WineInk: American Wines
A Legacy of Independence
Every 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 U.S. is one of the world’s most prolific and high-quality wine producers on Earth.
Wine in the U.S. has a history that dates to well before the Founding Fathers put their quills to the Declaration of Independence that we honor this week on the Fourth of July. Indeed, it is noted that when the Declaration was signed by the 56 representatives over the summer of 1776 to announce the independence of the colonies, the act was toasted with Madeira, the fortified Portuguese wine.
The expense accounts (retained in the Library of Congress) of George Washington, the first U.S. president and signer of the Declaration of Independence, show that there were significant orders for large purchases of Madeira throughout his tenure as leader. It seems that the summer of ’75 required extra “fortifications” for the war efforts and Washington ordered close to 2,000 bottles of Madeira.
Washington had a dream that the U.S. would one day become a producer of wines of quality. If he could only see us now.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, both signators of the Declaration, had a healthy respect — some at the time called it a weakness — for wine. Jefferson in particular is well known for having discovered the joys of French wines from his days spent in Paris as foreign minister. He imported many bottles of fine Bordeaux that he arranged to purchase directly from the houses of Château Lafite, Château d’Yquem and Haut-Brion. One later became the object of scandal outlined in the book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” which details the sale of a fake bottle of Jefferson’s wines. It is said that during Jefferson’s presidency he maintained a cellar under the west wing of the White House dubbed “the Icehouse,” which contained 20,000 bottles from his personal collection of wines.
Franklin, who many considered to be a wine mentor for the younger Jefferson, also spent time in Paris on official business where he maintained a cellar full of fine Burgundy and Bordeaux. In a letter dated 1779, he wrote to a friend as an ode to biblical references: “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” Amen.
The history of wine in America is a field blend of legend, long tales and, frankly, more than a bit of confusion. It is said by some scholars, though disputed by others, that the first explorers of the continent named it “Vinland” because of the proliferation of wild grape vines growing here. That moniker, according to “The Icelandic Sagas,” was said have been given by the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson to what today is North America upon arrival around 1000 AD. That is nearly 500 years before the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria set sail for the East Indies and ended up in the Bahamas. True or not, as a lover of wines, there is satisfaction in the Erickson version. Imagine if it had taken root?
Perhaps the first grape to be made into wine on the continent, or so the story goes, was the Scuppernong. It was said French Huguenots who landed on the East Coast in the late 1500s used the hardy southern Muscadine variety to produce wines. Of course, that 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 recently been finds in the Texas Hill country that suggest that may have been the case.
The Spanish are credited with the creation of wine production on the west coast of the emerging nation, as Father Junipero Serra and the Catholic Church began the colonization of California. In 1779, Serra brought the aptly named Mission grape and their vines to San Diego marking the introduction of <ital.> Vitis vinifera <ital.>, or European grape varieties, to the West Coast. Mostly they made wines for sacramental purposes, but there’s no doubt this was the beginning of what eventually emerged as the quality wine industry in America.
As the new Americans migrated westward after the country was founded, they utilized domestic grape varieties to make wine. The “First Vineyard,” as it was christened, was established in 1799 in Kentucky by John Dufour on land that had been surveyed by one Daniel Boone. It made wines using the Alexander grape before going out of business a decade later. The Catawba grape was the basis for the first commercially viable winery founded near Cincinnati, Ohio, by a lawyer (naturally) named Nicholas Longworth. In the early 1800s, his sparkling wines — produced using the Champagne method of double fermentation — were the toast of America, and Longworth produced over 570,000 gallons of wine a year.
Meanwhile, back in California, a Prussian immigrant named Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in the Napa Valley in 1861, beginning a revolution in wine that would last until this day with a slight interruption. That interruption, of course, was the self-imposed stoppage of wine production called Prohibition.
In 1917, the U.S. Congress, without the toasting of Madeira no doubt, ratified the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which instituted a ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.
Ouch. Though there were exemptions for the use of wine for “religious purposes,” the effect on the growth of the American wine industry was devastating. Before the Volstead Act was implemented, there were over 2,500 wineries in the U.S. When it was repealed 13 years later, just 100 remained.
It was not until the 1960s and ’70s that the American wine industry began to come into prominence as a global powerhouse. Perhaps the defining moment came during the bicentennial summer of 1976 when a pair of American wines were deemed by a panel of French wine officials to be the winners in a blind tasting of French and American wines that 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. As of last year, before the pandemic, there were more than 11,053 wineries in the U.S. That represents an increase of around 50% since 2009 as the production of wine has become a go-to endeavor for entrepreneurs. There are wineries in all 50 states, though some still produce wine from fruits other than grapes. Think pineapple wine from, you guessed it, Hawaii, or honey and raspberry wines from Alaska.
American wine has a legacy, much like that of American democracy, that has seen fits and starts as it has evolved to become what it is today. Time to raise a glass of American wine to our country.
1993 Beringer Howell Mountain Bancroft Ranch Merlot
The historic Beringer Winery was founded in 1876, the year of the American centennial. And 145 years later, they are still producing Napa Valley icons. This 28-year-old Merlot from one of the classic vineyards on Howell Mountain was brought to dinner this past week by a dear friend. Oh be joyful.
After a fight with an aged cork and a careful decantering, the wine showed extraordinarily well. An orange-ish-brown rim on the liquid on the sides of the glass slipped into a deep red center. A whiff of the wine revealed the aroma of the stewed and toasty fruit and the first taste showed tannic structure and a bit of acidity. The wine was sublime and, best of all, it had lived nearly three decades in the bottle before joining us for dinner. It does not get much better than that.