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American Experience

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How the Gold Rush, Prohibition, and a 1990s news report helped define American wine consumption. 

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Labeling bottles of wine in Sonoma County, California, in 1942. Russell Lee/Library of Congress

For decades, wine was a beverage enjoyed by few Americans — most of them either very rich or new to this country. Yet today, the United States is the largest wine consumer, and fourth largest wine producer in the world. We spoke to Jim Lapsley, a wine historian at the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center at Davis, about early winemaking fails, Prohibition loopholes, and why American consumption of red wine doubled in the 1990s.

Let’s talk about early attempts at American winemaking. Were they successful?
The early attempts were not successful. The grape that human beings have used for millennia to make wine is the species Vitis vinifera, which evolved in Europe and the Caucasus area of Asia. When Europeans came to North America, they found all sorts of grapes — but they weren’t vinifera. They were other species that hadn’t been selected by humans over millennia to make wine. The native species tended to have very small berries, very high acid, and very odd flavors. Colonists attempted to make wine from these native varieties, but could not produce wine that was similar to the European wine that was being imported.

There were attempts to grow Vitis vinifera in North America, but these failed as well. Vitis vinifera is generally adapted to a Mediterranean dry summer, wet winter environment, and that wasn't common in North America — especially along the eastern seaboard, where the first European settlers arrived. There you had cold winters and humid summers, which encouraged fungal diseases. North America also had an insect called phylloxera. Because vinifera had evolved separately from phylloxera, it had no resistance at all, and vinifera plantings died within three or four years.

How did American winemakers tackle those obstacles?
The introduction of vinifera, although unsuccessful, did introduce vinifera pollen, which created chance hybrids with the native varieties. These hybrids tasted better — or at least, more like vinifera. American winemakers discovered hybrids like the Alexander, Catawba, and the Isabella varieties, and used them to produce wine. By 1850, wine was being made in pretty much every state, but it was produced in very small quantities. It wasn’t a very popular beverage relative to whiskey, beer, and, in the north, hard cider, because those other beverages could be produced much less expensively.

When Americans did drink wine, it was almost always imported. In 1840, according to the census, just under 3 percent of all wine that was consumed in the United States was produced in the United States.

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Illustrations from 1872 concerning wine making from Pleasant Valley Vineyards in Hammondsport, New York. Theo. R. Davis/Library of Congress

When do we actually see a commercial industry emerge?
In the 1840s and 1850s, there was a small boom when an industry producing sparkling Catawba wine emerged around Cincinnati, but it was wiped out by fungal diseases around the time of the Civil War. The real turning point was the Gold Rush around 1849, which led to a huge influx of people from all over the world into California. The vast majority of them were males, and they liked to drink. They were drinking beer and spirits, but they also enjoyed wine.

California settlers quickly realized that Northern California is an excellent place to grow Vitis vinifera wine grapes. It basically has a Mediterranean climate, so the disease problems found on the east coast were much less severe. Various individuals started wineries in the 1850s, the ‘60s, and the ‘70s — and they start producing wine made from vinifera, as opposed to the “native” hybrids that were being produced back on the East Coast. The resulting product tasted more like the imported European wines.

Were people outside of California drinking it?
Not at first. In the 1850s and ‘60s, most of the wine produced in California was being consumed on the West Coast; only a little bit was being shipped back east. But in 1875, the California congressional delegation was successful in getting the federal tax on imported wine raised, enough that the tax on imported wine was roughly the same price as California wine delivered to New York. So New York importers began carrying California wine, as well as importing more expensive European wine to justify the increased tax. From that point on, California wine dominated the inexpensive table wine market in the United States.

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