This piece is part of a series of essays on alcohol history. You can see more here.
More than any time before in the history of our nation, Americans love wine. It’s not a subject I tend to write about much at Paste, from a standpoint of tastings or reviews—I enjoy wine, but typically reserve my drink industry criticism for beer and spirits. At the same time, though, I still consume wine quite often, and in this, I am indeed a typical American. Per capita wine consumption has continued a steady ascent in the U.S. for decades at this point. This is one of the central truths of American alcohol for the last several decades—we have steadily become less a nation of beer drinkers, even during the craft beer revolution, and more a nation of wine drinkers. And much of that growth has been fueled by our own, domestic wine industry.
How funny to think, then, that for somewhere in the neighborhood of two and a half centuries, Americans failed almost universally to produce any potable wine. From the early 1600s, to the mid-1800s, we failed over and over and over again to grow wine-producing grapes that produced a beverage that was in any way akin to European wine, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Rather, the American heartland simply presented unique challenges that made our homegrown wine industry a nearly impossible hurdle … and in the process, American vines also managed to indirectly lead to the devastation of the French wine industry in the 1800s.
Indeed, for several centuries, “American wine” was a positively oxymoronic expression, and one that probably could have been used as a curse.
Let’s get into the “why.”
Pretty much from the beginning, colonists of what would eventually be the United States maintained a rather heroic consumption of alcohol, which by and large outstripped the free-drinking British who founded those colonies. Rum was the spirit du jour, though perhaps the most widely consumed form of alcohol was cider, which was easily produced from the thousands of wild American apple varieties, the vast majority of which are now lost to history. As historian W.J. Rorabaugh wrote in his research on American alcohol consumption for The OAH Magazine of History:
By 1700, the colonists drank fermented peach juice, hard apple cider, and rum, which they imported from the West Indies or distilled from West Indian molasses. Drinking was an important part of the culture, and people passed around jugs or bowls of liquor at barbecues, on market days, and at elections. Candidates gave away free drinks. A stingy candidate had no chance of winning. Practically everyone drank. Even restrained New Englanders consumed great quantities of liquor. The Puritans called alcohol the “Good Creature of God,” a holy substance to be taken proudly yet cautiously.
One thing that the drinkers of the 1600s and 1700s didn’t have as much access to was wine, which was primarily available (though expensive) as imported Spanish madeira, a fortified wine that was better suited to survive a trip across the sea. As with beer, the slowness of intercontinental sea travel made the transport of wine a trickier proposition, making it a luxury item not consumed by most Americans.
Nevertheless, British merchants had long eyed the new world as a potential goldmine of wide open spaces that could be adapted to wine production, giving them a lucrative product they could potentially sell back in Europe. Eventual American wine production was such an assumption, in fact, that the Virginia House of Burgesses passed an act in 1619 that literally required every male household in Virginia to plant at least 10 vines of imported European grapes, for the making of wine.
Early colonists expected wine grapes to be a prolific cash crop for American farmers. Suffice to say, they weren’t.
Why European grapes? Well, on one hand it was what the colonists were most familiar with, but the bigger reason was that the American grape varietals that colonists found upon their arrival were simply poorly suited to the making of wine. Unlike native American apples, which were perfect for cider (and not for eating), the many native American varieties of grapes were almost entirely unfit for wine—they were small, with thick skins and low sugar content, which yielded sour and unpleasant wines without the expected fruit character. There were only a few American varietals that could make passable wine, such as the scuppernong variety of muscadine, but even these were unrecognizably different from European styles. The overwhelming desire became the planting of European grape styles in America.
And here, we run into the problem that plagued would-be American vintners for several centuries—try as they might, European grape varietals could not be successfully grown on the eastern coast of the U.S., where the country’s population was largely centralized. For all its hundreds of varietals, the European wine grapes are all descendents of a single species, Vitis vinifera, and these grapes were not fans of American soil or climate in states where we attempted to plant them, such as Virginia. Most Vitis vinifera varieties had been adapted over the course of centuries to Mediterranean-style climates with dry summers and wet winters, and the U.S. unfortunately offered almost the opposite—cold, dry winters and humid summers. These conditions promoted the growth of fungal diseases, which would kill the vast majority of vines before they ever produced enough grapes to make wine.
