Wine is an alcoholic beverage obtained from the fermentation of a plant product, generally a fruit. In the stricter sense, it is generally taken to mean an alcoholic beverage fermented from grapes—so much so that other types of wine are generally described with another qualifier (fruit wine, blueberry wine, rhubarb wine, or rice wine, for example).
The more general definition allows the United States to claim that there are wineries in all 50 states. Referring to grape wine only would restrict the number of wine-producing states, if only because of the impossibility of growing wine grapes in the Alaska climate.
Much like beer, wine's origins go back to the very beginnings of civilization. Archeological traces of winemaking have been found in sites dating back some 8,000 years, in places like Georgia and Iraq. Wine was a common drink in ancient Greece and Rome and remained important in the Middle Ages as a central part of the Christian ritual and as a daily drink considered safer than the water supply.
Wine—or at least, vines—were linked to European exploration of North America from the very beginning, as Norse explorers following the East Coast of North America gave the name of Vinland (land of vines) to regions historians now generally consider to be located just south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. All early European explorers commented on the abundance of native grapes, including Verrazzano in 1524, along the East Coast of today's United States, Jacques Cartier along the shores of the St. Lawrence River a decade later, Walter Raleigh during his attempt at colonizing Virginia in the 1580s, and other explorers and first settlers throughout the sixteenth century.
Unsuccessful attempts at growing European vitis vinifera grapes took place at almost every English settlement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, starting with Jamestown in 1607. Although attempts at making wine from local wild grapes were regularly reported in American colonial times, consumption on the East Coast remained essentially limited to imported wines until the nineteenth century. Wines from Madeira were particularly popular in colonies like Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia, as this Portuguese island was very conveniently located on the sailing routes to these colonies.
At the other end of the continent, the Spanish met with more success with vitis vinifera, which were brought up from Mexico and planted in settlements in New Mexico and Texas, near the Rio Grande, in the mid-seventeenth century. Franciscan monks are credited with the first such plantings in California, near the missions of Northern California, around 1779.
The first license for a commercial winery in the United States was granted to Jean Jacques (John James) Dufour, originally from Vevey, Switzerland, who established the aptly named First Vineyard in Jessamine County, Kentucky, in 1799. The first vintage was made in 1803, and two barrels were reportedly sent to the president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, whose love of wine and collection of famous crus from France are well known. The Kentucky enterprise was cut short in 1809, however, when the vineyards were largely destroyed by frost. The family relocated to Indiana, where Dufour pursued vinegrowing in the newly founded town of Vevay. He went on to publish the American Vine Dresser's Guide in 1826, very likely the first book on American viticulture, and his experiments inspired another pioneer of American winemaking, Nicolas Longworth.
A man of considerable means, Longworth established a commercial winery in Ohio that became significantly successful by the 1840s, with still and sparkling white wines made from the native Catawba grape. In the 1850s, however, infestations of black rot delivered considerable blows to local winegrowing.
Other winegrowing enterprises took hold elsewhere in the United States, notably in Missouri and New York State, but it was really with the Gold Rush of 1849, which brought numerous immigrants to the newly conquered California, that a U.S. wine industry really began to take shape.
Growth in the second half of the nineteenth century in California was quick and unstable, with harsh boom and bust cycles. Yet those turbulent times saw the founding of many wineries that are still in operation today, like Charles Krug, Sebastiani, Inglenook, Beringer, Chateau Montelena, Simi, Concannon, and Korbel. The period also saw the planting of a great variety of European grapes, including zinfandel, now seen by many as an emblematic grape for the state. By the 1880s, production had become significant enough for wineries to be noticed internationally—Inglenook, notably, won medals at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris—and for wine to be exported, particularly to Great Britain. By the turn of the twentieth century, California wine production reached over 30 million gallons per year, from a few hundred thousand gallons four decades earlier.
The California wine industry was dealt a severe blow in 1920 with the enforcement of Prohibition. Numerous California growers abandoned mountain vineyards (some of which were famously recovered in the 1970s and 1980s, creating some exceptional “old vines” cuvées), and the banning of alcoholic drinks essentially wiped out the wine industry in many other states. California winemakers managed to survive, to a certain extent, because of certain allowed uses of alcohol (medicinal, industrial, or religious), and in particular, thanks to the growth of home winemaking during that period. Indeed, section 29 of the Volstead Act, the law that enforced Prohibition, specifically allowed production of “non-intoxicating” fruit drinks at home, a provision that the courts somehow interpreted as including cider and wine. Winegrowers like the Gallo family made a significant business of selling wine grapes to individuals all over the United States. Grape shipments often including detailed instructions as to the steps that should be “avoided,” lest the grapes turn into wine. Paradoxically, it is considered that Prohibition may have made many Americans more familiar with wine, as consumption increased during the 1920s. In 1930, the Bureau of Prohibition calculated that 100 million gallons of wine were made in private homes each year.
