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- History - A history of American wine and winemaking

History of American Wine

Colonial Wine

Early settlers of North America brought a mighty thirst for wine. The first wine from grapes native to American soil was made in Jamestown in 1609, and it was not what the colonists were used to. Nor what they wanted.

The colonists’ next step was to import vine cuttings (rootstock) of Vitis vinifera from Europe so they could grow more familiar varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay. They planted vines from every great European wine region along the Atlantic Coast. Even Thomas Jefferson, the wine geek of his era, planted vines at Monticello. Despite their enthusiasm, no one succeeded. Each vineyard would die off after only two or three years. Although no one was certain of the cause, the weather and indigenous diseases were most often blamed. A hundred years later, another possible cause came to light.

Even though the original vinifera vines failed, new American varieties emerged in the 1800s. No one knows for sure, but it is generally assumed that they were produced by chance through pollen exchange between the vinifera and earlier American varieties. These hybrids became the foundation for the wine industry in the eastern United States. Winemaking centers emerged in Ohio, Missouri, on the shores of Lake Erie, and in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The American wine industry was on its way.

California and a Wine Boom

In approximately 1770, Franciscan monks began to establish missions—and plant vineyards—up the coast of what would become California. Father Junípero Serra led the way when he planted the first vineyard at Mission San Diego. He traveled north and established eight more missions, earning him the nickname the “father of California wine.”

The gold rush of 1849 brought frenzied growth both in terms of population and vineyards. By this time Sonoma had 22,000 acres under vine, and Napa had 18,000. The Santa Clara Valley and Livermore Valley were widely planted and had numerous wineries as well. Many pioneer vintners settled south and east of the San Francisco Bay where most of the bottling plants were located. With the advent of the railroad, California wines became available in eastern markets and shipped around the world. By the end of the century, all of the state’s winemaking regions were producing wine. California had become the premier wine-growing region in the United States.

America to the Rescue

In 1863, an unidentified vine disease was noticed in France’s Rhône Valley. By 1865, the disease had spread to Provence. By the late 1860s, vine growers all over France were watching their vineyards die before their very eyes. Over the next twenty years the disease decimated nearly all the vineyards in Europe.

The scourge was called phylloxera, a louse indigenous to the eastern United States. While barely visible to the naked eye, the insect sucks the nutrients from the roots of grapevines and slowly starves the life out of the vines. Since Native American grapevines have a thick and tough root bark, they suffered no damage from the parasite. Tragically, vinifera vines had no such evolutionary protection.

The phylloxera spread, decimating vines in California, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Eradicating phylloxera seemed hopeless until a solution emerged: Graft vinifera vines to the pest-resistant American rootstocks. Although it worked, it was a long and laborious undertaking to graft and replant each and every vine in Europe.

Prohibition and its Lasting Effects

The winemaking business always has its ups and downs—sometimes due to insects and other times due to politics. In 1920, politics was the culprit of an industry-wide crash in the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution created Prohibition, criminalizing alcohol. The Prohibition movement in America was not a sudden phenomenon; it started county by county, state by state. Its long-term effects continue to impact the industry today. At the outbreak of World War I, thirty-three states had gone dry.

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 29, 1919, and one year later Prohibition began, making virtually all alcoholic beverages illegal. The Volstead Act, spearheaded by the Minnesota congressman of the same name, defined intoxicating liquors as any beverage containing more than one-half of 1 percent alcohol. Many supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment were dismayed as they had assumed that the “intoxicating liquors” to be banned were the high-alcohol distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol—surely not beer with its 3 to 7 percent alcohol, or wine with its less than 15 percent alcohol.

Almost immediately, the American wine industry was decimated. Vineyards were uprooted, equipment was abandoned, and growers and producers had to find creative ways to stay in business. Cooking wine could still be produced as long as it was salted and undrinkable. Sacramental and religious wines were still allowed and somehow found their way to secular markets. Medicinal alcohol was legal, too, because it was not for beverage purposes. So doctors began prescribing more and more of it. Home producers were permitted to make up to two hundred gallons of wine a year. The overall effect of Prohibition was to annihilate a once-thriving industry.

By 1933, when the Twenty-first Amendment repealed Prohibition, great damage had already been done. The country had lost an entire generation of winemakers and wine drinkers. Other effects of this “noble experiment” last to this day, specifically regarding direct-shipping and distribution laws. By 1936, fifteen states had laws that created state monopolies on wine sales and prevented free-market competition. Other states, while allowing hotels and restaurants to serve wine, banned bars and “liquor by the drink.” Other states left serving and selling options to local jurisdictions. The aftermath of Prohibition is a hodgepodge of laws that vary from state to state and community to community. The last effect is that shipping wine within America is like shipping wine to fifty different countries.

