Before Jancis wrote her big book, The Oxford Companion to Wine, before Kevin Zraly took his position as Wine Director at Windows on the World, before Steven Spurrier instigated (or perpetrated upon the French) the American wine defining moment of the Judgment of Paris, and before Robert M. Parker Jr. created the much debated 100 point wine rating system there was Nathan Chroman.
Nathan was a California attorney who loved wine. He practiced personal injury law in Beverly Hill, which I can only imagine must have been lucrative. He taught a wine appreciation course at UCLA Extension. He wrote a weekly wine column for the Lose Angeles Times and in 1973 a book called The Treasury of American Wines. He was the reason a lot of people had the opportunity to cellar some of the best vintages California ever produced, including many judged in the spring of 1976 as superior to the French, by French judges. Until that singular moment the French claimed a monopoly on the world’s highest quality wines. His weekly newspaper column was devoted to the growing wine culture in California’s salad bowl valleys of Monterey and Sonoma. He tracked the changes in agriculture as fruit and vegetable farmers began tearing up fruit trees and vegetable fields and planting wine grapes. He got a lot of things right before most even knew there was a California wine culture.
I picked up his book at a sale at my local library (fill a bag for $2.00!). These sales make me happy and sad simultaneously. I think of libraries as safe havens protecting the printed page from extinction, preserving it for future generations. They are becoming more like arboretums everyday – places where we visit the books and obtain digital downloads. So I rescued the book for giggles to read what was being written about American wine back in the 70’s, which, as an easterner, I remember as the time of jug wine. I didn’t know what I was getting, and that it would become one of the cherished additions to my own wine library.
He began by summarizing wine appreciation such as it was back then. Remember that these were the days of literally jug American wine, sold by the gallon by the likes of Gallo and Masson. This was all most Americans knew about wine if you didn’t live close to the source. Americans had not yet developed its palate and preference for wine over other adult beverages such as spirits and beer. Those with more refined tastes indulged in wines from Europe, as they were believed to be the only fine wine. Prohibition, that noble experiment, all but eliminated any consciousness Americans may have had of wines of quality being produced domestically.
Parker developed his million dollar nose on Bordeaux. Nathan Chroman wrote mostly about local wine but his book was not limited to California. He did know of the work of Dr. Konstantin Frank, a Hungarian immigrant who first believed that vinifera could be grown successfully in the Finger Lakes region of New York. While more prominently writing of the wine regions of the Northern California, he did not neglect to note the indigenous Catawba in Ohio and the hybrids being created in Michigan, Delaware, and even Pennsylvania.
California was a magical place for wine in the 1970’s. It was on the launchpad (crushpad) of the world stage. Nate Chroman was a man in the know from early on. In his book he wrote of the “Visionaries” and the “Prodigies” and he made predictions for the future. He rated the wines of the day with a personal system of one to four x’s. He wrote of the origins of California wine from the time of the Spanish missionaries’ need for sacramental wines and development of the Mission grape, to the Gold Rush era migration of another Hungarian immigrant – Agoston Haraszthy, who brought European vitis vinifera vines. Haraszthy operated the Buena Vista Winery among his many accomplishments. The winery is one of the few to survive Prohibition and helped give birth to the modern American wine industry. Nathan attributes Haraszthy with bringing Zinfandel vines to California (the origins of which is still being debated today, even after numerous DNA studies), while many still believe it to be a native grape. Nathan remarked that in the 1860’s the industry was gigantic, with as many as 10.5 million vines planted. Today the number is closer to 275 million. I wonder what he would think.
Nathan died in 2012 at age 83 and was one of the most influential people on the subject of American wine. He lived to see the U.S. overtake the French as the largest wine consuming nation in the world. He noted that California produced 84% of U.S. wines in the 70’s and today it produces 90%, keeping pace with the rest of the country, with wine being produced today in every state. Personal wine consumption was 1.44 gallons per capita in 1957, 2.43 gallons in 1973, and stands at 3.03 gallons as of 2012. He quoted a Wells Fargo Bank of California report projecting that level of consumption to be reached by 1980.
He predicted that by the year 2000 the Salinas Valley would have over 100,000 acres of wine grapes under cultivation. Today the number of acres is roughly somewhere near 40,000.
Where he was so dead on in the book was how he picked the wines and winemakers. Of the Visionaries he called Andre Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu Vineyard the “winemaker’s winemaker” and rated his wines with four x’s. He considered David Bruce wines some of the finest Chardonnays made. In the 70’s he only rated Buena Vista wines as two x’s. He wrote glowingly of Chalone wines and the Chenin Blanc of Chappellet. Concannon, Freemark Abbey, Hanzell, Heitz, and Inglenook also received some of his highest praise. Back then California was still calling its sparkling wines Champagne and Korbell rated three x’s. Of the Prodigies he cited Robert Mondavi, Louis M. Martini, Paul Masson’s, Schramsberg’s, and Martin Ray’s Champagnes, Mayacamas, Mirassou, Ridge, Souverain, Sebastiani, and Wente. Of these wines Ridge, Heitz, Mayacamas, Freemark Abbey, Chalone, and David Bruce went on to win high marks against the French at the famous Judgment of Paris competition. He never mentioned Chateau Montelena, featured in the film Bottle Shock, as being anything special. He actually only listed them under “Other California wineries”, not far from Franzia (today a leading boxed wine), E & J Gallo (Hearty Burgundy), and Boone’s Farm (who doesn’t remember the precursor to wine coolers?).
No New York wines received x’s of any number but he did single out Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Vineyards, Bully Hill, Widmer, Boordy, Great Western, Gold Seal, and Taylor (I grew up with Taylor and Great Western Champagnes). Washington State’s sole mention was Ste. Michelle Vineyards, and Oregon received no mention at all.
If you don’t already own it, and I am sure it is out of print now, but if you ever have a chance to visit it in your local library it is a wine book well worth browsing. I think a great number of wineries owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for the attention he paid them early on.