Brief History of Wine in America
By Jennifer Stanton
considering our agrarian beginnings, grapes have a long history
in America, having been grown in areas of Florida, North
Carolina, and South Carolina as early as the 17th century.
Because the flavors of the North American grapes were different
from the European varieties, and thus not popular with the
early settlers, they looked to their former homelands and
began to import and grow vines from the Old World.
During the 18th century, thanks to Spanish soldiers and
missionaries, vines began to spread to more favorable growing
areas in the south and west of the continent, including Missouri,
which has been producing wine since the 1750’s. In 1769,
the first recorded vineyard in California was planted by
Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra at Mission San Diego.
In the 1840’s, a Hungarian colonel named Agoston Haraszthy
made his way to California, where he became impressed and
intrigued by the vineyards in existence. After purchasing
land in Sonoma Valley, he began planting vines there, and
later became the first and foremost authority on viticulture
in America. Because of his stature and reputation, Colonel
Haraszthy was commissioned in 1861 by the California State
Legislature to travel to Europe to purchase vines of every
varietal possible. He subsequently introduced over 300 new
varietals to California, although many did not survive because
of the difficulty experienced in preserving and handling
the vines at that time.
Largely because of his efforts, Sonoma Valley is now considered
the birthplace of the American wine industry, and Colonel
Haraszthy is known as the “founder” of California viticulture.
Around this same time, a devastating species of root louse
called “phylloxera,” indigenous to the Mississippi River
Valley and unknown outside America up to that time, was unleashed
on Europe from infected American vines that were taken to
the Botanical Gardens in England in 1863. Although the North
American vines had developed resistance to phylloxera by
virtue of their thick and tough root bark, the European vines
had no such evolutionary protection. As a result, they were
susceptible to the attacks on the vine roots and leaves,
causing rot and plant death that effectively destroyed European
vineyards over the next 20 years.
Fortunately, a Texan horticulturist named Thomas Munson
realized the native American vines were resistant and suggested
grafting the European vines over to American rootstalks.
Munson’s discovery saved the European wine industry from
extinction, but unfortunately, because many of Europe’s native
species were of limited commercial value, they were not perpetuated
by grafting and eventually became extinct.
Ironically, while phylloxera was wreaking havoc in Europe,
the American wine industry was flourishing. California was
exporting wines worldwide, while wines from California, New
York, New Jersey, and the top two wine-producing states of
the era, Ohio and Missouri, were appearing on wine lists
in fine restaurants everywhere.
However, these glory days came crashing to an end upon the
1919 ratification of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited
the use of alcohol in America except for medicinal or sacramental
purposes. The consequences of this decision were catastrophic
for the American wine industry, with production dropping
94 percent from 1919 to 1925. The wine industry in California
was nearly eradicated, and the number of commercial wineries
in the entire country dropped from over 2500 in 1919 to less
than 100 when the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.
The effects of Prohibition lingered well beyond 1933, and
some remain even today. For example, Kansas stayed a dry
state until 1948, Oklahoma until 1957, and Mississippi until
1966. In fact, 10 percent of the area and 6 percent of the
population of the United States are dry to this day!
Furthermore, Prohibition led to a byzantine array of laws
between the states that still impedes and complicates the
interstate commerce of alcohol. For example, some states
require consumers to purchase their alcohol at state-operated
liquor stores, and many states still prevent or encumber
the direct sale or shipping of wine to consumers by out-of-state
wineries or retailers, a situation with which our friends
across the state line in Kansas are no doubt familiar.
The wine industry’s slow revival picked up steam in the
post-World War II era. Returning GIs had been introduced
to wine in the European Theatre and were a prime market for
the still-recovering industry. Quality, production, and consumption
continued to increase, but amazingly, it was not until 1965
that the first full-scale winery since Prohibition appeared
in the Napa Valley area, built by an Italian immigrant named
The American wine industry received a huge boost in the
bicentennial year of 1976 when two American wines were judged
best in their respective classes by a full panel of French
tasters at an international blind tasting held in Paris.
The credibility brought to American wines by these two winners,
a 1975 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a 1973 Stag’s Leap
Cabernet Sauvignon, was invaluable, and was a major catalyst
in the resurgence of wine in America.
this resurgence came the idea for the development of “American
Viticulture Areas” (AVA), a structuring of sorts
of the winemaking regions in America, modeled after the “Appellation
d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) system devised in
France in the early 20th century.
What you may not know is that the very first AVA in America
was Missouri’s very own Augusta AVA, certified in 1980, a
full eight months before another area of some repute – Napa
Valley, California. Located in an area of 15 square miles
around the Missouri River town of Augusta, 40 miles west
of St. Louis, it features Norton, the official grape of Missouri,
as its principal grape.
As the story goes, Lucian Dressel, the proprietor of Augusta’s
Mount Pleasant Winery at the time, was enjoying a tasting
with two other local wine connoisseurs when they had the
somewhat whimsical idea of applying for French AOC status
since Missouri was French territory before the Louisiana
Purchase. While conducting his research on the practicality
of their idea, Dressel discovered that the United States
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was in the process
of developing the aforementioned AVA model. Dressel switched
gears, filed his application, and the rest is history!
A second shot in the arm for the industry occurred in 1991,
when the popular CBS news magazine 60 Minutes reported on
the notion that the French population, despite eating a fattier
diet and smoking more than their American counterparts, were
suffering fewer heart attacks, thought to be attributable
to their higher consumption of red wine. This so-called “French
Paradox” led to a major spike in red wine consumption in
America that continues to this day, as demonstrated by a
recent survey where wine was named as the beverage of choice
among a majority of Americans.
you can see, wine in America has come full circle, from
humble origins, to growth and prosperity, to the brink of
extinction, and back to prosperity. For those of us who enjoy
the “fruits of the vine,” the future looks very bright indeed.