The Rise Of American Wine


For richest and best Is the wine of the West, That grows by the Beautiful River; Whose sweet perfume Fills all the room With a benison on the giver… . Very good in its way Is the Verzenay, Or the Sillery soft and creamy; But Catawba wine Has a taste more divine, More dulcet, delicious, and dreamy.

It is worth noting that Longworth himself did not claim this sort of superiority for his “wine of the West.” He planted plenty of native grapes and made plenty of money, but he never planted “native grapes alone.” For despite his success with Catawba, he knew in his heart that even hybrid labrusca varieties could never make wines equal in quality to the best from Europe. Hence he kept trying, and failing, to grow Vitis vinifera grapes. But like Jefferson and all the others before him, he could never figure out why those grapes kept dying in his vineyards.


THE EASTERN CLIMATE, WITH its high summer humidity and severe winter cold, didn’t help, but the real problem was phylloxera, a small yellow aphid that kills grapevines by attacking their roots. Although native American vines had become resistant to phylloxera through centuries of evolution, imported vinifera vines, which had no resistance, inevitably withered and died when planted in American soil. (Phylloxera eventually found its way to Europe; see the sidebar on page 89.) Not until the 1960s did anyone succeed in growing European grapes in the Eastern United States. Yet phylloxera was not native to all of North America. Until transported by man, it had never crossed the Rockies. So while Easterners either drank imported wine or made do with native grapes, the potential existed out West to produce wines on a European model. As a result, two very different wine cultures emerged in nineteenth-century America. The first, centered in the large cities on the Eastern seaboard, distinguished sharply between imported and domestic wines. Unlike Longfellow’s patriotic muse, it tended to view American wine, which came from places like Middle Bass Island, Ohio, and Hermann, Missouri, as second-rate if not lower-class. The other culture saw things differently. Centered in California, it considered American wines at least the potential equal of European imports. Yet since the metropolitan East dominated and indeed dictated so much of the national culture, this second view never seriously challenged the first. In most of the country, wine was enjoyed by aristocrats or immigrants, not by the population at large. By the end of the century, California was producing wines that could hold their own with Europe’s finest. Ironically, they were better known in London than in New York.