More than 150 years ago, winemaker George Husmann published a book called The “Cultivation of The Native Grape, and Manufacture of American Wines”. In it, he wrote:
“I firmly believe that this continent is destined to be the greatest wine-producing country in the world.”
Today, it is alright to say that Husmann was right. Each of the fifty states produces wine, and the US is the fourth biggest wine producer in the world.
The first settlers from Europe nicknamed the new continent “Vinland” due to the many grape vines they found there. Ironically, the varieties they found there (Vitis Riparia, Vitis Rofundifolia, Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Amurensis, and Vitis Vulpina) didn’t contribute much to the development of winemaking in North America. All the accolade goes to Vitis Vinifera which was imported from Europe by the first European settlers. How a new variety won over a continent that already had its grape varieties is quite the story.
First Attempts to Make Wine in the New World (East Coast Struggles)
It was the French settlers living in Jacksonville, Florida, that first tried to make wine from the local varieties. They used grape from the Vitis Rotundifola variety, which is also known as the Scuppernong grapes.
Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to make wine. They had multiple attempts between 1562 and 1564.
But the initial failures didn’t discourage them. Instead, they continued their efforts to make wine from the local varieties. But whatever they could produce from those varieties has an unappealing taste.
That made them think that maybe it is time to import proven European varieties.
The Introduction of Vitis Vinifera
It was 1619 when the settlers imported the first European variety – Vitis Vinifera. But once again, things didn’t go as planned. Local vine diseases and native pests ravaged this variety.
As a result, the settlers looked to interbreed foreign and native breeds. According to some historical sources, it was William Penn that created the first hybrid variety in 1683. He managed to crossbreed Vitis Vinifera with Vitis Labrusca. The result was a hybrid variety, and he named it Alexander.
Almost a century later, the first commercial vineyard was established in the United States on November 21, 1799, in Kentucky. The winery is known as the “First Vineyard” and was established by John James Dufour of Vevey. The first wine from the first vineyard was consumed on March 21, 1803.
The first vineyard started well, but that didn’t last long. It was 1809 when a May freeze destroyed the entire crop, and Dufour family decided to leave the estate and move to Indiana.
West Coast Winemaking
Father Junipero Serra established the first vineyard and winery on the west coast in the San Diego area in 1769. They weren’t pleased with the local varieties and decided to use a Spanish grape known as “Criolla,” which is a Vitis Vinifera variety. That also didn’t result in high-quality wines and was soon overtaken by other varieties.
First Major Success of the US Winemaking
California might be the first state that comes to mind when we mention US wines, but it is Cincinnati, Ohio, where the first breakthrough was made.
It was during the 1830s when Nicholas Longworth made the first commercially successful wine. It was a sparkling wine made from the Catawba grapes. Catawba is a hybrid variety made with the crossbreeding of Vitis Lambrusco and Vitis Vinifera.
Longworth’s Catawba was a major success, both in the States and in Europe. Newspapers called Longsworth “the founder of wine culture in America”. Thanks to its success, many new vine plantings were made all over the country. Most notably in the Lake Erie area, along the Ohio River Valley, and the Finger Lakes region near New York. In 1859, the Catawba grape was at its peak, and it seemed that nothing could stop its massive popularity.
But again, circumstances put an end to its expansion. First was the powdery mildew in 1860 that had a devastating effect over the vineyards in the Ohio River Valley. Then, the next year it was the civil war that stopped all winemaking across the country, followed by the phylloxera epidemic during the late 19th century. Like that wasn’t enough, the prohibition was another massive blow to the American wine industry.
A Fresh Start
Once the prohibition was over, a new era for the American winemakers began. New winemaking production methods were based on researches conducted by institutions like the University of California and the state universities in New York.
The universities published papers, held seminars of winemaking, and worked closely with grape growers to help the wine industry grow further. As the wine industry in America started to grow, it attracted both domestic and foreign investments.
The result is today’s wine industry. The wine industry is regarded for its quality wines and the quantity that it produces each year – including incredible wines such as merlot, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and many more.