Immigrant Vines: The rise and fall and rise of the American wine industry

So many good stories deal with humble beginnings. And any good rise-from-the-ashes dramatic account should feature creativity, innovation and a hero. America’s thirsty quest for wine is no exception. Our forefathers spied plump native fruit on a vine and eagerly pressed and fermented it to create wine. But can you imagine how nasty that first batch must’ve been? The settlers were accustomed to wine made from European grapes, the genus botanists call Vitis Vinifera. What they harvested was Vitis Labrusca, a sweet yet acidic grape type not really suitable for dry table wines.

But the persistent pioneers adapted by adding sugar to their acidic mess, making the wine more palatable. Companies using Labrusca grapes like Niagara and Concord still employ this sweetening practice. Concord is the foundation for Welch’s famous grape juice, the quintessential kosher wine Manischewitz and countless jars of grape jelly. Niagara, the earthy, light-skinned counterpart to Concord, lives in the Canadian provinces in bottles of ice wine, a sweet dessert treat.

When more Europeans began arriving on America’s shores, they brought cuttings from vineyards back home. The Spaniards successfully introduced the first Vinifera vines, but few of those original vines still exist. The grape — called the “Mission Grape” because Franciscan monk Junipero Serra spread the variety throughout California while establishing missions — dominated California’s wine production until the mid-1880s. Other European varietals then arrived. A Hungarian soldier named Agoston Harazsthy began importing cuttings from famous vineyards all over Europe, introducing 300 different grapes to California. Harazsthy, considered the hero of California wine, founded the Buena Vista Winery, which still thrives today.

Then, just as American wine was earning international recognition, all hell broke loose. In 1920, crackpots, convinced that everyone was an alcoholic, introduced the Volstead National Prohibition Act, taking away American’s right to drink. Overnight, otherwise law-abiding citizens became illegal bootleggers and grape juice production took the forefront. Vintners began pulling up their fine-wine grapes, replacing them with grape juice varieties and weeping over the loss.

Innovative growers turned to raisin production, partially saving the struggling California grape industry. In 1876, William Thompson, a creative Scottish immigrant, had introduced the first seedless grape, Thompson Seedless. Thin-skinned, sweet and easy to grow, this light green, oblong grape you now find in supermarkets easily became the favored fruit for raisins and table grapes. Some vintners experimented using the grape for wine, but quickly realized it produces tasteless, acidic juice. Thompson Seedless, a modified Vinifera grape, is now the most widely planted grape in California and still shows up in 3-liter jugs of insipid bulk wine.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the once-thriving wine industry was all but destroyed. Although some ingenious wineries obtained licenses to produce sacramental or medicinal wines during Prohibition, the industry pretty much dried up to 100 wineries. Before 1920, 2,500 wineries called the U.S. home. As of 2001 we’ve recovered to 1,800.

So this story has a happy ending, since wine consumption has dramatically risen in recent years. But to make sure your choice remains unhampered by political agendas, keep track of your congressmen and senators; they could make your wine life easier or harder. To do so, check out


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