When it comes to the the world of wine, nowadays America is the land of the plenty. There are more wineries than ever, in more states, producing more varieties, and at a record high volume. And prices are fair too. It truly is a wine-drinkers dream world, and has been for the last 20 years or so.
But it was not always so pleasant. For those who peer into the past, a history of frustration and turbulence is revealed, from New York to the Ohio Valley all the way to California, and lasting over 200 years.
The study of vine-growing and wine-making in the USA is a vast scholarly undertaking, and that in itself is telling: wine was a top-down enterprise, carried out by the elites, landowners and scientists, and not a home-grown tradition.
In the 1700s and early 1800s, the Europeans who formed the bulk of the colonies were drinkers of beer, of one sort or another, made from barley malt. The Dutch, English, Scots, Irish, and German immigrants drank beer and brought their considerable brewing skills to the new world. Wherever they settled, in Boston, New Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and places inbetween, the climate allowed them to grow barley, operate breweries, and enjoy drinking in taverns.
Wine at this time was imported and for the rich, and tended to be of the strong, sweet kind, such as Madeira and Sherry. When the founding fathers Jefferson and Franklin extolled the virtues of wine, it was not a criticism of beer, but a reaction to the rise of corn whiskey, which apparently had become too popular with the working classes.
It wasn’t until the Italian immigrants arrived in the late 1800s that a large market was present for everyday wine. Although some pioneering Germans, with a wine culture, were producing wine in California, elsewhere wine was a hard sell. It had to be pushed, stylized, mystified, sometimes prescribed as medicine. The Italian immigrants changed all that, and for the better. They showed that wine was an everyday beverage for the meal, an important component of the benefits of life.
By the early 1900s, California was leading the way from Sonoma County, with producers such as the Italian Swiss Colony, among others. Some of these producers still exist today, in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and their wines are widely available and affordable.
So the next time you are shopping, pause by the wine section and consider for a moment the unprecedented variety and quality on display. You just might be choosing a wine with a lot of history behind it.