United States (of wine!)
The United States rank 4th worldwide for both grape growing and wine production. Since 2011 it has held the #1 spot for wine consumption.
No wonder it is home to so many fascinating regions, iconic producers and varied wine styles. And also to puzzling contradictions that have shaped the countries winemaking history!
Regions & Subregions:
While American wine production is widespread and all states have some kind of winemaking tradition, four states (aka ‘The Big Four’) largely dominate the country’s wine production in both volume and reputation.
Check out their individual profiles below:
New York State
Grape vines grow well in many places along the East Coast of North America. In fact, when the vikings landed in North America around the year 1000 BC, they named the area (now New Brunswick, Canada) Vinland!
Europeans attempted to grow Vitis vinifera in the New World from as early as the 1620’s with colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts with virtually no success for centuries. 1740 saw the discovery of the Alexander variety – an accidental hybrid of Vinifera and Labrusca – it combined disease and pest resistance from North American grapes with some of the better qualities of European wine varieties. The Alexander grape was the basis for the first prominent North American entrepreneur: Jean Jaques Dufour who rose to success in 1802 near modern-day Indiana.
Disease pressure ultimately drove producers out of the midwest, and looking north to viable areas with lower humidity – particularly in proximity to the Great Lakes and to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There, a successful wine-making industry began in the early 1860s.
Meanwhile on the west coast…
Franciscan missionaries planted the Mission grape (Pais) in Baja California (Mexico) in the beginning of the 17th century. It then made its way into what is now New Mexico and to California by the late 1600’s.
Fast-forward to 1769 when Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra established California’s first vineyard and winery near present day San Diego. The 1830’s saw California’s first commercial wineries bloom in Sonoma, and the first grapes planted in Napa Valley.
With the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1849, 300,000 people migrated to the region seeking their fortunes – and almost ⅓ of them were immigrants. Grapes were quickly planted in what is now the Sierra Foothills to meet their demand for wine. The gold rush died out by 1855, which prompted Europeans to take their winemaking skills to the coastal areas.
1861 saw the founding of Charles Krug, Napa’s oldest winery. Meanwhile Count Agoston Haraszthy founded Sonoma’s Buena Vista winery and imported more than 100,000 cuttings of 350 different varieties of vines Haraszthy had collected in Europe. The cuttings landed in San Francisco and marks the movement of the Californian wine scene to the north. He is known as the “father of Californian wine”.
Napa and Sonoma continued to show promise and in 1879 Gustav Niebaum founded 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.
Around that time, phylloxera began to ravage the vineyards of the world, and California was no exception. The aphid would destroy the root systems of Vitis vinifera vines, and little could be done to save them. Most vineyards affected had to be ripped up entirely. Today, as in most winemaking countries, it’s rare to find Vitis vinifera vines planted on their own rootstock.
US Milestones (and setbacks) of the last century (or so):
1920-1933 – Prohibition
In 1908 American cities began purifying their drinking water supplies. Wine, Cider & Beer are not the only safe drinking options anymore!
The temperance movement had been gaining momentum from the mid-1800’s with propaganda for the prohibition party calling alcohol the “Fluid Extract of Hell – Guaranteed to Kill Boys”.
Until its repeal in 1933, those 13 years sent American wine into obscurity for almost a half-century. Of the nearly 2,500 wineries in the U.S. prior to Prohibition, less than 100 remained. The illegal production, importation and sales of Alcohol was rampant and some at-the-time-illegal operations still exist today as some of the worlds biggest wine brands.
1975 – the rise o Varietal labelling
Sutter Home ushers in Varietal Labeling with their “White Zinfandel” (red grape, rosé wine – just go with it)… and the United States has never looked back, with most New World wine regions and even Europeans following suit.
1976 – The “Judgment of Paris”
Organised by English Vintner Steven Spurrier, the tasting saw Napa Valley’s wines take top marks against France’s best. The competition was judged “blind” by France’s top wine experts. Napa Valley has been thriving ever since. Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon are forever enshrined in American history as a result.
The very first vitis vinifera (European) grape variety grown in what is now the United States was the Mission variety, also known as Pais. The top ten vitis vinifera grapes today, ranked by production volume are:
- Chardonnay – with approximately 725,000 tons crushed in 2016 (1/6th of all wine produced)
- Cabernet Sauvignon, with 620,000 tons
- French Colombard (used primarily for bulk wine production)
- Pinot Gris
- Pinot Noir
- Rubired – only hybrid in the top 10, used primarily for bulk production
- Muscat of Alexandria
- Sauvignon Blanc
These top 10 grapes make up 80% of the country’s total production.
AVA Stands for American Viticultural Area and is a specific type of appellation of origin used on American wine labels. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Using an AVA designation on a wine label allows vintners to describe more accurately the origin of their wines to consumers and helps consumers identify wines they may purchase.
To use an AVA name on a label, 85% of grapes must come from said AVA.
Unlike many European wine producing nations, the U.S. government has NO RULES when it comes to which grapes you can plant where, how you plant them, or bottle shape used.
As of December 2020 there are 252 established AVAs in the United States. California is the state with most AVAs, with 141.
Check out the AVA Explorer Map from the TTB (Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau).
Wanderlust’s American Wine snapshot