Perspective: Going Back to Cali

The evolution story of California wine, nonexistent back in 1955

If you want a quick taste of how sophisticated the wine scene was in 1950s America, let’s grab a table at Mike’s Log Cabin in Albany, N.Y., and ask to see the wine list. Oops, there isn’t one. But wait—there’s the wine selection right on the menu, just below the baked Virginia ham. So you’ve got a choice of French imports—sauternes and Dubonnet—or something sweet like port. What’s that you say? You want an American wine? Well, there’s the Manischewitz. Ready to order?

In 1955, when the Wine Advisory Board in San Francisco placed the ad at right, the above scenario was what they were up against. “People knew almost nothing about wine back then,” said Jim Kopp, principal of Acme Wine Marketing, a Santa Rosa consultancy that promotes California vintners. “Those who did know,” he added, “knew they were either French or Italian.” In other words, California growers questing for awareness and respect among mid-century American diners had their work cut out for them. California wines were hard to even find outside of California. And not only was the average, red-blooded American fella unlikely to have “pinot noir” in his vocabulary, but he’d also be damned if he was going to order a bottle of Russian River cabernet during the age of Sputnik. “It’s amazing that the California wine council was even trying this marketing back then,” Kopp added. “They were really swimming upstream.”

But as the 2012 ad for Napa Cellars chardonnay on the opposite page proves, they made it, too. “These ads make it clear just how far we’ve come,” Kopp said. “We’ve run from one extreme to the other.” But how we did is a story of marketing as much as one of timing and luck.

Ads like the one at right started the gradual awakening through sheer suggestive power. Laugh if you want, but Salisbury steak and spaghetti with meatballs constituted gourmet fare in the Eisenhower years. By placing the bottle of California burgundy on the table, “they were encouraging the average housewife to up her game,” Kopp said. Still, it would take more than magazine ads to give Napa Valley and chardonnay a foothold in the American cultural psyche.

First came the 1976 “Judgement of Paris,” in which Napa Valley reds and whites conquered their French counterparts in a blind taste test that made world news. Not long after that, Kopp recalled, “hotel chains like Hilton and Marriott started serving California wines by the glass. All of a sudden, people in Dayton, Ohio, could order a glass of California sauvignon blanc.” Fearful of missing out, casual-dining chains followed suit. “Then things really started to grow,” Kopp said.

They’ve kept growing, too. The 360 California wineries that existed in 1955 have since grown to 3,364. California wines are now a $19.9 billion industry, and two of every three bottles of wine bought in the U.S. originated in the Golden State. Stats aside, another way of measuring California wines’ ascendancy is the 2012 Napa ad, opposite, which has eschewed dinner-plate props and hand-holding copy in favor of the simple, crisp image of a chilled bottle. Were awareness of California wines not what it is today, Kopp says, a pared-down ad like this would not even work. “It’s a high-dollar image with the cachet of Mercedes,” Kopp noted. “And it’s a tribute to the job that California’s done in promoting itself.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.