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Vintage America: A Brief History of Wine in America

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Frank Hasek - winemaker at Korbel - with his Cellar Crew, late 1800s. (Source: Korbel) By 1900 Hasek had established Korbel as an award-winning, internationally recognized sparkling wine label.<br />
Frank Hasek - winemaker at Korbel - with his Cellar Crew, late 1800s. (Source: Korbel) By 1900 Hasek had established Korbel as an award-winning, internationally recognized sparkling wine label.

Welcome to Vintage America, our new column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Over the past ten years, wine consumption in the United States has nearly doubled, stealing the world's number two consumer spot from Italy and leaving France as the only country that devours more wine. It's hard to believe that just forty years ago the bulk of American wine production ended up in a jug or else labeled "Thunderbird" and ensconced in many a brown paper bag on many an urban street corner. Today, all 50 states have commercial wine industries, and consumption of domestic wine outweighs imports two to one.

Forty years ago, fine wine was synonymous with expensive Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, and thus in the eyes of many Americans it was expensive, anti-populist, and for most, intangible. But as Field Maloney aptly points out in his 2007 piece for Slate called "Beer in the Headlights" on wine's rise over beer, "?the rise of the American fine-wine industry has spurred the broader acceptance of wine here." In other words, it offered a way in to those who had once felt marginalized by a culture of wine that was not their own.

In turn, America began to create its own wine dialogue; the European vernacular that touted a wine's pedigree was thrown out in exchange for comparatively folksy laundry lists of flavors and—in true American fashion—a "democratizing" 100-point scale with which to judge taste and quality. European wines became more popular in the states, and American wines continued to improve and expand to terroirs outside of the Napa Valley and the Sonoma Coast. The rest of the world watched closely. In just 40 years, this country managed to create its own new culture—however flawed—of wine connoisseurship.

But America's wine history reaches much further back than the 1970s and covers much more ground than the West Coast. In many places, the remnants of 500 years of wine growing and consumption are still evident. Ohio still grows Catawba, the native grape that was the centerpiece of Nicholas Longworth's first commercial winery in the United States in the 1830s; North Carolina's Roanoke Island is still home to a 400-year-old Scuppernong vine trained by the Englishmen that washed up there in the late 1500s; and Texas, whose winemaking history dates back to the mid 1600s, may just be the next great American wine producing state.

It turns out that pioneering American viticulturist John Adlum—at the time unaware that the national debt would eventually hover near $14 trillion and that vine diseases and Prohibition would fling American wine production in and out of obscurity for the next 300 years—was on to something when he said to Nicholas Longworth: "By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt."

That great service is finally being actualized. Wine has become an ever more important part of American culture, and in many ways, we have our own wines to thank for that. So, in gratitude, we'll use this space to highlight the people and places that have made American wine what it is today, as well as those that are likely play a fundamental role in its future ? with pictures.

Now, a trusty timeline to set the stage:

1000 - Vikings make their way to this side of the Atlantic and name North America "Vinland" for the density of vine cover.

1562 - French Huguenots barge in on Jacksonville, Florida and make America's first known wines from the native variety of the Muscadine grape called Scuppernong.

1585 - Englishmen wash up on the East Coast, and Roanoke Island's "Mother Vineyard" is established. Sir Walter Raleigh describes the vine scene as "covering every shrub and climbing the tops of high cedars."

1619 – After issues with native Vitis Labrusca wines tasting too "foxy" or, rather, reminiscent of farm animals, Lord Delaware brings in the first Vitis Vinifera vines in from Europe through the Virginia Company. They fail to strive in almost every case.

1650 – Franciscan missionaries plant Mission—a grape brought up from Baja California, Mexico, and as far south as Peru—in Texas hill country, Arizona, and New Mexico, and by the late 1600s, California.

1740 – The Alexander grape—an accidental hybrid of the Vinifera and Labrusca species—is discovered by John Alexander in the woods near William Penn's Pennsylvania home. The grape will be widely planted throughout the United States in the first part of the 19th Century with modest success.

1769 – Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra establishes California's first vineyard and winery near present day San Diego.

1798 - John Dufour establishes America's first commercial winery, aptly named "First Vineyard," on the banks of the Kentucky River in what is now Nicholasville. The vineyard will succumb to frost and be abandoned by 1809.

1830 – Nicholas Longworth founds America's first commercially successful winery near Cincinnati, Ohio. He'll soon become famous for his sparkling wines made from the native Catawba grape.

1846 – Maine is the first state to go completely dry. The rumblings of Prohibition begin.

1860 – Pleasant Valley Wine Company, America's first bonded winery, is founded in New York's Finger Lakes region.

1861 – Charles Krug establishes California's first commercial winery in St. Helena.

1879 – Gustav Niebaum founds Inglenook Winery in the town of Rutherford. His are the first Bordeaux-style wines to be produced in the U.S and win international acclaim.

1920 – Prohibition begins. The next 13 years will ultimately hurl American wine into obscurity for almost a half-century.

1933 – Prohibition is repealed. Of the nearly 2,500 wineries in the U.S. prior to Prohibition, less than 100 remain.

1965 – Robert Mondavi breaks away from the Charles Krug estate to found his own winery and usher in the modern era of American winemaking.

1976 – The famous Judgment of Paris turns the world's attention to California when a panel of French wine experts score several of the state's wines higher than top Bordeaux and white Burgundy in a blind tasting.

"The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars." – Benjamin Franklin

Next week: Ohio, the birthplace of commercial American winemaking.

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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