In the USA is the largest and most important national Holiday of the Year, its not Independence Day or Christmas, it is Thanksgiving Day. It is almost impossible for us or any Europeans to understand the effort, the ritual and the emotional weight of Thanksgiving. These days it is not merely a day of celebration, it is a whole festival, a long weekend of family, turkey, political myth making and increasingly, wine.
Thanksgiving is the one holiday where the USA, truly shuts down and concentrates itself inwardly. Anyone who has spent Christmas in the USA quickly realises that there is almost no pause in the rhythm of daily life, it is a little disappointing just how much of normal life goes on. For most workers, Christmas is more like a Bank Holiday in Ireland.
Thanksgiving however involves the entire US trying to get home and increasingly, that means a feasting on traditional foods with wine, not beer, which wine sales passed out in the summer of 2008. Also increasingly the wine at the US dinner table is, US wine.
Although we think of wine as being a relatively modern phenomenon in the US and centred around California, and Napa valley in particular, this is far from the true picture.
Today, every state in the US produces wine, including Hawaii and Alaska, so increasingly wine is forming part of the bounty of the earth that is placed on the thanksgiving table.
It is fairly clear while there was no American wine at that first thanksgiving feast, it is something that many US wineries across the US are trying to make up for, particularly the New England wineries where the Pilgrim Fathers and first colonists were located.
The US states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are collectively known as New England and are the core of the early essentially English settlement of the US. They remain the archetypical home of the blue blood, upper crust WASP society in the US and home to not just the early colonies but also the social and political elites and their seats of learning like Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Yale in nearby Connecticut.
New England is now home to almost 100 commercial wineries producing increasingly well regarded Chardonnay and even some Pinot Noir. There is even a winery in Nantucket, home of the Kennedy Clan. The Nantucket Winery produces a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and even a Syrah amongst other wines. None of these wines make it to Ireland, largely because of cost, they are very expensive and produced in small quantities, but even more so because there is a cultural blind spot in Ireland, indeed in Europe to US wines.
We drink, huge quantities of US wines, they are the fifth largest source of our wines in Ireland, but they go largely unnoticed in their origin because these US wines hide in plain sight in the form of huge brands like, Gallo Blush Zinfandel, Turning Leaf and Sutter Home. These Californian high volume, entry level wines sell in large quantities through supermarkets so easily that they rarely seem to need or want to emphasise their origins at all.
Wine makers in California despair when they here that we know US wines through these brands.
“It makes me very disappointed” says Francis Mahoney, former owner of Carneros Creek Winery in Sonoma Valley and current owner of Francis Mahony Winery, a pioneer of Pinot Noir in California in the 1960s, and son of two Cork natives, his father from Skibbereen and his mother from Macroom.
“I am always disappointed that the wines I see on the shelves in Ireland from here are so bland, so unrepresentative of what we do.” Says Mahoney. “The whole culture of wine in the states today is about connecting with the land, with authenticity and that’s not always evident in those other wines.”
The Roots of A Wine Nation
Thanksgiving itself is part of this back to basics, back to the organic, earthy origins of US life. Thanksgiving Day is a celebration of locality and family, in complete contrast to the US Christmas a festival of auspicious consumption.
A key insight into Thanksgiving’s significance can be seen in New York.
In New York on Thanksgiving Day, which is this Thursday the 26th of November, the city comes to a standstill for a giant parade, Macy’s Parade. Half of Manhattan will be sealed off and filled with absolutely giant floating balloons, many the size and height of the GPO in Dublin, which rise up to he height of Liberty Hall.
Millions will watch the parade, hundreds of thousands will line the route, many booking into hotels along the route to get a view.
Macy’s Department store, will be closed for business.
Manhattan, along with the rest of the country will be all but completely closed for business. That is almost inconceivable in this the most unbridled consumerist nation.
Everywhere else is closed too because the whole of the US tries to head home to be with family or in groups of friends for the high ritual of Thanksgiving Dinner.
Independence Day celebrates the political freedom of the state from British rule, but Thanksgiving Day is the more psychically charged event, being the primordial day of creation of America in the mind of US citizens.
It is a day of national celebration now given legal status in law, where it occurs by Congressional Bill on the third Sunday of November every year.
Children across the US are taught that those first colonists, who arrived in the Mayflower, landing and setting foot for the very first time on America on Plymouth Rock itself, invited the native Americans to join them in a celebration, where they ate pumpkin pie, turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes. This is the main menu of the day in modern celebrations in meticulous ritual honour.
The message of the day is inclusively, the native Americans and the settlers sharing their food, with the emphasis on inviting the native Americans into the colony itself. So getting your entire family and everyone you know around the table, to feast and gorge on food and drink is central to the day.
