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Wine: More thoughts from Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson, left, of Wine America and Peter H. Cressy, president/CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, at Nelson's farewell party last week. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

As I wrote in my column this week, Bill Nelson is leaving town after stepping down as the national wine industry's chief lobbyist in Washington, a victim of the recession as the trade group Wine America felt the crunch. But as he prepares to return to Oregon, where he helped establish that state's wine industry in the 1970s, Nelson is decidedly optimistic about the future of American wine.

"We've seen an explosion of winemaking throughout the country," Nelson said of the industry's expansion, during an interview at Wine America's offices in Washington. "I was making wine in Oregon in 1972 when there were eight wineries in the state. Now there are more than 400. Wines are being made throughout the country that are distinct -- good or better than good."

As the wine industry has grown, the nation has developed a wine culture as well. "The United States is becoming less a wine elitist nation and one in which wine is a part of everyday life," Nelson said. "Local wineries, such as the 29 in Nebraska or the 40 in Maryland, are educating people about wine."

And we are learning about new wines that challenge our preconceptions. "There are exciting experiments going on throughout the country, with new, unfamiliar grape varietals," he said, giving special mention to noiret, a new disease-resistant varietal Nelson thinks may become a successful, inexpensive red wine. "The problem is the short attention span of the consumer."

Today, American wine hails mostly from the West Coast. but Nelson expressed optimism that new regions will continue to challenge the West if not in quantity, at least in quality.

"It's almost shocking how good wines are from some of these unheard-of areas," he said. "There is a whole range stretching from northwestern Georgia through western North Carolina and up the Blue Ridge through Virginia and Maryland, into southeastern Pennsylvania. Then you have the cold-weather belt of New York, northwestern Pennsylvania and Ohio. Michigan is making terrific wines. The Midwest is leading the way with new grape varieties that can withstand the cold winters. Then you have Colorado and the northwest, especially Idaho.

Nelson couldn't resist one last sales pitch, for the industry he has represented for so long, and for the hot-button issue that remains unresolved as he leaves the fight.

"There is a lot of good American wine to be had, and a lot of opportunity to visit the wineries and enjoy them," he said. "Per-capita consumption of wine by Americans will continue to rise, but if these small wineries are to continue to thrive, direct shipping is crucial."

-- Dave McIntyre
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  August 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Wine  | Tags: Dave McIntyre, wine  
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