The Rise of the American Wine Market in the 1960s and 1970s

Returning for a moment to the unintended consequences of Prohibition in the United States, the segment of the alcohol industry that struggled the most after repeal was the wine business. Beer and liquor rebounded relatively quickly, but American consumers largely turned away from wine—thanks in part to those terrible wine bricks—and the remaining vineyards were unequipped to make quality products because they had replaced the vines growing top-notch varieties with grapes like Alicante Bouschet.

A newly planted Pinot Noir vine needs to grow for at least ten years before it produces grapes with quality phenolics and flavors, and the thirsty American public was impatient. Filling the void were industrial winemakers who produced substandard products, which further drove the public away from wine consumption. It’s estimated that by the early 1940s, American wine consumption had dropped to half of what it was prior to Prohibition.

The American wine market didn’t slowly start to rebound until the late 1960s, when the literal fruits of vintners’ labors to grow better grapes and relearn how to make quality wine began to pay off. In the decade that followed, California wines finally began to emerge to prominence and challenge even the products by classic French winemakers. Consumers began to take notice, both in the United States and abroad.

Critics fueled some of this shift, particularly the American wine critic Robert Parker. He was a lawyer from Maryland who began writing about wine on the side, starting in 1975, at the age of twenty-eight. He had fallen in love with wine during a college visit to his girlfriend who was studying abroad in France. Parker had an idea of creating a consumer’s guide that rated wine quality. So, in 1978, he did it by publishing the first issue of the Wine Advocate and distributing it to mailing lists he bought from major wine retailers.

Until that time, wine reviews weren’t readily available to the public, and they were usually tainted by conflicts of interest in the industry, since reviewers often shared close ties to the producers. Parker popularized the 100-point rating system, which became easy for the public to understand, and encouraged wine drinkers to become more discerning. His emergence also set the table for the most historic moment in California winemaking history, which is now called the Judgment of Paris.