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Wines that Changed the World

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 22, 2009 1:33pm ET

Most of us can recall the wine and even the moment or situation when we tasted a wine that changed our perception and appreciation for the world’s greatest beverage.

For me it was a close encounter with a 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet. I’d been drinking wine for a couple of years and one day visited the Heitz Cellar tasting room in St. Helena, where the host poured the new releases, including the 1968 Heitz Napa Valley Cabernet, followed by the ’68 Martha’s. The differences between the two Cabernets – the dimension, richness, complexity and distinctive minty currant personality of Martha’s – could not have been more profound.

I’m also interested in wines that -- for lack of a better phrase -- changed the wine world. Whether or not they were the first of their kind, or truly unique, matters less in this exercise than the impact they had on either the market, or consumers.

Whoever “invented” Champagne is a perfect example, as is whoever created the first port or Vintage Port. The who is less important than how it influenced the wine industry.

Piero Antinori’s Tignanello added Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to Tuscany’s anchor grape, Sangiovese, and effectively helped usher in the era of Super Tuscans reds. Antinori’s break with tradition and the elevation of quality of Tuscan-grown wines elevated our perception and appreciation of all Italian wines.

It’s easier for me to identify the modern milestones. Most old-world wines evolved over time, whereas most contemporary pioneering efforts are easier to identify.

David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir put Oregon on the map, while Sanford’s Sanford & Benedict Pinot did the same for Santa Barbara.

Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel created a new category of “pink” or “blush” wines.

Penfolds Grange, or Grange Hermitage, set a new quality standard for Australian Shiraz.

Blue Nun popularized Riesling, as did Georges Duboeuf with Beaujolais.

Chateau d'Yquem defined and still defines Sauternes, as Pétrus does Bordeaux’s Right Bank and Merlot.

Caymus Grace Family Cabernet ushered in the era of cult wines: small production, high-priced, single-vineyard Napa Cabernet made by a famous winery (Caymus) with a star winemaker (Chuck Wagner).

Randy Dunn gave Howell Mountain Cabernet an identity.

Turley reinvigorated and buffed up Napa Zinfandel by using single vineyards.

Robert Mondavi shone a light on Fumé Blanc.

Hanzell broke ground in Sonoma with Burgundian-inspired Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Pesquera introduced us to Ribera del Duero and Tempranillo.

Mas de Daumas Gassac gave Languedoc a buzz.

Phelps Insignia ignored varietal identification.

Acacia and Chateau St. Jean introduced handfuls of single-vineyard wines. Diamond Creek dissected its property into four site-specific, mountain-grown Cabernets.

Glen Ellen Proprietor's Reserve wines created “fighting varietals.”

That’s just a start. I’m thinking of additions and hoping you have a few.

Bryan So
CA —  January 22, 2009 3:23pm ET
Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars won Paris Blind Tasting in 1976 and put Napa wines at the same level as the best French wines.
Brian Buzzini
NorCal —  January 22, 2009 3:32pm ET
Although Plumpjack did it in 1997....I think Loring Wine Co was the first to go all screw cap in the 2004 Vintage? That's when screw cap wines were starting to make their acceptance in the World of fine wine....
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  January 22, 2009 4:09pm ET
Back in the mid '90s, I think that the folks at Leonetti showed that world-class Cabernets and Merlots could be produced in Washington State. Likewise, pioneers with other varieties like Cayuse with Syrah are continuing to show the amazing wines that can be grown and made in Washington.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 22, 2009 4:56pm ET
Agree with all three comments. Montelena was especially interesting because the Chardonnay came from Alexander Valley, a little known fact. I had Leonetti Merlot on my list as well, Brandon, and Rick Small at Woodward Canyon being important with distinctive wines as well.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 22, 2009 5:10pm ET
Is it accurate to say the Blue Nun popularized riesling when it is not and was not a riesling but a Muller-Thurgau?I would say that that monk who discovered that over-ripe grapes made better Riesling would more accurately be given credit for that!
Richard Robertson
January 22, 2009 5:12pm ET
Just a few more:Plumpjack was one of the first > $100 bottles with a screwcap.Leonetti helped put Washington wine on the map.Clos Apalta and Don Melchor helped put the "New, New World" in the same company as the Old World.
Andrew J Grotto
January 22, 2009 5:31pm ET
Great list, James. I would add Tablas Creek for introducing modern Rhone clones to the United States. And perhaps some credit is due to Casella for its Yellow Tail brand. Its Shiraz in particular has served as a "gateway" wine for many American wine consumers aged 35 or younger, and this demographic is largely responsible for the significant increases in U.S. wine consumption these past 10 or so years.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  January 22, 2009 6:00pm ET
I would add that Inniskillin opened the world of Canadian wine (and ice wine in general) to most Americans.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  January 22, 2009 6:05pm ET
I do not know which King it was was, but the grape harvest in Germany used to be "declared" before anyone could harvest by the King. One year he was stuck in Italy and the grapes were left too long and froze - Eiswein, which then got put Canada on the map with Icewine. Konzelmann probably further changed the wine world in Canada now with the first ever Canadian wine to reach the top 100 this year - Vidal Icewine, probably also the first hybrid?The ironic part of Blue Nun making Riesling popular is that the one in a silly Blue bottle does not even contain Riesling I don't think. If I am correct it is Muller Thurgau. Which further shows how Germany's "quality system" at one point hurt the quality of many German wines and their reputation for years by allowing Qualitatswein to be labelled on many varieties as long as the sugar reached its very low minimum.Great, fun blog. There has been a lot of history with this great beverage. Thanks James.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 22, 2009 6:29pm ET
A few thoughts:

