The Man Who Changed the Language of Wine

The best way to learn about any subject is to read about it.

So when I was just “getting into wine,” I headed to a local used bookstore and purchased every volume dealing with wine that I could find. One was called “The Complete Wine Book,” which consisted of a series of articles dealing with a very broad range of topics. Published in 1934, it provided an extremely useful—if somewhat dated—overview, and made it quite clear that California wasn’t always the “darling” of the wine world.

The author was Frank Schoonmaker, who is one of four new electees to the Vintners Hall of Fame. Sadly, his induction will be posthumous, as he died in 1976. But his legacy now will live on, and that legacy is detailed here in a profile provided by Balzac Communications.

More than any other individual, Frank Schoonmaker was responsible for a revolution in the perception of California wine. In the late 1930s and ’40s, as a writer and businessman, he worked to bring reality to the California wine label.

In his words, to upgrade the poor popular perception of California wine, “…there was only one way…nomenclature.”

His career as a wine writer began with a series of articles in The New Yorker, later combined in 1934 in “The Complete Wine Book,” which had little good to say about California wine.

Later, he spent a month touring California wine country, finding numerous producers of excellent wines. War was coming to Europe, and its flow of wine to America would soon end. He moved to fill the gap, but not with wines labeled “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” He insisted that the wines he sold identify the grape variety and the geographical source—nomenclature.

His first find in 1939 was Wente Livermore Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Inglenook, BV, Fountaingrove and Louis Martini soon followed. He never let up in his campaign, which was long resisted by many in the California wine industry.

Schoonmaker’s tenacious advocacy of varietal labeling and the use of appellations of origin eventually won the day in the 1970s. Thomas Pinney, in his book “The Makers of American Wine”, wrote that Schoonmaker “gave a new identity” to California wine.

Tomorrow: We continue our week-long salute to the Vintners Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 with a profile of activist Cesar Chavez.

Posted in Wine Buzz
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