The Rise Of American Wine

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Plenty would change in Europe over the next twenty years, but the most radical change of all was the rise of American wine—both in terms of quality and in terms of influence and renown. In one sense the rise was meteoric, so much so that the United States today has become arguably the most important winemaking country in the world. Yet wine had been produced in North America ever since the late 1600s, so in another sense the rise was a long time coming. For more than three centuries American wine had seen success only in fits and starts, with small victories almost invariably followed by large defeats. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, came the dizzying achievements of the last quarter-century. How did everything change so quickly? The answer is paradoxically but quintessentially American. On the one hand, the winemaking entrepreneurs whose work inspired the rise advocated individual self-reliance. Like so many Americans in so many fields before them, they believed that their present success had little, if anything, to do with past accomplishment. On the other hand, those same winemakers wanted nothing more than to create a tradition and establish a legacy. They believed that no accomplishment was too great for American nature, and they considered it their mission to make history from the fruit of that nature—American wine from grapes grown in American vineyards.

WITH WILD GRAPES growing in profusion all up and down the Eastern seaboard, America must have looked like a wine lover’s Eden to the first European settlers. John Smith’s Virginia Company made nearly twenty gallons during its first year of settlement, wine that Smith later remembered being “neere as great” as “our French Brittish.” His memory must have been playing tricks. All the other early settlers who tried to make wine from these native American Vitis labrusca grapes quickly concluded that the European Vitis vinifera grapes back home did a much better job. Nonetheless, Smith’s comment can be said to have raised the questions and initiated the debate that has dominated American winemaking for more than three centuries: Should American wine be fashioned on a strict European model? Or should it have a style and character of its own? For a long time the issue concerned the basic grape species, and so long as it did, the answer seemed simple enough. North American labrusca grapes were delicious to eat, but the wines made from them tended to smell and taste rank—something like wet fur. Obviously the thing to do was to import vinifera cuttings from Europe.

LORD DELAWARE MADE THE first attempt, establishing a plantation of French grapes in Virginia in 1619. His plants all died. The same fate befell the vines imported by William Penn, Lord Baltimore, Thomas Jefferson, and the many others who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries dreamed of making New World wine from Old World grapes. Jefferson, who thought of wine as a mark of civilization, wanted American wine to serve as an antidote to his young country’s “bane of whiskey.” He believed that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” and he wanted Americans to make “as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe”—wines that he knew might taste different but that he insisted would be “doubtless as good.” For nearly thirty years Jefferson planted French, German, and Italian vines at Monticello. Every one of them died. Finally, by 1809, he was forced to conclude that for the time being American winemakers would have to use the inferior native grapes. The resulting wine might not be as good, but it seemed clear to him that foreign vines “will take centuries to adapt to our soil and climate.”

Others kept trying. One of the most dedicated attempts was made by an Ohioan named Nicholas Longworth (1782-1863), who experimented with all sorts of imported vines in all sorts of soils and locations. He too failed. “I have tried the foreign grapes extensively for wine at great expense,” he admitted in 1843, “and not a single plant is left in my vineyards. I would advise the cultivation of native grapes alone.” Longworth certainly took his own advice. He planted extensive vineyards in the Ohio Valley near Cincinnati, concentrating on the Catawba grape, a hybrid cross between pure labrusca and vinifera . There he produced America’s first commercially successful wine, a sweet “Sparkling Catawba” that developed a considerable following. Comparisons with European wine were inevitable, and some Americans went so far as to judge Longworth’s wine superior even to Champagne. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave voice to this vinous version of manifest destiny in an 1854 poem titled “Catawba Wine,” part of which reads: