Sweet Wine to Chardonnay

Following the repeal of the 18th amendment, demand for wine in America was not for dry, quality table wines, but for sweet fortifieds and other cavity-inducing commercial riffs on the swill home winemakers developed a habit for during the dry years.

This trend continued through the 70s when California Ports, Madeiras, and Moscatels evolved into White Zinfandels and wine coolers. Though some records indicate that Chardonnay was present in California during the mid-late 19th century, it had a very limited role. Producers like Stony Hill and Hanzell began to work with the grape with great success in the 50s, but it existed purely on the margin; in 1960 there were only around 150 documented acres of Chardonnay in the state. But its popularity continued to grow at a rapid pace in the 1960s, and after Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay bested some of Burgundy's most iconic wines in the 1976 Judgment of Paris, its subsequent boom was supersonic.

By the early 1980s those 150 acres had grown to 11,000 and by 1988 there were more than 45,000 acres planted to the grape. By the 1990s it was Chardonnay's world and those varieties that had once been central to California white wine production were memories so distant they might as well be myth. But myth they are not.

Haraszthy And His Carnival of Grapes

The importation of numerous Vinifera varieties into California dates back to the 1830s, but it wasn't until mid-Century that experimentation led to widespread planting.

Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant who has been dubbed "the founding father of California winemaking" is often credited for introducing superior Vinifera varieties to the state. But as Thomas Pinney notes in his overwhelmingly thorough Two-Volume A History Of Wine In America there is no clear evidence on what exactly he was the first to introduce and plant, especially considering that Vinifera varieties were already being imported into the state 20 years before he arrived. What's for sure, however, is that Haraszthy did introduce a whole hell of a lot of exotic varieties—some 492 by 1862—which he sold to fellow winemakers. What's most striking about the list, however, is not what it includes, but its ironic exclusions, not least among them—Chardonnay.

Unfortunately, Haraszthy and his Buena Vista Winery's rise was just as swift as their fall. Less than a decade after the winery was founded Harazsthy, deep in debt, skipped town to try his luck with rum production down in Nicaragua.

The German Boom

But the popularity of Rhine varieties did not die with Haraszthy's departure. Many of the now legendary names that rose to fame around or thereafter his time had similarly built their white production around the grapes native to Germany and its neighbors.

Just over the Mayacamas range in the Napa Valley, Jacob Schram (of Schramsberg), an immigrant from the Rheinhessen had ripped up his Mission vines to plant Riesling along with some Burger and Palomino. Down the road, Charles Krug, who originally had derived his inspiration from Haraszthy, also replaced his Mission vines with German varieties. Inglenook's "Hock" (the English term for German or Rhine-style wine in the U.S. and England during this time) made solely from Gewurztraminer was considered to be one of the valley's top white wines. Back in Sonoma Jacob Gundlach's Rhinefarm Vineyard earned its reputation as one of the state's finest white wine producers by building its production on — no surprise here — grapes originating from the Rhineland.

The What If

It's amusing to wonder what would have happened if Prohibition didn't put consumers in a coma and Chardonnay didn't hijack all white wine production when they finally came to. But in reality California is certainly better for leaving grapes like Green Hungarian and Burger in the dust. Their historical performance in Europe suggests that they're probably best suited to masquerading as half "Chablis" or socializing in blends with other more distinct varieties.

Of course there's still Riesling and Gewurztraminer — both of which have been successful in some of the state's cooler sites — but they're hardly as versatile as Chardonnay when it comes to adapting to warmer climates, of which California has plenty.

So when all is said an done the combo of Germanic varieties sprinkled with C-list French grapes may never have been a combination that had a shot at carrying an industry as large as California's, but their present existence--however shadowy--is an important reminder that when it comes to California white wine, there was such a thing as life before Chardonnay.

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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