Do You Know the Location of the First Successful Winery in the US?

Before you read this, take the poll to the right ——–>

This week we’re moving off the normal marketing, economy, and business issues and asking a basic question anyone working in the US wine business should know:“Where was the first successful commercial winery in the United States?” Do you know? I confess I didn’t know for sure. I remember thinking Jefferson was a really important figure in American wine and he worked at establishing a commercial presence in Virginia early on, so maybe Virginia was first? Surely with the native vines in existence, there must have been a successful wine businesses established before the time of Jefferson?

I had this debate over a bottle of wine with someone smarter than me last week. The discussion of “firsts” depending on where you live and who is telling the story, changes. So the real beginning of the US Wine business has been butchered in history books and lore, but there is a definitive rendering of the subject.

If you work in the wine business and haven’t ever read A History of Wine in America, I highly recommend spending the time to do so. I’ve even linked a free Google e-book in the above title so you have no excuse. The book sheds a bright spot light on the subject and will have you the envy of your next party when you win the centre piece for getting the right answer to this weeks blog question. That said, I know many of you are Cliff Notes kind of people so if you want the shortcut to the answer, read on.

The history of US winemaking started as a fight between native varietals

Native Grapes, Norton

which didn’t produce good wine, and vinifera based grapes which could produce wine but couldn’t take the cold, rain, humidity, mold, fungus, and pests that were native to the New World. Bracketing that, the realization must be that while the Colonies were set up to be exporters of wine and silk to the Old World, the inputs to create wine took people, and the people were distracted by trifling things like getting enough food early in the New World’s existence. Then there were the occasional wars, least of which was the one that started around 1776. People headed off to fight and nobody tended the vines. Some encouraging starts to winemaking were noted at various times after slave labor from indigenous Indians and Africa was added. The US Civil War then became another one of those events that put a damper on the production of wine and grape growing in the Eastern US.

Some bullet points of early winegrape growing and winemaking:

  • Grapes that can be used to make wine have been on the Continent of North America since before Leif Erikson discovered America in the year 1001. Seeing abundant vines he proposed to name the new country Vinland.
  • Paris Island in South Carolina is favored as the likely first place wine was made on the Continent in the
    East Coast in 1640

    year 1568 by Spanish colonists but that’s not a commercial success.

  • Dr Laurence Bohune is the first winemaker whose name is known. He made wine from Native grapes in the year 1610 in the Jamestown settlement.
  • In 1672 Charles Calvert, the proprietor of Maryland laid out 240 acres of vines using a ‘hogshed’ of vines from Europe. The vineyard died the next year and as many other vineyardists at the time, suffered from the success of the tobacco industry which pulled people and resources away from wine experimentation.
  • Robert Beverly (b.1673 d.1722) was one of the largest of Virginia landowners and in 1705 wrote the first comprehensive history of Virginia, including the planting of his estate which he named Beverly Park.
  • In no colony before the Revolution was there any enterprise that systematically grew and harvested grapes, and then crushed them for wine outside of a few individuals who had modest production.
  • The first successful commercial winery in New York was founded in 1839 at Washingtonville on the Hudson. Its still in existence today under a successor name.

Lore notes some other likely places where commercial operations could have first started including Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and California among others. Vinifera grapes were planted and never did well in the US East Coast which is why Jefferson was such a fan of Madeira wine. He couldn’t get his vineyards to produce and wine from Europe often came spoiled. Wine from Maderia however was enhanced by the journey to the Colonies. That was a better bet for Jefferson than the local native wines made.

The first successful American wineries using vinifera grapes were established in drier conditions in El Paso in the New Mexico Territory. The region produced up to 200,000 gallons as early as 1846, but sadly that business died out soon thereafter for many reasons including the California Gold Rush which led to a massive migration west ….. that people component again closed out that business.

California’s history books suggest the wine industry started with the Spanish Missions through Father Junípero Serra in 1769, but the first clear reference to the planting of grapes at a California mission comes from San Juan Capistrano in 1779; ten years after the arrival of the Franciscans in California. Besides, the secularization of the Spanish Missions in Texas and California in 1833 led to the nearly complete demise of mission wine production by 1844. So its hard to call that the start of commercial winemaking in the United States.

Mission Espada Chapel, Weches Texas

Of course Texans like to say they were first but then again, Texans like to think they are first in everything. Talking to a docent on a tour of the missions there a few years ago, the local perspective is Texas wine history was identical to California’s with the establishment of Spanish Missions in the state in the 1650’s, and since that predates California which likes to say they were first, they must be first – right? That’s not entirely accurate because the Missions didn’t operate commercial wineries. They made their wine for communion and made it from Mission grapes which never proved successful for commercial wineries. In fact the record shows the production from the Missions was never sufficient even for the Mission’s sacramental needs.

General Vallejo who presided over the secularization of the Mission at Sonoma in 1835 has been given perhaps a little too much credit over the years in advancing the cause of US wine production in the North Coast of California, as he inherited his vines and replanted to some non-mission varietals, but produced only about 540 gallons of wine in total.

Image from a Wine Company 1876

Winemaking in Los Angeles started shortly after 1781 when a group of 11 families comprising 44 Mexicans settled by the river. Felipe de Neve, Governor of Spanish California, named the settlement “El Pueblo Sobre el Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula.” Right after the city name was thankfully shortened, grapes for wine were planted. It wasn’t until 1833 that a Frenchman named Jean Louis Vignes imported European varieties to California by way of Boston and around the Horn and started making vinifera based wine. By 1846 the total non-native population of all of California was estimated to be no more than 8,000 while modest in size, that was the start of the California business nonetheless. In 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico formally ceded California to the United States and wine in California took off after the Gold Rush population explosion. California just wasn’t first in commercial wine production.

Wine Festival In Vevay, Indiana

The answer to the question is probably a little surprising to most American’s because the first successful commercial wine operation was in Vevay, Indiana located along the Ohio river at the southern end of the State. The first vintage of wine was created in the year 1806 or 1807 using native grapes and production increased thereafter with 800 gallons produced in 1808, 2,400 gallons in 1810, and 3,200 gallons in 1812. The effort was influenced by John James DuFour who wrote in 1825 his treatise “The American Vinedressers Guide.” The definitive wording from A History of Wine is America follows:

So …..how did you do on the poll? I can tell you for a fact neither I nor my smarter friend got the right answer in our debate. 

Log in an offer your thoughts. Did anyone know the right answer?

SVB on Wine

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