On Wine in America: Abridged

This is an abridged version of a story because they were many more events than these.

(The people) didn’t consume many of the beverages we drink regularly today. Not only were there few nonalcoholic juices (citrus fruits being unavailable and other fruits fermenting like grapes), but coffee and tea were expensive, milk spoiled quickly, and water frequently was brackish and disease-ridden. Ironically, health and safety constituted the primary advantage of alcohol.

American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine, Paul Lukacs, p 24

These were the typical conditions in the US for the early 1800s, thus what a young man from New Jersey encountered when he headed west in 1803 to start a new life in a frontier town known as Cincinnati, Ohio. Arriving full of hope and optimism, Nicholas Longworth became a lawyer and a real estate mogul – and given Cincinnati’s location in the westward movement, he became wealthy as the city grew.

Longworth was also a man of temperance, but saw wine as a beverage of moderation that would improve life for the commoners. Keep in mind that wine wasn’t in the picture because supply was limited to imported European wines and mainly drank by the elite – and yes, banishing wine was not part of the temperance movement at that time.

Thomas Jefferson, the US President at the time and early spokesperson for wine in American, not only loved European wines, he believed America could also make great wine. His enthusiasm drove him to try cultivating European varietals in Virginia, but he was unsuccessful Native American varietals grew in the wild, but made poor wines. As other were unsuccessful throughout the east, the curious began hybridizing American and European varietals.

Nicholas Longworth made his first wine in 1813, but it was a fortified wine that was over 20% alcohol, thus far from the 12% dry table wine he wanted to make. Therefore, in 1825 he purchased a little known hybrid from Maryland called Catawba.

Experimenting with separating skins from the juice, Longworth produced a sweet wine that Cincinnati’s growing German population enjoyed. He kept trying with different grapes and techniques, and in 1842 accidentally discovered a second fermentation producing a sparkling, which led to a new problem – exploding bottles.

Fortunately, Nicholas Longworth had deep pockets to fund his passion, so he kept trying. By the 1845, his wines were getting national attention, thus production was around 300,000 gallons (over 1.1 million liters) per year. By the end of the decade, grapes covered over 2,000 acres in the Cincinnati region. The wine even inspired this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: The Ode to Catawba Wine.


Image from Wikipedia

In 1860, a disease (blight) hit the region’s grapes – and the grapes suddenly vanished. Longworth died in 1863 at age 80, but his son was unsuccessful at revitalizing Cincinnati’s wine industry.

Longworth’s dream lived on through others (including former employees) as growing grapes moved west to Missouri and eventually California – all building on Longworth’s knowledge. This is why Nicholas Longworth – the one who came to Cincinnati for a new beginning, earned his title: the Father of the American Wine Industry.

Note: Click to continue to the next post in this series.

44 thoughts on “On Wine in America: Abridged

  1. Interesting, Frank. I know little about wine and even less about Cinci’s connection to it.

    Sorry to be so out of the loop recently. But, Sara and I have arrived safely in Ecuador, and I’m trying to get back into the routine of blogging.



  2. That was enlightening Frank. I almost asked you if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was related to Nicholas Longworth but that might imply that I’ve been quaffing too much grape to think clearly.


  3. Never heard of him, but my hats off to him. Exploding bottles–yikes! I’m a recent convert to wine. After a trip to Oregon and a short stay on a vineyard I quickly decided I like the stuff. Now I try to sample wines from all over the world. It’s a tough job, but hey I do my best. Thanks for all the info and I love his picture. Wouldn’t have associated that face with a wine nut. Goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover.


    • TBM,
      You are not alone as I imagine that outside of wine historians, Longworth is only known to Cincinnatians … and even we have limited knowledge of him. Meanwhile, welcome to the wine lovers, and enjoy those European wines at your disposal!


  4. Interesting …. post. I hope you have seen the movie how US wine got known in Europe – Bottle Shock form 2008 … brilliant movie. It was a British guy, that lived in France – that open the world for your wines.


    • Viveka,
      Yep .. that’s the event that truly brought distinction to California wines, and helped turn around the US wine industry. Actually I have a series in my head about US wines, with this one being the start … and Bottle Shock is part of my plan. 🙂


  5. Very informative post. I am of course not a wine connoisseur as you are…my wine tasting abilities amount to..,”mmm…that’s good stuff, is it home-made blackberry?” LOL. I did know a bootlegger, once (for real) who made home-made strawberry wine – it was really goooood!!! He asked me did I want to try moonshine, once – eeewww! It smelled like paint thinner!


    • Hood,
      Knowing this post is out of the box for many, it was a fun one to put together. Interestingly, wine can be made out of anything that can ferment … including dandelions. Of course matching one’s preferred tastes is another story.

      Meanwhile, your moonshine experience made me laugh!


  6. I really enjoyed this backstory on Catawba wine, and the pioneer vintner! It is so interesting to me to see how vineyards flourish, or don’t, in different regions, and of course the grapes are influenced, too. The science combined with the history provides a wealth of reason to try different varietals. This was a very interesting story, Frank.


    • Debra,
      Of my readers, I had a inkling that you would be one who enjoyed this post. Who would have ever thought that Cincinnati set the stage for California? Of course, California is a story in itself. The abridged story continues later.


  7. I had no idea about most of this! I knew that Jefferson wanted to grow grapes for wine here but I didn’t know about Cincinnati being so integral to the wine industry here, nor did I know about Mr. Longworth. Sad about the blight though. Thanks for the grape-y history lesson, Frank!


  8. Both wine and beer were used for centuries, if not millenia, to provide drinkable, store-able fluids. Beer, or variations on it like ales, have been traced back to Egyptian and Assyrian civilisations. And the birth of wine cellars comes from pre-refrigeration days, when cold caves kept the wine and beer in better condition for a longer time period!
    And no, I am in NO way suggesting that we old farts know all about old stuff….


    • Hey Hey John!
      Correct … those beverages have been around a long time – however, in this country, wine has an odd history … so this is essential the first point where it ramped up in this country. Good to see you!


  9. Very interesting – again! Your topics are ALWAYS interesting and ALWAYS well written.

    I watched a documentary about prohibition on TV. It was fascinating to me – that old footage, chucking alcohol down the gutters, and kids downstream collecting it for their dad! Enormously interesting.


    • Words,
      To me, the oddity here is that most Cincinnatians may not know. They do know that grapes were here, but probably not the significance in American wine history. I’ve been here almost 37 years and didn’t know the significance until several months ago. Meanwhile, this story will continue soon.


  10. Pingback: On Rejuvenating Wine in America: Abridged | A Frank Angle

  11. Pingback: On Fine Wines in America: Abridged | A Frank Angle

Comment with respect.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.