Laying Tracks Before the Train

Just this morning, while searching for inspiration, I delved into the London Times archives, which stretch back over 150 years, and it was there that I found this gem of an article. I’d recommend you read it in entirety, but as I know how pressed for time we all tend to be, I’ll try give a few outtakes to those of you passing through.

The article is from 1876, and is a report on the Californian wine industry where the author advises ‘great caution to those who may think of putting their money into vineyards’ in California, and states one of the problems of the industry as being ‘remoteness from the market and want of railways.’ More classic still is the quote about Californian red wine where the author states ‘but owing to the fact that it requires impressive skill and experience to produce good red wine and an abundance of certain varieties of grape, this branch of viniculture has not yet met with such success as it promises in the future.’ My, my, how time has changed things!

Indeed, we may look back on the last 10 years and marvel at how much change there has been, and anyone familiar with history would advise that nothing stays as it is, and the only thing we can ever be certain of is change itself. Critter wines came in hard and fast about the same time that French wines dropped in popularity, but my general prediction is this.

Now that Sarkozy has won, French wines are going to come back with a vengeance and win back their lost market share, giving California a run for its money, and deflating the over-inflated prices of Napa. Critter labels will drop in popularity, and good value/ high quality wines from Argentina, Spain and South Africa will begin to dominate the $7-$13 category. We’re going to see Australia depart from silly pictures, and will see a solid effort to tackle the wine glut by placing emphasis on more high-end Aussies.

Another point that I strongly believe is that there is a huge market for an online national wine retailer that stocks low cost, high quality and diverse global wines, challenging the perception that there are 4 types of white wine and 4 types of red. I think the Internet is the railway that the producers of over a century ago were longing for. Whilst a century ago, the lack of high-speed/ low cost and efficient means of transport to get wines to market left a lot of wines in cask without a buyer; today there are plenty overseas stateside wines that go unsold because of lack of cost-effective efficient means to get them to the consumer.

I’m all about tradition, but only insofar as tradition is based in culture, and is not a resistance of much needed modernization.

The full article I referred to appears below:
The Times Saturday, Apr 22, 1876; pg. 12; Issue 28610; col E

London Times

Wine Making in California.

(From an Occasional Correspondent.)

SAN FRANCISCO, April 6th 1876


One of the most rapidly-increasing industries on the Pacific Coast of the United States is the manufacture of wine in California, and, probably, before many years have gone by the grape crop will be only second in importance to the wheat crop of the Golden State. To the English consumer this increase in the source of supply for the markets of Europe and America is a matter of considerable importance, for the capital of the Old World, seeking remunerative investment, will soon be attracted to this comparatively new field for its profitable employment. Of course, in this as in other enterprises which have successfully been undertaken by some in the Far West, those who know the country and its variations of soil and climate best would recommend great caution to those who may think of putting their money into vineyards, for while many have made a good deal of money out of grape-growing, either for wine or for raisins, some have lost, having started in situations ill suited for the purpose either for reasons of the soil or of remoteness from the market and the want of railways. This last need of the country is fast being met by the construction of narrow gauge railways, and the farmers and ‘vineyardists’ will soon be able to send their wheat to San Francisco for shipment and their grapes to the towns either to be used at the table or made into wine or raisins. Perhaps a few figures will enable you to form a clearer idea of the extent of the grape culture in the State than mere generalities. It is computed that in the vineyards this year there are between 35 and 40 million vines under cultivations, and these are usually planted so that there are from 700 to 1000 vines to the acre. The vines at maturity, or, any, six years of age, will produce about 60 lbs. of grapes each, and, after deducting the quantity sent to the towns to be eaten or cured as raisins, the vintage is estimated to have yielded from eight to nine million gallons of wine. The value of the wine at the vineyards, not including the cost of the casks, may be taken to average 25c per gallon.

Extensive experiments have been tried to determine what kinds of grapes are best suited to the climate, or, to speak more accurately, climates, of California. There are now in the State over 200 distinct varieties of the grape raised from cuttings imported from Europe by Colonel A. Harasthy, all of which thrive and reproduce their distinctive qualities of fruit, and from these different kinds of grapes many distinct qualities of wine can be made. All are not, however, equally well suited for the making of wine and it has been the business of the California ‘vineyardists’ to experiment with the grapes of these many varieties, and to select those best adapted for the production of wine, for table use, or to be made into raisins. One thing remarkable about the numerous varieties of Californian wine is how well they thrive under normal care Another thing that ought to commend these wines to European wine consumers is that they will support a sea-voyage without injury, and, indeed, be improved by it. This particulate soundness of constitution- if the phrase is admissible, is attributed by some of the cognoscenti to the very small proportion of albuminous and nitrogenous substances they contain and also the great proportion of saccharine matter in them. Still another factor in the result is probably the climate, to which everything otherwise inexplicable may be safely referred and to this cause is ascribed the very fermentation they undergo.

(In California) Red Wines are made in small quantities and impressive quality, but owing to the fact that it requires impressive skill and experience to produce good red wine and an abundance of certain varieties of grape, this branch of viniculture has not yet met with such success as it promises in the future.

Compared to the older wine-making industries of Europe, this of California is but in its infancy; yet is has already attained dimensions which must attract attention. In the year 1874 this one firm, Messrs. Lansberger and Co., sold about 10,000 cases of Champagne, and last year their sales were about 12,000 cases. In the years 1871-4 and ten months of 1875 the exports of Californian wines of all kinds by sea amounted to 2,484,417 gallons, valued at $1,828,523; an in the same period, including Brandies, 2,252,996 gallons, valued at $1,370,000, were sent overland. As this does not account for the large quantity now consumed in the State, it will be seen that wine-making bids fair to become one of the staple industries in California.

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Posted in News, Wine | 2 Comments »

  • http://israeliwinedirect.terapad.com Richard Shaffer

    Great post!

    I completely agree there are thousands of great wines all over the world, down in the “long tail”, often with quantities too small for traditional retail just needing an inexpensive lifeline into the market.

  • http://israeliwinedirect.terapad.com Richard Shaffer

    Great post!

    I completely agree there are thousands of great wines all over the world, down in the “long tail”, often with quantities too small for traditional retail just needing an inexpensive lifeline into the market.

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