Recovering from Prohibition with the Help of JFK and Julia Child

As the wine industry rebuilt itself after the repeal of Prohibition, it found a market much changed in its thirteen year hiatus. The quality of wine was negatively impacted because California grape growers had to deliver grapes that shipped well rather than those optimal for winemaking. Wineries mostly sold their wines to wholesalers who bottled them under their own brands and then, in turn, sold them under generic names like “Chablis” and “Burgundy.”

In 1940, Americans were drinking one gallon of wine a year per person; the French were consuming forty gallons.

The American wine boom really began with the affluence of the late 1950s. Wine was attractive to educated suburbanites, especially those wealthy enough to travel abroad. While most of the world considered it a delicious beverage, Americans began to see it as a status symbol. A few role models helped. When John F. Kennedy came to the White House he brought his wife, Jackie, who loved all things French. French restaurants and French wines became very trendy. In addition, from a kitchen in a Boston television studio, Julia Child taught a generation of Americans how to prepare French cuisine—and how sipping and cooking can go together.

New products appeared in wine stores to meet the growing demand. Portuguese rosés hit the shelves. They were sweet, fruity, slightly fizzy, and imported from Europe. From West Germany came Liebfraumilch, a flowery, fruity, and slightly sweet blend of Riesling and other grape varieties.

Meanwhile, California’s reputation for world-class wines rapidly grew. In the early 1970s, resourceful winemakers, many educated in their craft at the University of California at Davis, developed a new genre of California wine. In a blind tasting that pitted several California wines against top French wines in 1976, the American wines—Stags’ Leap Cabernet and Château Montelena Chardonnay—won. This decision (by a panel of French judges), known as the Judgment of Paris, shocked and forever changed the wine world. Napa Valley was now on the global wine map.

- Overview - An overview of American wine.

Overview of American Wine

Today every state in the Union has a winery. As wine-drinking Americans, we have upgraded our taste in wines, helped by the proliferation of wine classes, wine tastings, dinners, wine publications, and tasting-note sharing platforms like Bottlenotes. While White Zinfandel remains a favorite for millions, there’s a new enthusiasm for wine exploration. The White Zinfandel craze morphed into a Chardonnay trend that shifted to a Merlot fad. Now there are even newer fashions: Pinot Noir and Shiraz. It used to be that the popular wines of choice were the ones that people could pronounce. Now, brave wine drinkers dare to try Grüner Veltiner and Gewürztraminer. California has taken to growing more Old World grapes. So-called Cal-Ital varieties like Barbera and Sangiovese are popular, as are the Rhône reds (made from Syrah, Grenache, and/or Mourvedre, traditional grapes of the Rhône Valley of France).

International collaboration as well as international competition has picked up. Famous names in wine—Mondavi, Lafite Rothschild, and Lapostolle—have invested heavily in land and facilities in places like South America to produce high-quality wines. On the other hand, Australian wineries have been able to give American producers a run for their money with well-made, inexpensive wines. They’ve been so successful that some U.S. wineries are labeling their bottles of Syrah with the Aussie name, Shiraz.

Technology is ever advancing.Who would have thought just a few years ago that people would seriously be discussing screw tops in the same breath as fine wines? The fact is that tainted corks have spoiled too much good wine. So the seventeenth-century invention that has lasted for so long is beginning to be replaced more and more by synthetic corks made of plastic or glass and screwtops. Fear not, however: The romance of uncorking a fine bottle of wine will never be lost.

Consolidation in the wine industry—larger wineries buying up smaller ones—has also become a fact of life. It enables one producer to market many brands and gain shelf space in retail stores. For consumers, the positive effects of consolidation are lower prices and ease of purchase. But consolidation also has contributed to some negative effects for American consumers: consolidation of producers, coupled with the lock many distributors have on distribution in regional markets, creates limited choices for consumers in supermarkets and large retailers that stock only the well-known and highly promoted brands from large companies. With the proliferation of imported products in the United States, the Internet as a purchasing channel, and the growing number of educated wine drinkers like you, there will continue to be a market for quality wines.

- Understanding the American System - A guide to understanding the American wine system

Understanding the American System

Until 1980, there was no American version of the French appellation system. A wine could be labeled “California” if the grapes were entirely grown in the state, or it could be labeled “Napa County” if three quarters of the grapes were grown in Napa County. But vineyards do not always follow political borders, and wines half from Sonoma and half from Napa had a very tough time indeed. They could call themselves “California” wines but this would be selling themselves short – they didn’t want to have to hide the fact that they came from two of the top regions in the state.

In 1980, everything changed when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms authorized the creation of American Viticultural Areas. Usually called AVAs, these areas are the rough equivalent of a French appellation. These AVAs can be large or small, and they can also overlap.

