The history of wine in the U.S.

In his 1866 book “The Cultivation of The Native Grape, and Manufacture of American Wines,” winemaker George Husmann states:

I firmly believe that this continent is destined to be the greatest wine-producing country in the world; and that the time is not far distant when wine, the most wholesome and purest of all stimulating drinks, will be within the reach of the common laborer…

150 years later, it is safe to say that Husmann was right. Today’s U.S. wine industry produces wine in all fifty states (California leads the way, followed by New York, Washington State and Oregon). The country is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world after France, Italy, and Spain, and–according to Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia–the production in the State of California alone is more than double the production of the entire country of Australia.

The first European settlers called North America “Vinland” due to the prolific grape vines they found throughout the New World. Ironically, these native species of grape (Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis) are not the ones responsible for today’s U.S. wine industry: that accolade belongs to the European Vitis vinifera, which was brought to the New World by European settlers. How and why it was introduced to a verdant land already filled with grapevines is a fascinating story.

NOTE: The history of the United States seems split into two chapters: the initial founding of the East Coast, and then the Manifest Destiny expansion into the West and eventual founding of the Western States. The history of wine in the U.S. follows a similar pattern, so we will first look at the history of grape production on the East Coast and then on the West. You will find that the histories are very different, and even today, the wines from these regions vary greatly as well.

The History of Wine in the U.S.

First (failed) East Coast attempts at wine making

The earliest wine made in what is now the United States was from the grapevine Vitis rotundifolia, more commonly called Scuppernong grapes. French settlers near Jacksonville, Florida attempted to make wines with this grape between 1562 and 1564.

The history of wine in the U.S.

Scuppernong grape

Although the grapes did not produce successful wines, the Scuppernong (a large, green grape) maintained its place in American culture: one particular 400-year-old vine from Roanoke Island holds the title as “oldest cultivated vine”, and the Scuppernong is also the state fruit of North Carolina. Harper Lee also made mention of the fruit in “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Finders were keepers unless title was proven. Plucking an occasional camellia, getting a squirt of hot milk from Miss Maudie Atkinson’s cow on a summer day, helping ourselves to someone’s scuppernongs was part of our ethical culture, but money was different.

The failed Scuppernong vines marked the beginning of a long road of trial and error for New World winemakers. Thankfully, the settlers possessed an impressive amount of fortitude to produce quality wines; in fact, in the early American colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas, wine making was an official goal laid out in their founding charters. However, as with the Scuppernong grape, settlers discovered that the wine made from native grapes had flavors which were unfamiliar and unappealing, which paved the way for a market of European varietals.

Introduction of Vitis vinifera (and subsequent failures)

The growth of Vitis vinifera varieties began when the Virginia Company exported French vinifera vines to Virginia in 1619. Unfortunately, these early plantings of foreign vines were met with failure due to native pests and vine diseases which ravaged the vineyards. To combat pests, winemakers looked to interbreed native and foreign vines, thus creating a disease-resist vine with the flavor characteristics of European varietals. It is believed that in 1683, William Penn planted the first of these hybirds: a vineyard of French Vitis vinifera in Pennsylvania that may have been interbred with a native Vitis labrusca vine to create the hybrid grape Alexander. (The grape went on to be fairly successful; in fact, one of the first commercial wineries in the United States was founded in Indiana in 1806 with production of wine made from the Alexander grape, and today, French-American hybrid grapes are commonly produced on the East Coast).

Over one hundred years after Penn’s attempt at a hybrid grape, the first commercial vineyard and winery in the United States was established through Kentucky Legislature on November 21, 1799. The viticulturist for the vineyard was John James Dufour of Vevey, Switzerland. It is known as the “First Vineyard”.

A copy of the vineyard certificate bestowed upon James Dufour by the State of Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Wine and Vine.

The first wine from the First Vineyard was consumed on March 21, 1803, and the vineyard continued until 1809 when a May freeze destroyed the crop and many vines. The Dufour family then abandoned the First Vineyard and relocated to Vevay, Indiana.

West Coast attempts

A far cry from the political and commercial interests of the East Coast wine industry, the roots of the West Coast wine making are in ministry. In California, the first vineyard and winery was established by the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra near San Diego in 1769 (this is also where the first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcala, was founded). As the missionaries moved northward to build more missions, they carried the vines with them, eventually reaching Sonoma around 1805.

The history of wine in the U.S.

Mission San Diego de Alcala, where missionaries who cultivated the first California grapes/wine worked and worshiped.

