Thirty-five years ago, a British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier organized a wine competition in Paris, where he pitted California's best Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against the best wines that France had to offer.
Everyone assumed that France would win. After all, the nation had been making wine for thousands of years and was widely regarded as the world's top wine region. But with both the whites and the reds, California won.
The only journalist who attended -- George Taber from TIME magazine -- swiftly shared the results with the world.
Ever since, no one has doubted the ability of America's West Coast to produce world-class wine. And today, one can find California Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon Pinot Noir, and Washington State Merlot at restaurants across the world.
Last month, George Taber traveled to Colorado to attend the fourth annual DrinkLocalWine conference, which spotlights wine made in the other 47 states and Canada. He was very impressed with the wines. I also attended the conference, and was equally impressed.
DrinkLocalWine is the brainchild of Jeff Siegel, a Dallas-based wine writer who blogs at WineCurmudgeon.com, and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre, who blogs at DMWineLine.com.
Launched in 2008, it was originally a website where Siegel and McIntyre could highlight bloggers who wrote about regional wines.
The rationale was easy to understand. The United States and Canada had witnessed a dramatic increase in wineries and quality was steadily improving. Yet local wines were "routinely shrugged off by major wine publications, retail stores, restaurants, and even consumers." The two men wanted a portal where they could link to writers who respected regional wine.
The movement quickly took off. Just months after the launch of DrinkLocalWine, the Texas Department of Agriculture offered to sponsor a conference in 2009. The event was an unqualified success, bringing about 80 wine fanatics and 20 journalists to Dallas.
The following year, the DrinkLocalWine crew held a conference in Virginia, and in 2011, the group headed to Missouri. This year's event attracted more than 200 wine enthusiasts and nearly 40 journalists from across the country.
It's safe to say that the local wine movement has officially arrived. As Jeff Siegel explained after this year's conference, "Regional wine is . . . very close to becoming just another part of the U.S. wine business, and not the novelty it has mostly been for more than a decade."
We shouldn't be surprised that critics and consumers are taking regional wine seriously.
For one thing, good wine can be made virtually everywhere. Almost every week, I'm surprised by a wine from somewhere obscure -- whether it's nation, like Slovenia, or a region, like the Jura in France. Colorado and Virginia certainly seem less bizarre than these locales!
Plus, today's wine drinkers are adventurous. Whereas the consumers of yesteryear turned to well-known critics for advice, today's consumers are comfortable dismissing traditional gatekeepers and instead turning to local voices, like wine shop staffers and bloggers. Typically, these influencers are willing to drink with an open mind and an open palate -- and so are happy to recommend local wine as long as it's tasty.
Local wine does face some challenges. Too many North American vintners are growing the wrong grapes in the wrong soil, sticking to varieties like Merlot and Chardonnay simply because they're popular. In Europe, thanks to thousands of years of trial and error, most vintners know where each grape excels. That's why Riesling is grown in Germany and Tempranillo is grown in Spain.
Fortunately, this is changing. On my recent trip to Colorado, I met with winemakers who were experimenting with all sorts of different grapes. One of the best wines I tasted was a Gewurztraminer, which is typically associated with Alsace in France.
Last year, DrinkLocalWine co-founder Dave McIntyre explained why regional wine matters. "It's easy to think of local wineries as novelties instead of neighbors. But as we increasingly support local farmers and ranchers, why not vintners as well? Viticulture is agriculture. Locavore should be locapour." He's right.
In 1976, California's wines bested France's at a wine tasting that became known as the Judgment of Paris. Thanks to DrinkLocalWine, all of North America will soon have a reputation for producing some of the world's finest wines.
Until then, support your local winemaker!
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.