Wine Making in America

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When Europeans first came to settle on the eastern shore of the Americas, they were duly impressed by the wealth of grapevines that covered the land. One could imagine that this abundance signaled wealth and prosperity, both for consumption and for the export value of the raw product and its wine. Unfortunately, they found that the wine made from the native North American grapes did not approach the quality of what they were used to in Europe. The common Vitis labrusca had a pungent or “foxy” flavor (hence the common name fox grape), which made the wine less than pleasing to their palates. Furthermore, although the native grapes flourished, all the grape plants that were brought from Europe and planted in the New World died. Records showed that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and numerous lesser-known growers tried and failed to grow European grapes repeatedly, until they finally gave up.

By the mid-1800s, more palatable grapes for eating and wine making, such as Vitis labrusca ‘Catawba’, were found among the natives. In the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, grapevines were shipped from North America to France, en event that was to have a lasting effect on the world grape industry. These rooted American grapevines most likely were imported to France because they were resistant to powdery mildew, a problematic fungal disease on both continents. However, the imported vines were infested with the grape phylloxera, a root louse, and the entire French wine industry was decimated within a few years. The presence of this pest also explains why the European vines were not able to survive in the Americas. The native grapes, which had co-evolved with the vermin, had developed resistance to phylloxera, but the unsuspecting European plants were like lambs brought to the slaughter. Though it was known at the time that the European grapevines could be grafted onto resistant rootstocks, the French growers felt that the rootstock imparted bad flavors to the wine, and they embarked on a massive effort to marry the high quality of the European wine grape with the insect and disease resistance of the American grape through hybridizing. Many North American species were used in this effort, but the one that proved most useful was V. riparia, the riverbank grape. The breeding work had an unforeseen benefit as well: though they are relatively cold tender, the European grapevines are able to produce crops from adventitious buds, so if the flowers are killed by frost, all is not lost. Today, many of the minor wine-growing regions in the United States depend on the cultivars that resulted from the hybridization of the European and American grapes. As a group, they are called the French-American hybrids, and the hybridization efforts continue to this day.

The West Coast of the Americas has a completely different viticultural history. In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors brought viticulture from Spain. The success of the New World planting was so great, however, that the Spanish crown forbid the planting of new vineyards in 1595 because it feared that the competition from this new land would be too great. In the late 1600s and 1700s, grapevines traveled with the missions being established up the coast of what is now California. The principal purpose of these vineyards was to produce wine for the church, but in the early nineteenth century, as more ships frequented California ports, wine came to be increasingly in demand. The first commercial planting of vines in California was established in the early 1800s, in the Los Angeles area. Subsequently, more vineyards were planted, and by the late 1850s, California grape growing was a substantial industry. The discovery of gold in northern California elicited an increase in the consumption of grapes and wine, and an unprecedented expansion of the wine industry ensued in the area. Though growers had been importing European grape varieties all along, in 1862 Colonel Agoston Haraszthy was commissioned by the California governor to go to Europe and bring back the grape varieties best suited for California, as well as knowledge about grape culture from the established European wine makers. This marked the beginning of a new industry, based primarily on the best wine grapes of Europe.

The California wine industry experienced many booms and busts throughout its history, but perhaps the most notorious was the bust brought about by Prohibition. In the years leading up to Prohibition, from 1912 to 1919, commercial wine production dropped by almost one-half, until it ceased altogether with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the production and sale of all alcoholic beverages in the United States. In California, however, the reality was that instead of decimating the industry, Prohibition moved wine making into the basements and bathrooms of private homes, and bootleggers paid top prices for fresh grapes. Shipment of grapes out of state also increased, and the higher prices for the illegal end-product resulted in the planting of many new vineyards. The largest acreage in the history of California, 648,000 acres, was reached in 1927, still 6 years before Prohibition was repealed. Unfortunately, this expansion was dominated by money-seeking businessmen who knew little about grapes, which brought instability to the industry in spite of the prosperity. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 brought some sanity back to the growing of wine grapes in the region, but it was many years before the inappropriate cultivars were culled out, the dilapidated vineyards replaced, and the industry regained solid footing.

Unlike in California, the wine industries in the rest of the country were decimated by Prohibition, although they had recovered in the last few decades. Today, local wineries can be found in most of the 50 United States as a result of winery acts passed in the 1970s and’80s.

An important development of the last century in the international wine industry is the protocols established by the major wine-producing nations of Western Europe regarding the naming of wines. The term “Chablis,” for example, is set aside to denote wines made from a particular cultivar (Vitis vinifera ‘Chardonnay’) and from a particular region in France (Burgundy). To this day, if you purchase a French wine labeled “Chablis”, it must meet the stringent, government-controlled standards that seek to ensure reliably consistent, good to excellent wines with particular definable characteristics. The United States was not party to this agreement, a situation that has led to great confusion in wines and wine labeling. Specifically, American wine makers do not follow the rules of nomenclature, and so terms such as ‘Chablis” or “Burgundy” are used generically rather than in reference to the specific French wine types