The Colonial Roots of the US Wine Industry

A vineyard at Monticello“We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good…” Thomas Jefferson, 1776

In 1562, Jean Ribault arrived in North America, leading an expedition to establish a haven for Protestants from France. They founded Fort Caroline, the first French colony in the present-day United States, in the area of modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. By 1564, Ribault’s hard-working group of Huguenot settlers managed to produce their first bottles of North American wine, using the scuppernong grape –a variety of muscadine they found growing wild in the area. In 1608, at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, British colonists also succeeded in making wine using grapes from England. They were eager to cultivate their own grapes, and fifteen years later, every land-holding male citizen of Jamestown was required by law to set aside at least a quarter acre for either vineyard or winery space. By 1769 “An Act for the Encouragement of the Making of Wine” was passed by Virginia’s General Assembly. Founding Fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were among the first men to actively seek to establish a wine industry in America.

Towards that end, in 1773, Italian winemaker Filippo Mazzei was hired to spearhead the project. Mazzei moved to Virginia, bringing European vinifera vines to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, and planting them on 2,000 donated acres that lay between Jefferson’s mansion and a large house furnished for Mazzei to live in while creating the vineyards. The plants had barely taken root when the Revolutionary War broke out, and the wine master was forced to return to Italy –but before leaving, he rented out his house. Unfortunately, he chose British-employed German military officer Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his cavalry of mercenaries as tenants! As soon as the rowdy group of soldiers moved into Mazzei’s home, they let their entire stable of horses out to graze in the newly planted Monticello vineyards, completely destroying them. In 1776, America’s initial attempt to produce wine on a large scale had failed.

Fast forward 200 years…to 1976′s “Judgment of Paris,” when Napa Valley wines burst onto the world scene as the result of a blind wine tasting that pitted California wines against French wines. All nine judges were French wine experts. To the shock of all, Napa’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Napa’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon won top honors in the white and red categories, respectively. During the two intervening centuries, the U.S. had gained its independence from Britain, planted vineyards across the country, and established itself as a world class wine producer! Don’t you think Thomas Jefferson would be proud?

Photo of grapevines at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home — the vines are growing on wooden slats as they did in colonial times.