Cloudy Bay defined the possibilities of New Zealand's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, now accepted as an iconic style.

New Zealand also led the world to acceptance of twist-offs on serious wines.

Eyrie proved that the New World could challenge the world's standards for Pinot Noir, but Ponzi set the more generous style that now prevails in Oregon.
Tom Samuelson
Seattl, WAe —  January 22, 2009 7:22pm ET
Opus I, first great joint venture wine as well as being first ultra premium merritage style wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 22, 2009 8:42pm ET
Tom, agree Opus did change the mindset and raise the quality bar (not to mention prices), bringing a close Bordeaux tie to Napa Cabernet and the Meritage style. Insignia was ahead of that curve too.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 22, 2009 8:46pm ET
I admit it's been a long time since I thought about Blue Nun (and 40 years since I've had a glass) and its grapes and you may be right. I'm sure you're right -- Muller-Thurgau is in it and maybe no Riesling. So if I'm wrong and there's no Riesling in the wine I stand corrected!
Fred Brown
January 22, 2009 9:11pm ET
The Catena family for making really good Malbec in a range of price/quality brackets accessible to the world outside Argentina.
Joe Downs
Vason Island, WA —  January 22, 2009 11:14pm ET
There may be catcalls over this one, but I believe that the Trinchero Family changed the wine world with Sutter Home's first "blush" wine, White Zinfandel. By popularizing this type of easily accessible wine, Sutter Home helped to elevate wine to "cocktail" status, and exposed many people to wine as a beverage. As a result, many of those people where introduced to other wines and moved from "hard" liquor to wine as an adult beverage alternative. While it may be crass to say so, White Zinfandel was the "Gateway" wine that moved people beyond much of the domestic plonk that had came before it. The impact of this seemingly innocuous wine on the American wine industry should not be dismissed. Whether they wish to admit it or not, plenty of Baby Boomers cut their teeth on this stuff.
Scott Oneil
UT —  January 22, 2009 11:55pm ET
What Giacomo Tachis and Antinori did for Tuscany by creating Tignanello Angelo Gaja did for Barbaresco by adding Barbera to his Nebbiolo, declassifying his Barbaresco as Antinori declassified his Chianti. 'Takes courage on both accounts, and the results in quality and reputation are well deserved.On the topic of screw-caps, Baumard deserves credit for being the first (and I believe only, still) sweet-wine producer of such world-wide reputation to put their entire production under screw-cap. I'm grateful.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  January 23, 2009 12:19am ET
Great list and topic James! No Haut-Brion? The main Bordeaux Chateau that Thomas Jefferson visited in 1787 and the 1st recorded First Growth to be imported into the US. If you are into your Bordeaux history, this wine is paramount.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  January 23, 2009 2:18am ET
And don't forget Rodney Strong, James. I believe he was the first in California to introduce 'vineyard designated' wines from Winsor Vineyards (mail-order w/personalized labels) and Sonoma Vineyards in the retail arena. We miss Rodney and his special dogs that used to roam his vineyards and greet visitors.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  January 23, 2009 10:08am ET
James: The ironic part of Blue Nun, is you are still right even if it contains no Riesling. It still made Riesling more popular beoause it was believed and still is on many occasions that all wine from Germany is Riesling. Part of how it also got such a bad rap for so long.
Jim Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  January 23, 2009 10:29am ET
For better (the quality of the wine) or worse (the onset of absurdly expensive cult wines): 1992 Screaming Eagle.
Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  January 23, 2009 11:06am ET
Hi James, great blog, it has certainly raised some interesting points and made me think about some of the more memorable wines I've had in my young life.

