Every self-respecting oenophile and wine-industry member will be at least marking, if not celebrating, the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris on Tuesday. That blind tasting — wherein California wines bested French ones and upended the age-old hierarchy of the wine-drinking world — remains the single, most consequential event in American viticulture.
Yet there was another event in 1976 that had a similarly profound effect on the industry and on American wine, even on the wider foodie culture staring out at us from magazines, newspapers, TV shows and restaurant menus. On June 4 of that year, the New York Legislature passed the state’s Farm Winery Act. Gov. Hugh Carey signed it the same day.
The act allowed small producers, including grape growers, to sell wine directly to the public as well as directly to restaurants and other retailers. Before that, New York wineries were required to sell at least 95 percent of their wares through a distributor. It also reduced the licensing costs for setting up a winery from about $1,600 (more than $6,700 adjusted for inflation) to $125 (about $525 in today’s dollars).
The bill was a political solution to an immediate problem at the time: There was a glut of grapes upstate and growers were worried about widespread spoilage. Legislative leaders and Carey’s administration responded by overriding the concerns of larger wineries, which didn’t want the competition they knew the act would create, and made it easier for these growers to sell directly to consumers — farm-to-table or farm-to-bottle, as we call it today.
Several states had already passed similar legislation; Pennsylvania was the first east of the Mississippi, in 1968. But none had more impact than New York’s. The state was the second most populous in the union then and its biggest city was, just as now, the nation’s financial, media and cultural capital.
New York already had a reputation for decent winemaking, too, at a time when American wine was generally regarded as indistinct, if not comically bad (a TV commercial for E&J Gallo’s brisk-selling Pink Chablis included actors in medieval costumes, corny lute music and a wine that changed color, from white to pink, on-screen).
Finally, states such as Indiana and New Hampshire had passed earlier farm winery-like legislation, but they lacked New York’s prominence in the industry: New York was the second-biggest wine-producing state, behind longtime hegemon California.
Not surprisingly, New York state itself first felt the impact. The number of wineries grewfrom fewer than 15 to nearly 100 in the 1980s, and then around 125 the close of the century. The total now stands at more than 400, most smaller producers making no more than 150,000 cases yearly (the upper threshold of the farm winery legislation). The state’s leading wine trade group last estimated the economic impact of New York’s winemaking and grape-growing industries at $4.8 billion in 2014, up from $3.14 billion in 2005. The state government touts these figures as well.
Other states soon took notice. New York’s Farm Winery Act would by 1980 inspire at least 11 more states — as disparate as Alabama, Florida and Connecticut — to enact similar legislation or expansions of existing laws slashing red tape and costs.
The laws helped loose a torrent of new wineries in America. The number grew from fewer than 600 at the start of 1976 to more than 1,300 a decade later, according to the Wine Institute trade group. The total crested 3,000 at the start of the decade, and now stands at more than 10,000 — most smaller operations with local or regional distribution.
If New York’s farm winery act catalyzed these wineries, it also helped shape the rise of smaller craft breweries and distilleries, creating a kind of libationary echo reverberating into nearly every facet of the American alcoholic-beverage industry. New York enacted farm distillery and brewery acts in 2007 and 2012, respectively, citing the success of the one nearly a generation ago for wineries.
Like that one, the newer legislation made it easier and cheaper for smaller producers to open and operate — a model for other states to copy. New York’s farm distillery act in particular was revolutionary as several states in 2007 made it difficult to start a distillery, period.
The results have been familiar. The number of both smaller New York breweries and distilleries ballooned, first into the dozens and now, in the case of breweries, the hundreds.
In the end, that might be the New York Farm Winery Act’s most resounding effect. The Judgment of Paris made American wine a true global phenomenon. That other big wine event of 1976 made a lot of it local.
This column originally appeared in the Washington Post’s Post Everything blog.