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The Rise Of American Wine
AFTER TRYING TO PRODUCE DRINKABLE WINE for three hundred years, we finally got the hang of it—so effectively that in the last quarter-century our results have raised the quality of winemaking all over the world
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
The first Western vineyards belonged to Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande in New Mexico and Franciscan missions in California. The wine was made for religious purposes, but secular pleasures could not be ignored for long, and by the early nineteenth century vinifera vines were being grown commercially near Los Angeles. The grape of choice, called the Mission, came from Spain via South America, and by all accounts the wine made from it tasted simple and dull. Things remained fairly dull until the 1850s. Then, following the Mexican-American War and the gold rush, came the first California wine boom. It was led by immigrants—for example, the Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy, the Germans Charles Krug and Jacob Beringer, the Frenchman Charles LeFranc and his Burgundian son-in-law, Paul Masson. These viticultural pioneers planted vines all up and down the California coast, concentrating mostly on the valleys north and east of San Francisco Bay. First in Sonoma and then in Napa, they experimented with every Vitis vinifera grape variety they could get their hands on. (Haraszthy alone brought back some three hundred varieties from a European trip in 1861.) Not surprisingly they made wines on a strict European model. One of the best accounts is Robert Louis Stevenson’s in The Silverado Squatters , published in 1883. Stevenson, who knew fine wine from his youth in Edinburgh and his travels on the Continent, lived for a year or so in an abandoned miner’s house in the Napa Valley. “Wine in California is still in the experimental stage,” he wrote. “So, bit by bit, [the Californians] grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.” Stevenson especially admired the wines made by Jacob Schram near Calistoga. In Schram’s cellars, “earth’s cream [is] being skimmed and garnered,” and one “can taste, such as it is, the tang of the earth.” Some of the Schramsberg wines were being shipped to London, and Stevenson noted with approval that “Mr. Schram has a great notion of the English taste.”
By the 1880s California had surpassed Ohio to become the leading wine-producing state in the Union. Phylloxera arrived in force that same decade, but because the remedy of grafting onto resistant rootstock had been discovered, what could have been agricultural disaster ended up as little more than a financial downturn. Soon California wines started winning medals in international competitions, including more than thirty at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. They were being exported to Australia, Asia, and South America, in addition to Europe. Even more important, they were beginning to gain some small measure of acceptance in the East. The stage seemed set, then, for domestic wine to begin shedding its image as second-rate and inferior. After almost three centuries American wines finally were becoming “neere as great [as] our French Brittish,” and a culture for their appreciation seemed to be on the rise.
But another, stronger culture also was ascendant—that of temperance and then Prohibition. In 1851 Maine became the first state to go dry. By 1914 some thirty-two others had followed suit, and then in 1920 the national “noble experiment” began. Americans certainly did not stop making or drinking wine during the thirteen years of Prohibition. In fact they produced more wine than ever before. Some was sold for medicinal use, some went to bootleggers, but even more was homemade. The Volstead Act permitted each citizen to manufacture up to two hundred gallons of (supposedly nonintoxicating) wine or cider “exclusively for use in his home,” and farmers immediately started growing grapes specifically for this purpose. These grapes had to be extremely hearty. They often were shipped thousands of miles across the country, either in open railcars or in packages of concentrated juice known as wine bricks. Business boomed, and by 1923 some California vineyard prices had risen from five hundred to twenty-five hundred dollars an acre. But quantity, not quality, was all that mattered. No one cared anymore about the differences between wine grapes and table grapes, Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrusca , European-style and distinctly American wines. Grapes were grapes, yeast was yeast, and alcohol was alcohol. So while American wine survived and in raw numbers even prospered during Prohibition, what died was any culture for its appreciation.
When Repeal came in December 1933, the country was in the depths of the Depression. A few adventurous entrepreneurs tried to jump-start the California wine industry, but the vineyards all needed to be replanted, the banks had no money to loan, and most important, virtually everyone now thought of American wine as something made in a bathtub. The old East Coast image of American wine as secondrate was back with a vengeance, and some forty years would pass before it was seriously challenged.