Up until the 1800s, wine in America, for the most part, was produced locally and in small batches. The first Europeans to come to America, brought their love of wine with them. Because the native grapes they found made poor tasting wine, they had to bring the vines to America as well. They preferred the wine from the familiar Vitis vinifera vines. The first recorded planting of these imported wine grapes was in New Mexico way back in 1629 but still there was no major wine production until over a hundred years later.
In 1802 the native grape Catawba was discovered. Unlike the other native grapes previously discovered, the Cayawba was deemed fit for wine making. Nicholas Longworth planted a vineyard of Catawba in Ohio, which grew to 1,200 acres by 1842. Longworth, using traditional Champagne making techniques, crafted America’s first sparkling wine which was widely praised and distributed throughout the US and Europe. The Illustrated London News compared the wine to those being produced in Germany and even wrote that Longworth’s sparkling wine “transcends the Champagnes of France”. The great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even wrote a poem dedicated to Longworth called Ode to Catawba Wine.
Longworth is considered by some to be the father of American wine. His success inspired others to plant grapes and make wine all through the Ohio River Valley to the Finger Lakes region in New York. Unfortunately his Ohio vineyard was destroyed by fungus which prompted many growers to move their operations to the Finger Lakes area. By the early 1860’s, the wine-making industry of the Finger Lakes region was flourishing.
What about California?
The story was similar on the west coast in California. The Spanish missionaries, not happy with the 2 wine grape varieties native to California, planted Mission grapes instead; an inferior variety of Vitis vinifera called Criolla. The missionaries established the first vineyard and winery in California in 1769. Around the same time as Longworth, a French immigrant, Jean-Louis Vigne, was growing and producing wine in Los Angeles using vines imported from France. In 1840 he made the first recorded shipment of wine in California. Though we was a contemporary of Longworth, his wine was mainly consumed in California and didn’t get near the attention or accolades Longworth’s sparkling wine received.
Vigne also has a great and interesting story; however, we’ll save the history of Vigne and California wine for another time.