A Brief History of American Wine

Whenever I look at something that refers to “History of (insert boring title here)” I tend to find myself nodding off before I finish the preface. So I will attempt to make this article both informative and entertaining. I mean, it is “History of American Wines,” it can’t be too dreary, right?

A lot went on from when the first settlers arrived bearing precious European vines, to several centuries later in this day and age where wine production is both a commercialized enterprise and an art form. I will try to consolidate and spare you too many details. There are plenty of books and references, so if you find yourself enthralled with the topic, you can look no further than your local friendly bookstore for additional reading.

Photo Courtesy of discovercaliforniawine.com

Five hundred years ago, when the first European immigrants began arriving, they realized they were missing a very important part of their daily lives. From a culture that drinks wine as a lifeblood, I imagine it must have come as a shock to involuntarily jump on the wagon. Shipping wine from Europe proved extremely expensive, as most imports usually are.  However, the settlers were delighted to find grapevines growing wild all up and down the East Coast. The earliest recordings of wine making were by the French Huguenot settlers in Jacksonville, FL, around 1562. The new wine makers soon began to realize that the native American vines were not the same vines as their homeland, and not nearly as palatable. This led to attempts at importing and growing the European vine, vitis vinifera. The vines were met with numerous hardships with pests and diseases that challenged the European vines but the American grapes, vitis labrusca, were immune to. The European grapes were fighting a losing battle and the wine makers turned to the American vine for small production every day drinking wine. In 1683, William Penn planted the first vineyard in Pennsylvania The vines were a cross breed of American and French vines, creating the hybrid grape, Alexander. This grape was successful in holding up against the native diseases and today is the main grape varietal grown on the East Coast.

Now let’s move on to California, the hub of American wine production. Wine production in California started with the Spanish.

Photo Courtesy of insidesocal.com

The first winery in California was opened in 1769 by the Franciscan missionaries near San Diego. Although the first vines were a vitis vinifera relative, brought up from Mexico by the Spanish settlers, the wine was only really used as sacramental holy wine and was average quality at best. Wine gained popularity in California during the mid-1800’s when the Gold Rush brought new settlers from the East Coast and Europe with their ingrained wine making traditions. In 1861 the governor of California funded the selection and planting of European grapes in California soil. Riesling, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were among those chosen.

In 1863, Europe faced a severe hardship as the phylloxera disease took over their precious crops. Phylloxera is an aphid pest that is native to the East Coast. It was accidentally brought over to Europe on American vines that were used for experimentation. The disease ravaged the European vines and lowered production drastically. This raised demand for the California wines because it was the only other place in the world growing European style wines.  California was producing both affordable, drinkable table wine as well as high quality wines.

Then came Prohibition. Now, I could say a piece on Prohibition and talk about how the descendants of Europeans could possibly promote the ban on an everyday drink like wine in the “Land of the Free,” but I’m not going to get political. Needless to say, Prohibition prohibited and basically destroyed the previously flourishing and lucrative wine industry in the US. The only wine that was allowed during the period of 1920-1933 was for sacramental or medicinal purposes. By the end of Prohibition, Americans had lost interest in quality wine. It would be nearly 50 years before California returned to its place as a regarded wine making region of the world.

Photo Courtesy of allposters.com

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, a small group of California wine makers began experimenting with the revived European style wines. They focused on quality wines and soon began to be recognized by writers and wine enthusiasts around the country. These wine makers realized they needed to distinguish themselves from the table wines that used generic names like Chablis and Burgundy. They began naming the wines by grape name and it caught on. Wine drinkers were able to easily remember the wines they liked by the specific taste of the grape. By the 1980’s naming wines by grape varietal became the standard.

Today, wine is produced in all fifty states. Believe it or not, Florida actually has forty-two wineries, the majority of them specialize in sweet fruit based wines. Wyoming has the least amount, coming in at two. The typical wine drinker today has a more distinguished palate and has access to a wealth of knowledge on the subject with local wine tastings and educational sessions, specialty shops, means of shipping and delivery of quality wine direct to their doorstep.

Information from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_wine

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Posted on April 8, 2010, in Wine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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