A Brief History of Wine in America

By Poppy Milliken
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on May 24, 2016

St Louis Wine Company

May 25th is American Wine day and we’ve been thinking a lot about how we got to be a nation of wine drinkers again. In a mad attempt to tell the story of wine in America, we have tried to hit some of the most pertinent points in the timeline. There are whole books devoted to the history of wine the the United States, so trying to sum it up in a brief post might be a fool’s errand. The short version of the story is that there was a popular and productive market for wine in America right up to the passing of Prohibition. Here’s what happened.

Pre Colonial America

Grape vines were being imported from the old world right from the start, with the French Huguenots planting some of the first vineyards in North America in Florida as early as the 1560s. Settlers continued planting vines all up and down the East coast and took cuttings with them as they expanded West into Ohio territory. The first winery in California was founded in what is now the San Diego area by the Spanish in 1769; they brought the vines up from Mexico where they had already been cultivating them for decades.

The Expansion of American Wineries

In the 1860s the wineries in Europe were severely damaged by phylloxera, a pest native to Eastern North America, which was accidentally imported to the old world with new vine varietals. American wines became a hot commodity in Europe as their winemakers battled the pest. 

Thomas Jefferson

Wine was an integral part of American history right from the start. Many presidents are noted for their love of wine. From George Washington’s love of Madeira, Thomas Jefferson’s vineyards and wine production at Monticello (as well as the 400-600 bottles he imported yearly and the $10,000 wine bill he accumulated during his time in the White House), the toasting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with wine, and the American wines served at the White House by Mary Todd Lincoln. Given the support of our founding fathers and the growing demand for wine from the constant flow of immigrants from traditional wine consuming regions, it’s a shame the thriving wine industry in America was nearly wiped out with the passing of Prohibition on January 16, 1920.

Prohibition

Much as the distillers and brewers found themselves out of legal employment with the passing of the eighteenth amendment, winemakers found themselves limited to producing wines strictly for religious purposes. Unlike brewers and distillers, winemakers couldn’t hide their productions deep in the woods with makeshift equipment. Without the ability to produce wines from their grapes, vineyards were systematically replanted with other crops or with straight juice grapes, winemakers found other jobs to do and stopped training new winemakers. The industry died on the vine, so to speak. By the end of Prohibition, the number of wineries in the United States had fallen from over 2500 to less than 100.

Post Prohibition

Once Prohibition was repealed, spirits distillers and beermakers moved their production back out into the open and picked up where they had (never really) left off. Winemakers weren’t so lucky. It takes years to cultivate a vineyard and start producing wines from the grapes. It also involves large investments of time and money; the latter of which was certainly not something the agricultural sector had during the Great Depression. With the exception of the few winemakers who had continued to produce limited quantities for religious purposes, there simply weren’t enough grape crops or producers with a knowledge of winemaking. Prohibition was a failure in many ways, but it succeeded in killing the wine industry in America for years to come.

World War II brought the country out of the Depression, but it certainly didn’t aide any winemakers. Any land that could be used was required to be dedicated to edible crops for the war effort. By the time the war was over, even imported wines from Europe were hard to come by (since wine production abroad had been greatly interrupted by the war) and Americans had become a nation of cocktail drinkers.

For many years afterwards, wines produced in the United States were being made from the cheap juice grapes that had been planted in the vineyards during prohibition. American wine was seen as a rot-gut, low class kind of drink. While diners might order a Chianti at a vaguely Italian restaurant in the mid-twentieth century, most people stuck with hard spirits and beers. Wines simply weren’t widely available, and what could be found wasn’t worth drinking.

Once the wine industry in Europe recovered, wine imports could be obtained, but the cost of importing fine wines was so prohibitive (much as early American settlers had discovered) that only the wealthy could afford to drink wine on a regular basis and the habit of wine drinking obtained a snooty and anti-populist image. The culture of wine, which started in America as a drink consumed by presidents and immigrants alike, had become an elite and largely unattainable luxury.  

Now

That image of luxury may very well have sparked the regeneration of wine in America. As with other luxury items, imitations are sure to follow and as people started to show an interest in wine as a status symbol, wineries started popping up again as early as 1965, when Robert Mondavi established his own winery in the California Valley.

Judgment of Paris wines

By 1976 American wines started to make waves during the Judgment of Paris when a panel of French wine experts scored several Napa Valley wines higher than top Bordeaux and white Burgundy in a blind tasting. Suddenly Napa Valley was on the world wine map.

As a side note, the Alan Rickman movie Bottle Shock is a fun look at the rise of California wines. 

 

From there, Napa and other new American wine regions have continued to grow and to produce some world class wines and wine has steadily risen in popularity with American drinkers. Wine sales are even surpassing beer in many places.

Once again, wine has managed to rise to prominence in America and some of the best wines in the world are being produced here. With 835,468,643 gallons of wine produced in the United States annually, a hefty portion of which comes from California, and wine consumption the highest in the world with sales upwards of $35 billion a year. 7,946 wineries were operational in America as of October 2014 with new wineries opening every year.

To learn more about where and how you can lift your wine glass across the country in celebration of American Wine Day, take a copy of The Field Guide to Drinking in America by Niki Ganong along with you on your next tasting trip.