Re: Tuscany, do you think that it could be argued that far before Tig, that San Felice broke the mould by creating a "super-tuscan" in their Chianti estate by opting not for the red/white grape mix, but rather with 100% Sangiovese that led to the movement towards the Chianti Classicos we have today?

If so, then I put San Felice as one of my trend-setters in the Industry, that and the work they do with the University of Florence with regards to reclaiming ancient Italian varietals such as Pugnitello.

Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 23, 2009 11:19am ET
Wow! You guys know your wines! Great BLOG!!!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2009 11:37am ET
Andrew, I recall San Felice's Vigorello as being an early Super Tuscan as well. Perhaps Suckling or someone else knows more details.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2009 12:19pm ET
I ran into Rod Berglund, Joseph Swan's winemaker, Wednesday in Sonoma, reminding me of the importance of Joseph Swan's pioneering work with vineyard-designated Pinots and Zinfandels in Russian River Valley. That also triggered a thought about the Rochiolis and Joe Rochioli planting Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (along with some Zin and Cabernet in Russian River) and how Williams Selyem led the Sonoma Pinot movement with a Rochioli bottling.
Ed Fryer
Nashville, TN —  January 23, 2009 12:40pm ET
Did Blue Nun used to advertise on TV (as well as Riunite and Andre) back in the early 80's? Funny, I have never tasted Blue Nun, but I did think it was a riesling. Never thoughtmuch about it either way. It's 2009 and after literally ten thousand articles on the great riesling grape, countless incredible ratings andtasting challenges, the "cheap sweet wine" image of Germany and riesling sadly has barely changed except for a small percentage of the population. It's not much fun to feel so passionate about a country, their wine and how wonderful this grape can be to be instantly able to see the blantant disinterest on a consumers face. What they are missing at the expense of an old, outdated image. Best wine for me 1989 and 1990 Haut Brion. My first "real wine" was a mid to late 70's PerrierJouet Rose Champagne. Still remember the color in the flute and the incredible smoke, coffee andtart strawberry flavors like it was yesterday.Don't know that PJ revolutionized the wine industry, but they sure didn't hurt it. First Growth Bordeaux, well, they may have had some influence on the industry...unless you exclusively like Burgundy. That's probably a fight for another blog!
Bryan So
CA —  January 23, 2009 1:34pm ET
I think this is extremely important, although I am not extremely familiar with the entire story: something about exporting Zinfandel stock to Bordeaux so they become resistant to somethin... like phylloxera?? Would like to read more about this event.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  January 23, 2009 1:47pm ET
did Numanthia-Termes put Toro on the map, so to speak?
Andrew Bernardo
Halifax, Nova Scotia —  January 23, 2009 2:46pm ET
Not meaning to knock down your statement about Tig in any way, because it was massively important in terms of what we see Super Tuscans today, it was just a thought in terms of "paving the way". It would be great for Mr. Suckling to provide some insight on the matter as well.

Nevertheless, Dennis is right, this particular blog has brought out some very interesting and educated answers.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2009 2:59pm ET
Spain's great Vega Sicilia deserves consideration as well...as does Chateau Musar from Lebanon in my book.
James Suckling
 —  January 23, 2009 3:10pm ET
Le Pin started the whole notion of garage wines and then became a mainstay. Sassicaia invented the appellation of Bolgheri and made Cabernet a great varietal in Italy. Angelo Gaja made Nebbiolo world famous with his single vineyard Barbarescos before foresaking the appellation for Langhe DOC. Biondi-Santi created Brunello but currently makes insipid wines. Let me think of a few more.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2009 3:14pm ET
Ed, certainly widespread media brands, whether Blue Nun, or Hearty Burgundy, Runite, Paul Masson (with Orson Wells the advocate), Italian Swiss Colony (and the little old winemaker) Lancer's etc. did change the wine world by bringing wine to the masses. So did Boone's Farm, I guess. And who could forget Bartles & Jaymes?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 23, 2009 3:16pm ET
James, I knew I could count on you. Keep working. There are no days off...
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  January 23, 2009 4:05pm ET
Nicolas Joly (who has learned from the readings of Rudolph Steiner) has definitely played a big part in making Biodynamic Winegrowing a major part of today's wine industry.
Aaron Mandel
Saint Louis —  January 23, 2009 4:07pm ET
I believe Haut-Brion may have been the first bordeaux wine to be exported under its own name as well.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
January 23, 2009 4:43pm ET
James, those moments you mention at the beginning of your block. For me was when I first tasted Don Melchor 2003. Simply magical (at a personal level).