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the wine industry picked up quickly, leading to another cycle of boom and bust, as increased production led to a sizable wine glut by the end of the decade. Production was largely confined to bulk wines and generic brands bearing the names of famous European appellations like Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, and Sherry, a commercial practice that would eventually lead to conflicts with European countries whose appellations were thus being unceremoniously borrowed.
There were other shifts during that period as well, with some producers aiming for higher-quality production. Along with Santa Cruz maverick winemaker Martin Ray, the most famous was certainly André Tchélistcheff, a Russian-born, French-trained winemaker and researcher who arrived in California in 1938, at the invitation of Georges de Latour, owner of Beaulieu Vineyards. This is where Tchélistcheff worked to create a distinctive style of California wine, particularly cabernet sauvignon, while also introducing local producers to a number of technical improvements such as cold fermentation, malolactic fermentation, and the aging of wines in small French oak barrels. His technical expertise and example were highly influential to a whole generation of California winemakers, including several of those who came to international attention in 1976, following a tasting now universally known as “the Judgment of Paris.”
Organized by British wine merchant and wine critic Steven Spurrier, the famous competition was a comparative blind tasting of American and French chardonnays and cabernets sauvignons that resulted in a surprise win by the Californian upstarts. This event is now seen as a watershed in the world of wine, as it shook the European claim of superiority in the production of quality wine and opened the way to the rapid growth of New World winemaking. In many ways, the shockwaves from this realization of the potential of places like California spurred a realignment of the market that continues to this day. It also served as a jolt to winegrowing and winemaking in California and the rest of the United States and Canada, as the possibility of making world-class wines in locations other than the classic appellations seemed more realistic than ever.
Since the 1970s, U.S. wine production has grown exponentially, in California as well as in other states that had no winegrowing tradition. In 1970, the total acreage devoted to wine grapes in California was 157,000 acres. In 2000, it had increased to 480,000 acres, and this figure has since remained fairly stable. In the 1970s and 1980s, wine production also began to grow significantly in other states, in particular Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. A significant portion of production in Eastern states shifted from hybrid grapes, which had dominated production until then, to vinifera, with increasing success as viticultural and winemaking techniques improved and more professionally trained oenologists became available.
Growth in wine production has been sustained and steady up to this day. Though there are significant variations between vintages, for reasons having to do chiefly with the growing season, it can be estimated that total U.S. wine production has gone up nearly 50 percent since the mid-1990s, from around 450 million gallons to over 600 million gallons in the mid-2000s. Between 2004 and 2008, the value of wine produced in the United States—over 90 percent of which comes from California—grew from $23.7 billion in 2004 to $26.8 billion in 2008, an average annual growth of 3.1 percent.
Production has grown in tune with the growth of U.S. wine consumption, which has gone from 1.31 gallons (4.9 liters) per year, per capita, in 1970, to some 2.48 gallons (7.6 liters) in 2008. While this remains well below European averages, the rise has been steady and constant since the 1970s.
The United States has also become a major producer and exporter of wine on the international stage, competing internationally at every quality level, with some cult wines fetching prices comparable to those of Bordeaux first growths. The United States is the fourth-largest wine-producing country in the world, behind France, Italy, and Spain. Exports have been growing, with some 130 million gallons of wine worth over $1 billion shipping abroad in 2008, placing the United States in the top five wine-exporting countries in the world. Almost half of exports go to the European Union (Great Britain, mainly), and a quarter to Canada.
Wine has become a central part of the drinking culture in the United States. It is the only alcoholic drink that has seen an increase in consumption since the 1980s, as beer consumption decreases and spirits consumption remains essentially unchanged. It is significant that while the 2008 recession led to a drop in the dollar value of U.S. wine sales, the actual volume of wine sold has kept on increasing, showing how the growing number of wine lovers were unwilling to forgo their drink of choice, even in hard economic times. (See also Brewing; Champagne; Fermentation; Terroir; Wine Tourism; Winemaking, Home.)
Wine Institute Statistics. http://www.wineinstitute.org/resources/statistics.
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