Wines by Jennifer®

A Brief History of Wine in America

Not surprisingly, 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 Robert Mondavi.


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.


With 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.


As 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.

Originally published in the Platte County Magazine.


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