For instance, most of Napa County is included in the Napa Valley AVA. But inside that large region, there are many smaller AVAs. A wine from Rutherford, for example, comes from the Rutherford AVA inside the Napa AVA, and can be labeled as either. An extreme case is the Carneros AVA, which overlaps with the AVAs of Napa Valley, Sonoma, Sonoma Coast, and the North Coast. In any case, if the grapes are grown and bottled on the same winemaker’s property in a single AVA, the wine may be labeled “Estate Bottled.”

The AVA system is different from the French system in that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms largely stays out of the winemakers’ way and doesn’t dictate which grapes can be grown in which AVA. For this reason, an AVA is not necessarily a good predictor of taste or variety, and a large AVA may contain many varieties and microclimates.

From a winemaker perspective, the decision of which AVA to list is an important one. A prestigious area like Rutherford, for example, benefits from lobbying the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms for its own AVA and increased name recognition. For a lesser-known area in Napa, the distinction may be less clear-cut.

And to the consumer, the AVA is a useful tool. If a wine is marked, “Rutherford” you know that 85% of its grapes are produced within that region. If the AVA is large, the name won’t necessarily tell you much about the wine; if it’s small, like Rutherford, it may tell you a great deal.


- California


History - A history of California wine and winemaking.

Overview - An overview of California wine today.

Understanding the American System- A guide to understanding wine regions in the United States.

Major Regions

Napa County

Sonoma County

Mendocino County

Monterey County

Santa Barbara County

Santa Cruz Mountains

San Luis Obispo County

Minor Regions

Central Valley

Lake County

Sierra Foothills

- Washington


History - A history of Washington wine and winemaking.

Overview - An overview of Washington wine today.

Understanding the American System- A guide to understanding wine regions in the United States.

Major Regions

Columbia Valley

Red Mountain

Walla Walla Valley

Minor Regions

Columbia Gorge

Puget Sound

Yakima Valley

- Oregon


History - A history of Oregon wine and winemaking.

Overview - An overview of Oregon wine today.

Understanding the American System - A guide to understanding wine regions in the United States.

Major Regions

The Willamette Valley

Minor Regions

The Umpqua Valley

The Rogue Valley

- Mendoza



If you’ve ever drunk a wine a wine in Argentina, chances are it was made in Mendoza. At 58,000 square miles, Mendoza contains around 75 percent of the vines in the country. The region produces a huge number of varieities, but Malbec and Torrentés are the grapes of choice. Malbec is a red grape from Bordeaux, inky and with strong fruit flavors; Torrentés, a white grape from Spain, is crisp and light with nose a similar to a Muscat. Both have flourished in Argentina and become better known here than in their native homes. Cabernet Sauvignon is also grown, and is viewed by many as the regions strongest offering. If you’re looking for a quality Argentine wine, Mendoza is considered one of Argentina’s best regions.


Although the first vines in Argentina were planted in Salta, Mendoza represents in many ways the birthplace of Argentina’s modern wine industry. It was here that Argentina’s school of agriculture trained young winemakers in the French style in the 1850’s, it was here that many of Argentina’s huge irrigation projects began, and it was here the Argentina’s signature Malbec grape grew to fame. Throughout the 20th century, Mendoza’s quality suffered in an environment of instability, but the 1990’s have brought foreign investment that is quickly creating a reputation of great wine at an affordable price.


Located more than 600 miles west of Buenos Aries, the Mendoza region is enormous and includes a wide variety of soils and microclimates.


Mendoza is dry and desert-like, but by no means hot. Although it is warmer than most wine regions in Chile, its high elevation helps keep things cool. There isn’t enough rainfall to sustain viticulture naturally, but the vineyards are heavily irrigated with runoff from the snow-covered Andes Mountains.


Like most wine regions in Argentina, Mendoza lies to the east of the Andes Mountains, and snow-capped peaks are visible year-round. The views are absolutely stunning. Vineyards are built into the lightly sloping hills below the mountains, and altitudes range from 2000 to 3000 feet – extremely high for Europe, but fairly typical for Argentina. Mendoza is so large that it is broken into several subregions, including Luján de Cuyo, San Rafael, and Tupungato.


There is considerable variation throughout Mendoza, but the soil is generally dry and desert-like – the modern winemaking industry here owes its existence to irrigation. The high slopes of Mendoza are home to the country’s signature Torrontés, and all three varieties are grown here. Torrontés Riojano is the most common, but Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino are widespread as well. These wines are known for their light-bodied, crisp feel in the mouth, and their aromas are reminiscent of a fragrant Muscat or Gewürztraminer. Malbec is the other signature wine here, an inky red with strong fruit aromas.

Important Varietals

Cabernet Sauvignon
Many others