I would add Pingus and L'Ermita from Alvaro Palacios. For sure there were Pesquera Janus or Vega Sicilia Unico. For me Pingus did what Le Pin did and that deserve attention. I would also take Argentina as a whole with Catena Zapata and Achaval Ferrer leading the way.
Andrew Alley
Burlington, NC —  January 23, 2009 8:23pm ET
James,How about Alois Kracher, who recently passed away, and his pioneering Austrian dessert wines. Not only did he elevate the status of Austria great BA's, Eiswein, and TBA's by taking on Ch. D'Yquem in numerous head-to-head battles, but the quality of his wines and his tireless promotion helped re-invigorate the entire Austrian wine community after the 1985 scandal.On a second note, no list of immortals could be complete without Paul Draper. Whether you look at the Bordeaux-style elegance and ageworthiness of Monte Bello or his use of field blends (mixed blacks) in the classic Lytton Springs and Geyserville Zins.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 23, 2009 9:34pm ET
I agree with Joe D...Sutter Home White Zin started my journey. Also, one should consider Deaver as the father of modern Red Zin (from Amador)
Kenneth A Galloway
Paris, France —  January 24, 2009 8:48am ET
Gary Vaynerchuck and Winelibrary TV introduced wine to the American Football audience and conquered Web 2.0 and wine sales over the internet. I personally think this is huge and a major player in the growth of wine in the US. Gary's even been featured at Web 2.0 conferences in Paris, where I currently reside.
Chad Bowman
Manhattan, KS —  January 24, 2009 5:57pm ET
Not to get off topic, but I think Crushpad needs some recognition here. I think they are bringing the dream of owning your own winery to an affordable reality. Now, you and I have the real chance to say that we own, harvest, and bottle our own wine. I think it is breaking the aristocratic, family owned barriers and letting otherwise, Kansas-bound people (like me) have a hand in something truly awe-inspiring.
Douglas Potoczak
North Ridgeville ,Ohio —  January 24, 2009 8:57pm ET
How about the 1977 Fonseca? I love vintage port and have read about the 1928's and 1945's but will most likely never taste them. The 1977 Fonseca is sublime and to think I could have bought all I wanted at 55$ a bottle!
James Shea
January 24, 2009 9:02pm ET
schramsberg for proving sparkling wine can be great outside the champaigne region.
Farhana Haque
Queens, NY —  January 24, 2009 11:55pm ET
Not sure who started it, but Arizona wines have begun getting great reviews.
Neil Gustafson
Chicago, IL —  January 25, 2009 8:30am ET
Agreed that AZ are the new up and comers but let's give it a while before we give it "world changing status" Most wine makers in AZ are still in the stages of figuring out what works and what doesn't. Pioneers yes...life changing, we will have to see
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  January 26, 2009 9:21am ET
Coppola for starting the celebrity winery trend. Not sure if this is ground breaking, but it has created a lot of sales and some funny labels.
Victor Perez
Utuado PR —  January 26, 2009 12:03pm ET
I think Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta is the one responsible for Chile's prestige together with Montes Alpha M. and Almaviva.
Rob Lentini
Alexandria, Virginia —  January 26, 2009 1:57pm ET
How about the Bordeaux Classification of 1865 by Napolean (or per his request/order or whatever) made a good size impact... Wasn't a particular wine, but basically invented the Growths we know and love.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 26, 2009 2:16pm ET
Rob, you make an excellent point about the classification, not only in Bordeaux but in other regions as well, where the "best" vineyards and/or chateaus were identified, by both price and quality.
Ted A Hunt
Fort Lauderdale, Fl —  January 26, 2009 5:01pm ET
James - I have always felt Tom Jordan made a very meaningful contribution to the world of wine drinkers. He assembled land in Sonoma and a team who produced an immediately approachable classy Bordeaux style Cabernet that to this day remains consistently "Jordan". The 1978 Cab changed everything about wine for my wife, Linda and me. While we have widened our own wine horizons considerably, we have a special bond with Jordan Cabernet.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 27, 2009 11:10am ET
I have appreciated many wines over the years, some that others have mentioned, and I would not want to take anything away from their contributions and accomplishments, but only one wine has truly changed my life personally, that being the wine lifted in a toast two millennia ago at a Jewish Passover where the greatest winemaker ever instituted a covenant for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  February 7, 2009 1:53pm ET
Thanks for the enlightenment about the many wines, people and places, it's always interesting to hear about so many wines that were iconic in so many different ways.I always remember 68 Heitz Martha's myself as well as 71 and 75 DRC's as being my personal "eye openers" to the greatness of wine. Thanks to all for the input on this blog.

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