Although California has two native grape varieties, the missionaries quickly realized that they make very poor quality wine. Therefore, the missionaries used the Mission grape, which was introduced to South America by Spanish settlers who called the grape “criolla.” Although a Vitis vinifera variety, it does not produce high quality wines and it was soon overtaken by other varietals. Just a few decades later, the “49ers” would come bearing the Zinfandel grape which would come to thrive in the California sun.

First U.S. wine making successes (finally!)

We might all think of “California” when we think of successful wineries, but surprisingly, the first commercially successful winery in the United States is from Cincinnati, Ohio, when in the 1830s, Nicholas Longworth made a sparkling wine from Catawba grapes. Like the Alexander grape planted by Penn, Catawba is a hybrid of a Vitis vinifera and a native Vitis lambrusca North American grape.

Longworth’s Catawba sparkling wine was well-received and shipped as far as Europe, although the wine was also revered in the United States: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a poem dedicated to Nicholas Longworth titled “Ode to Catawba Wine”, and the popularity of Longsworth’s wine encouraged vine plantings along the Ohio River Valley and up north to Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes region of New York. Longworth was so influential that newspapers began referring to him as “the founder of wine culture in America, author of sparkling Catawba.”

History of wine usa

Nicholas Longworth, aka “the founder of wine culture in America, author of sparkling Catawba.”

The success of Longworth and the popularity of his Catawba grape peaked in 1859: in 1860, vineyards in the Ohio River Valley were attacked by a powdery mildew which the long-ripening Catawba grape was incredibly susceptible to; the following year, the Civil War broke out and winemaking efforts ceased throughout many parts of the country. This major setback was followed by the phylloxera epidemic in the West in the late 19th century and Pierce’s disease in the East, which each took their tolls on the growing American wine industry. Just as wineries were recovering from each of these massive hurdles, they came face-to-face with the biggest obstacle the United States wine industry has ever had to overcome: Prohibition.

Prohibition’s setback to the U.S. wine industry

Prohibition in the United States first began in 1846 when Maine became the first state to prohibit liquor sales or consumption; it culminated in the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 which forbade the manufacturing, sale and transport of alcohol. Although some wineries managed to survive thanks to exceptions that were made for sacramental wine, the United States commercial wine industry was destroyed.

History of Wine USA

Not surprisingly, after the repeal of Prohibition, American wine making reemerged in a poor state. Talented winemakers had died, vineyards had been neglected or replanted with table grapes, and (perhaps worst of all) Prohibition had changed Americans’ taste in wines. Consumers now demanded cheap “jug wine” (so-called dago red) and sweet, fortified (high alcohol) wine. Before Prohibition, dry table wines outsold sweet wines by three to one, but after the ratio was more than reversed; in 1935, 81% of California’s production was sweet wines.

Progressing after Prohibition

Thankfully, just as the New World settlers possessed a great deal of fortitude when it came to pioneering wine making in the United States, post-Prohibition Americans were driven to produce the top-quality wines that the soil of the U.S. is capable of. And they had help, in the forms of universities and foreign lenders, to reach their goal.

Leading the way to new methods was research conducted at the University of California, Davis (my alma mater! Go Aggies!) and some of the state universities in New York. Faculty at the universities published reports on which varieties of grapes grew best in which regions, held seminars on winemaking techniques, consulted with grape growers and winemakers, offered academic degrees in viticulture, and promoted the production of quality wines. As the University of California, Davis Viticulture & Oenology website says, “In the years after Prohibition, UC Davis helped vintners to get back on their feet by making sound wines. The priority was avoiding spoilage and contamination in the winemaking process.”

The history of wine in the U.S.

Cellars like this one at Jarvis are testaments to the opulence now associated with wines in the U.S.

As the American wine industry began to grow and change, it received funding from foreign investors; simultaneously, the American palate began to change, thus shifting the focus of wines being produced. Table wine began to replace the sweet, fortified wines produced shortly after Prohibition, and American wine consumption increased significantly. In the now-famous Paris tasting of 1976, American wines received worldwide recognition when a California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon beat out French wines in a blind taste test, earning the United States the reputation of being one of the top quality wine regions in the world.

Today the American wine industry faces the growing challenges of expanding international exports and dealing with domestic regulations on interstate sales and shipment of wine. But the future of the industry is also bright: as new winemakers emerge from universities and more and more Americans express an interest in wine, the industry continues to prosper.