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Wine Wednesdays With William: The Man Who Invented Modern Wine

'saratoga living' wine expert William Roach on Frank Schoonmaker, whom we all have to thank for our vino obsession.

Frank Schoonmaker
(Eric Danley/Flickr)

Frank Schoonmaker was a writer, importer and wine educator who dropped out of Princeton University after two years and took off for prewar Europe. In France, he met Raymond Baudoin, Editor of the influential wine guide, La Revue du Vin de France. They traveled across the wine regions of France, and Schoonmaker became deeply familiar with the classic styles of French wine while making friends of the growers, particularly in Burgundy.

When Prohibition ended, Schoonmaker returned to the United States. He wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker, which were later published as The Complete Wine Book. He began to import wine, but then World War II intervened. Throughout the war, he served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in Spain and France, eventually being hospitalized near Lyon after his Jeep hit a land mine. While convalescing, he reacquainted himself with his Burgundy friends. It was their wine Schoonmaker imported into this country; wine made in Burgundy and Chablis.

At that time, the early California wine industry routinely, if perfectly legally, labeled their product as so-called generic wine, borrowing the name of a European wine region, most commonly Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne or Chianti. Wine quality was mostly poor: White wines were often made from table grapes: Chianti and Burgundy could, and probably did, come from the same tank. Schoonmaker, although he was keen to support the growing California wine industry, could not be associated with it.

The lack of quality in California wine was often the result of the wrong type of grapevine in the vineyard. Maynard Amerine, from a position of authority at the viticulture department at the University of California, Davis, encouraged the California wine industry to plant the wine varieties whose names we now know well but which then were completely unheard of. Slowly, California’s vineyards were planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot, and the varietal names gained currency.

Frank Schoonmaker persuaded several California estates to label their wines according to grape variety. Wente Vineyards was the first. The Wente Vineyards “Graves,” which took its name from a Bordeaux wine region, was renamed Wente Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.
At that moment, the public became aware of different wine grape varieties and, rightly or wrongly, to formulate their preferences on that basis.

Wine Challenge No.4:
For your next wine encounter, compare a bottle of Graves, which will be predominantly Sauvignon Blanc, with a Californian, varietal Sauvignon Blanc at the same price. Consider the wines in terms of the intensity of fruit flavor, the level of acidity, and the influence, if any, of oak.

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William Roach

William was born in London, England, where he wrote and produced TV programs. He's married to Catharine Hamilton who, with her sister, owns Putnam Market on Broadway. William runs The Wine Room at Putnam Market where he teaches wine classes for The Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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