WineInk: American wines | AspenTimes.com
Each year, this column recommends that readers celebrate Independence Day by drinking American wines. It makes sense as a patriotic gesture and it certainly doesn’t limit your selection. After all, the United States is one of the most prolific, high-quality producers of wine in the world.
Wine in the United States has a history stretching back long before the Founding Fathers put their feathers on the Declaration of Independence that we honor this week on July 4th. Indeed, it is noteworthy that when the Declaration was signed by the 56 representatives in the summer of 1776 to announce the independence of the colonies, the act was toasted with Madeira, the fortified Portuguese wine.
The expense accounts (kept in the Library of Congress) of George Washington, the first US President and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, show that there were large orders for large purchases from Madeira throughout his term of office. It appears that the summer of 1975 required additional “fortifications” for the war effort, and Washington ordered nearly 2,000 bottles of Madeira.
Washington dreamed that the United States would one day become a producer of quality wines. If he could only see us now.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both signatories to the Declaration, had a healthy respect – some at the time called it a weakness – for wine. Jefferson in particular is well known for discovering the joys of French wines during his days in Paris as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He imported many bottles of good Bordeaux, which he arranged to buy directly from the houses of Château Lafite, Château d’Yquem and Haut-Brion. One of them later became the subject of the scandal described in the book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar”, which details the sale of a fake bottle of Jefferson wines. It is said that during Jefferson’s presidency, he maintained a cellar under the west wing of the White House nicknamed “the Cooler”, which contained 20,000 bottles from his personal wine collection.
Franklin, who many considered a wine mentor to young Jefferson, also spent time in Paris on official business where he maintained a cellar full of fine Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. In a letter dated 1779, he wrote to a friend as an ode to biblical references: “Here is the rain coming down from the sky on our vines; there, it penetrates the roots of the vines, to change into wine; constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy. Amen.
The history of wine in America is a mixture of legend, long tales and, frankly, more than a bit of confusion. It is said by some scholars, although disputed by others, that the continent’s earliest explorers named it “Vinland” due to the proliferation of wild vines that grow here. This nickname, according to “The Icelandic Sagas”, was given by Nordic explorer Leif Eriksson to what is now North America when he arrived around 1000 AD. It was almost 500 years before the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria left for the East Indies and ended up in the Bahamas. True or not, as a wine lover there is satisfaction in the Erickson version. Imagine if he had taken root?
Perhaps the first grape to be vinified on the mainland, it is rumored, was Scuppernong. It has been said that the French Huguenots who landed on the east coast in the late 1500s used the robust South Muscadine variety to produce wines. Of course, this assumes that the indigenous peoples who populated America before the influx of Europeans had not found the joys of fermentation on their own. Indeed, there have been recent discoveries in the country of Texas Hill which suggest that this may have been the case.
The Spaniards are credited with creating wine production on the emerging nation’s west coast, as Father Junipero Serra and the Catholic Church began colonizing California. In 1779, Serra brought the aptly named Mission grape and their vines to San Diego, marking the introduction of
When the New Americans migrated west after the founding of the country, they used national grape varieties to make wine. The “First Vineyard,” as it was called, was established in 1799 in Kentucky by John Dufour on land which had been surveyed by one Daniel Boone. It produced wines from the Alexander grape before closing its doors a decade later. The Catawba grape was the basis of the first commercially viable winery founded near Cincinnati, Ohio, by a lawyer (naturally) named Nicholas Longworth. By the early 1800s, its sparkling wines – produced using the Champagne method of double fermentation – were America’s toast, and Longworth was producing over 570,000 gallons of wine a year.
Meanwhile, back in California, a Prussian immigrant named Charles Krug opened Napa Valley’s first commercial winery in 1861, starting a wine revolution that will last to this day with a slight hiatus. This interruption, of course, was the voluntary cessation of the production of wine called Interdiction.
In 1917, the US Congress, no doubt on the Madeira Toast, ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which instituted a ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.
Ouch. Although there have been exemptions for the use of wine for “religious purposes,” the effect on the growth of the US wine industry has been devastating. Before the implementation of the Volstead Act, there were over 2,500 wineries in the United States. When it was repealed 13 years later, only 100 remained.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the American wine industry began to become a global powerhouse. Perhaps the turning point came in the bicentennial summer of 1976 when a pair of American wines were deemed by a panel of French wine officials as the winners of a blind tasting of wines. French and American which became known as the “judgment of Paris”.
How tickled Franklin and Jefferson would have been by the outcome.
Today, American wineries come in all shapes and sizes. Last year, before the pandemic, there were more than 11,053 wineries in the United States, which is an increase of about 50% since 2009, as wine production has become a must-have activity for entrepreneurs. There are wineries in all 50 states, although some still produce wine from fruits other than grapes. Think pineapple wine from Hawaii, you guessed it, or honey and raspberry wines from Alaska.
American wine has a legacy, much like that of American democracy, which has seen fits and starts as it has evolved into what it is today. It’s time to raise a glass of American wine in our country.