Even the likes of Thomas Jefferson, with the resources of an American aristocrat and eventually the office of the presidency behind him, couldn’t make European grapes grow successfully in the U.S. At his estate Monticello, Jefferson and his hired agrarians tried for decades to grow wine grapes that the third President could use to produce his own vintages to add to his massive cellar of European wines. In 1773, Jefferson gave 2,000 acres of land adjacent to Monticello to an Italian viticulturist named Filippo Mazzei, for the sole purpose of experimentation with Vitis vinifera vines, none of which went on to produce wine. In fact, despite committing a small fortune to the cause, Jefferson never produced his own American wine within his lifetime. Today, an actual vineyard exists on the same piece of property.
No one wanted an American wine industry more than Thomas Jefferson, but it remained painfully out of reach during his lifetime.
Ultimately, it took more than two centuries of painful trial and error to start producing new American varietals (such as Norton) that were more reminiscent of European wine grapes, as well as adapt/acclimate some European styles to the American climate. By the mid-1800s, the California wine industry was beginning to rev to life, able to plant European grapes thanks to its Mediterranean-style climate, while back East new grape varietals were beginning to give the eastern seaboard its own burgeoning wine culture.
American grapes weren’t done causing trouble on a world stage, though.
There was another major reason why European grapes were so hard to grow in the U.S., aside from soil and climate, and this reason was more creepy-crawly in nature. North America is home to an insect called phylloxera, and this little bug ultimately almost spelled doom for the entire European wine industry in the mid-1800s. Right as American wine was just starting to get its feet under it, in fact, our exported bugs cut the feet out from under European producers.
The phylloxera is a type of aphid, the small, sap-sucking insects that are troublesome pests for a wide variety of commercial food crops. The hardy American grape vines that colonists found in North America may not have produced fruit suitable for wine, but they were adapted to being nibbled by phylloxera, and they could survive an aphid infestation. European vinifera vines, on the other hand, had no such defenses. They were sitting ducks for the aphids, and once infested the root systems of the affected vines would die. Along with the climate, this is what made the planting of European vines almost an impossibility in the Americas. They simply couldn’t handle our pests.
Little green destroyers of grape vines.
The troublesome little phylloxera was thus poised to go on a rampage when it finally made landfall back in Europe, which it first did in the early 1860s. Likely aided by the advent of the steam ship, which greatly reduced the time of intercontinental sea voyages, the aphids survived the jump on cargo freighters across the Atlantic and began to infest the vineyards of France and beyond, seemingly going unnoticed for years. This was the root cause of what was eventually called the Great French Wine Blight, which devastated European vineyards for close to three decades, all the way into the 1880s, ultimately damaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of all French vineyards by most estimates. The devastation was amplified by the fact that the cause of the blight was not at all understood, leading to years of fighting between viticulturists on the best way to heal it.
Ultimately, this is where the American vines sort of redeemed themselves, helping to fix the problem that their pests initially caused. After chemicals and pesticides failed to stop the phylloxera—some growers even apparently let their chickens run wild in the vines, hoping they would eat the aphids—it was discovered that by grafting vinifera vines onto American rootstock, hybridized vines could be created that would still produce the desired fruit, albeit with much hardier roots that could resist damage from the aphid infestation. By the late 1880s, this method became widespread, allowing the French wine industry to begin its rebuilding process, which they referred to as “reconstitution.”
In the end, then, the American wine grape has been both a scourge and a savior in its time—defined at first by centuries of failure and frustration, and eventually by critical acclaim. Remember this the next time you’re visiting a local vineyard (they’re now in all 50 states), looking out over fields of thriving vines—it wasn’t always this way. Not by a long shot. Be thankful that after several centuries of failure, American wine finally found its place in the sun.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.