Of course, there are some significant problems with such symbolism, that in effect the Native Americans were at first embraced by the colonists, that they shared the land
In this view of history America was not founded by barbaric, land-grabbing religious zealots who committed genocide to take a whole continent for themselves from the vast indigenous peoples who had lived there for millennia.
Nevertheless it is the more myopic vision of embracing cuktural diversity that the USA has largely now gotten behind and it has been almost totally secularised and is a celebration of a country at peace with its regional diversity, its rooted local self.
The New US Wine Order
One of the problems for Irish wine importers is that they find it hard to get at that local, diverse produce, such as the wines from the majority of states that now produce wine in more than sufficient quantities to export it. The problem is price and to some extent a cultural blind spot about the need to be known outside of your own neighbourhood.
In wine producing countries like France, Spain or New World countries like Australia or Chile, there had always been a wine drinking culture so wine was seen first and foremost as a domestic, everyday drink. This kept prices low except for the odd highly prized wine.
This is why supermarket shopping for wines in France or Spain can be so rewarding.
In the US wine was always a rarity, the struggle to successfully grow vines, in hostile predator filled soils obsessed the early colonists and successive generations of wine loving Americans including famously Thomas Jefferson, whom we have pointed out in tis column on several occasions had his own experimental vineyards endlessly tyring to figure out why vines never succeeded in the US.
The answer was microscopic, the Phylloxera louse which European vines had no resistance too. The solution was to graft European vines, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and so forth onto native US vine roots. But it took 3 centuries to figure that out.
So, by the time the US wine explosion began in the middle of the 19th century, wine was seen as a tricky, rare and expensive luxury. Beer and distilled spirits from the southern states became the alcoholic drink of first choice in the US. Or almost, it is entirely likely that cider might have been the first alcohol produced by early US colonists, after all that were emigrants from Devon and Cornwall.
In the summer of 2008, wine sales surpassed those of beer in the US and coupled with changes in the law on marketing wine across the US, marks the dawn of a new love affair with wine across the United States.
The fact that each state now produces wine, means that wine has become a local, domestic product, which locals are taking a pride in.
“What is remarkable is just how loyal US consumers are to local products.” Says Veronique Drouhin owner and Chief winemaker of Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the Oregon state outpost of the large Burgundy winery Maison Drouhin.
“We Europeans might think of them as brash and even indiscriminate consumers, but this is absolutely not the case, they are loyal to local bakers, and increasingly farmers markets or produce clearly identified as from their state. Of course state laws do help, for example by making selling wine between the states as difficult as possible.” Says Veronique Drouhin.
“So the result is that there is great emphasis by wineries to sell at the winery door, or locally within the state, so, many people outside a particular state or even community might not see or taste the wines, it will all be consumed locally.” Says Veronique Drouhin.
Which makes wine an ideal accompaniment for the very local feasting and festival that is the Thanksgiving day feast, where there is also an emphasis on home cooking and local produce, the celebration being of course about the local bounty that got the Pilgrims through their first years on a new continent.
For Irish wine lovers, hoping to raise a glass of such local US wines it is a difficult, but not impossible task. Here is a guide to the more regional accent of American wine.
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, pinot noir 2006 (93) around €50 Tesco
-larger and selected Tesco outlets like Tesco Merrion Road or Tesco Bloomfield Centre Dun Laoghaire
Firesteed, Pinot Gris, Oregon, 2005 (89) around €15.95
-Cases Wine Warehouse, Riverside Commercial Estate, Tuam Road,Galway
Firesteed Pinot Noir, Oregon 2005 (90) around €21
-64 Wine, Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co. Dublin and O’Donovan’s Off Licences, Cork City and County
Cakebread Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley 2006 (92) around €37.50
-Mitchell and Son, CHQ Building , IFSC Dublin 1, and 54 Glasthule Road, Sandycove
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, Geyserville 2006 (91) around €43.95
-Fallon & Byrne, 11 Exchequer St, Dublin 2.
Clos du Val, Chardonnay, Napa Valley 2006 (91) at €18.99 down from €23.50 until December 28th
-O’Briens Wines, Nationwide
Other Californian Wines
Marimar Torres, Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley 2003 (91) around €44
-O’Briens Wines, nationwide
Concannon Family Winery, Petit Sirah, Livermore 2004 (90) around €17.99
-O’Donovans Off Liscences, Cork City and County and Harvest Offlicence Chain, Galways City and County
L’Ecole No 41 Chardonnay, Washington 2005 (91) around €19
-64 Wines, 64 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Co. Dublin
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