1940s Archive

Sweet Wine Country

Originally Published October 1948

In the summer, except on extraordinarily clear mornings, you can hardly ever see the Sierras from the Valley towns, Lodi and Stockton and Madera—and even when you can see them, it is easy to mistake them for clouds. They stretch interminably along the eastern horizon like the cumulous formations of a distant storm. Below them and in front of them and around you is the shimmering, incandescent haze of the San Joaquin summer.

The west wind generally rises about noon; it blows furiously over the parched fields and whistles through the irrigated orchards and vineyards until after sunset, like a desert wind. The heat is almost as oppressive in the shade as in the sun, and you find it hard to believe that you are less than a hundred miles from foggy San Francisco and the cool Pacific.

Paralleling the Sierra Nevada, watered by dozens of little rivers that are swollen in hot weather with melting snow, irrigated and enormously fertile, the Valley, as far as grapes are concerned, stretches from Lodi to Bakersfield, nearly two hundred and fifty miles. From the point of view of the wine-drinker, this district is a major menace and, at the same time, a potential source of almost limitless quantities of inexpensive wine. It is the principal battlefield of the wine industry in this country.

Obviously, even in the lush days of the wartime wine boom, no one ever considered planting this whole area, or even half of it, to grapes. There are, for example, the “asparagus islands” near Stockton in the Delta, where Filipino laborers are paid thirty dollars a day to cut “grass” under the blinding summer sun; there is “tomato land,” around Tracy, which nourishes the vast, modern Heinz ketchup plant; and a dozen other little districts, equally well defined, have their own specialties and their own years of prosperity and depression.

Basically, however, it is the price of grapes—table grapes, raisin grapes, and wine grapes (for the three are emphatically not the same)—which determines the economy of the Valley and decides whether the demand is to be for new Cadillacs or for second-hand Chevrolets, for air-conditioned ranch houses or for Quonset huts. Grapes in the Valley, within ten years, have sold for as little as $15 and as much as $140 a ton. Growing them is one of the most speculative agricultural businesses in the world.

In almost all wine-producing countries except the United States, the people who grow grapes make wine. In America, especially in California's Great Central Valley, the farmers sell their grapes by the ton, know practically nothing about wine, and rarely drink it. Wine bottles are as rare on the tables of restaurants in Lodi, Stockton, and Fresno as on the tables of similar restaurants in New Haven, Grand Rapids, and Des Moines. In Burgundy, the Chianti district, and the Douro Valley, wine is the lifeblood as well as the livelihood of a whole countryside; in the Valley, grapes are a crop. The price per ton in a given year has nothing to do with the quality of that year's vintage—grapes are grapes, and their value is governed as remorselessly by supply and demand as the price of a bushel of wheat or corn on the Chicago exchange.

Unlike wheat and corn, however, grapes have to be sold when fresh or must be immediately converted, and they can be stored in only one of three forms—raisins, brandy, or wine. Now, marketable raisins can be made only from certain varieties of grapes, notably the Thompson Seedless. Commercial brandy (as distinguished from fine brandy, cognac, or Armagnac) can be made from any grapes, even culls; and wine of a sort, though not very good wine, to be sure, can be made from almost any grapes, even from those originally and properly destined for the table or for the drying trays of a raisin company. Among Valley growers not interested in quality, the most popular varieties these days are what are known as “three -way grapes,” which can be sold as table grapes when the market is favorable, or as raisins when raisins are high, or, if worst comes to worst, can be converted into wine. No one, needless to say, ever made fine wine out of a three-way grape.

And yet, beyond any question, good wine can be made in the Valley. Not, perhaps, superior table wine, which requires a more temperate climate in America, as abroad. But certainly a far better aperitif wine than most of the California sherry we have so far seen, a better dessert wine than most California port now on the market, and perhaps eventually something unique and American and fine. Granted a few more years, and a dozen producers more interested in their eventual reputation than in their immediate profits, all that the Valley really needs is a willingness on the part of the consumers to pay a small premium for something out of the ordinary. The Sweet Wine Country, as far as quality is concerned, is virgin soil. It will produce wines precisely as good as the American consumer demands, and no better.

Speaking of consumer preferences, it is important to remember that three-quarters of the wine drunk in this country is not table wine, not wine drunk with meals, but sherry, port, muscatel, angelica, and the like. This is what they call “sweet” wine in California, and it comes from the Sweet Wine Country.

The term sweet wine is obviously a misnomer—a dry sherry is classified in California as a sweet wine, and a sweet sauterne as a dry. But basically the distinction is pretty clear—a dry wine (or table wine) contains less than 14 per cent of alcohol by volume and involves a government tax of three cents a bottle; a sweet wine (including the driest of dry sherries) generally runs 19 ½ per cent of alcohol or better and involves a government tax of twelve cents.

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