US Wine History

The United States is responsible for producing and consuming a huge portion of the world’s wines and this was not always the case; how we got here is interesting.  The United States is the world’s fourth largest producer of wine, the US population drinks more wine than anywhere in world as a country (not per person) and the wine industry is growing every single year.  Due to the fact that only 30% of the country considers themselves wine drinkers, the US ranks 38th in the world per capita consumption.  California produces 90% of the grapes in the US and is responsible for getting the US to be a serious player in the wine world as proven and underlined by to the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976.

There is quite a messy history of how wine came to be what it is today in the US. We can thank the explorers for bringing vines over to America many years ago.  Actually, the viking Leiv Eriksson (yes remember way back to history class in elementary school, I haven’t thought of him since either) was responsible for the first vines being planted in North America in Newfoundland back in the 9th century.  Nothing came of it but that is when it started.  Then later, during the colonial period a 1619 Virginia law made it so that the male colonists of Jamestown had to plant ten vines in the hopes of making wine but that didn’t pan out either.  Having vineyards is very complex and some of the problems that killed the vines then still wipeout vines today.  Then it was the Phylloxera pest and other vine diseases which still affect areas today.  During that time it was easier for people to drink beer, ciders and spirits which is exactly what they did.  Thomas Jefferson who is responsible for so many different ideas also loved wine.  He was very interested in wine making and in drinking European wines, wanting to make wine in the US but never achieved it.  It was a passion of his and he did play an important role and will be remembered forever even if he never actually produced his own wine.  His buddy George Washington also loved wine and tried planting vines in order to make wine, but he didn’t succeed either.  Oh well, I am sure no one can call either of them an under achiever.

During this time period of the latter 1700’s which was pre internet communication was slow and largely even non-existent. Surprisingly, wine efforts were in the works all the way on the other coast as well.  The West and East coasts have very different histories so while the east coast was being colonized and vines were being planted but not working out, the west coast was having missionaries set up and vines were also being planted with some better luck.  Franciscans produced the first wine in California in 1783 and that is the start of CA wine history.  In 1839 George Yount (the name may ring a bell, think Yountville, yes he named the place after himself, like many others did) landed in Napa and planted the first vines.  It took a long time for Napa to get where it is today.  Many of the people responsible for the Napa wine industry are very prominent names today.

Approaching now in the mid 1800’s we all know what happens, yes the California Gold Rush!  Wooohoooo, fun times which upped the population, gave us an economy and cities started developing.  Wine production increased simultaneously with the Gold Rush which is when the big names started emerging.  In 1849 a Hungarian man “Haraszthy” brought vines over from Europe and founded the Buena Vista winery in Sonoma.  A man by the name of Charles Krug worked for Haraszthy who parted ways to start his own winery.  Napa and Sonoma were on an amazing streak with Beringer and Schramsburg emerging it seemed unstoppable.  Then in 1873, Phylloxera happened in Europe which is devastating to the vines often wiping out everything!  Phylloxera is one of famer’s worst nightmares.  This drove more money and interest into the California wine market.  Phylloxera still affected the vines in CA but not quite as badly as in Europe which is how hybrids came to be, which is combining of rootstocks (A plant onto which another variety is grafted) so from then on a lot of the wines we have today are grafted on American rootstock.

Anyway, everything was going really well for the wine industry until US Prohibition happened.  That is what put a halt on US wine production and progress for a long time.  Some wines were drank as sacramental wines but all in all US Prohibition completely crushed the wine market.  Prohibition from 1920-1933 lasted long enough for people to lose interest and momentum for the US wine world.  Cheap wines became the prominent thing, and this is what seems to be somewhat responsible for the bad reputation wine in the US has fought to overcome for so many years.  Everyone who was making wine had to stop, people couldn’t invest, drink, learn or explore all the interesting aspects of wine and momentum was lost.  After prohibition ended cheap wines were mainly produced, and it wasn’t until sometime after that the drive was rediscovered to make California competitive again.  In 1938 Tchelistcheff, a Russian wine maker trained in France started teaching people like Mondavi, Martini and Grgich on the French wine making techniques that brought the learning curve back up to speed.  In the late 1960’s, these legends along with some others started making some world famous wines which forever changed the level of California wines.

After winning the Judgement of Paris event in 1976 California Wines found their rise once again.  Today, Sonoma and Napa are not the only great wine regions in the US.  There are so many great wine regions throughout the US now, it would be unfair to only name a few; Monterey, the coastal regions, Oregon, and Washington State, alongside so many others are producing fantastic world class wines.  Every state in the US now makes its own wine, and so many countries world-wide also now passionately make their own wine.  I am not saying every country or state makes wine equivalent to those of the First Growths, but it would be a shame to not drink outside the box and taste what the world has to offer.  US wine making has come a long way in the last 40 years and you would being doing yourself a disservice to not try some of the great US wines available today. Cheers.

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