A Brief History of Wine in America

Cellar full of wine barrels.

The best American wines are now globally recognized, but that wasn’t the case for most of our country’s history.

Though the first Europeans to explore North America called it “Vinland” because of the abundance of grape vines they found, and French Huguenots were making Scuppernong wine in Florida as early as the mid-1500s, it would be hundreds of years before America became one of the top wine-producing countries in the world.

The First Winery in America

Did you know that Ohio was once the most significant winemaking state in America?

The first commercially successful American winery was founded by Nicholas Longworth near Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1830. He produced a semi-sweet pink wine (and eventually sparkling wine) from the native red Catawba grape. At one point, Ohio was producing one third of American domestic wine, before the industry fell off in the late 1800s.

Today, all 50 American states have commercial wine industries. But the region that really turned things around was Northern California.

California Wine

Franciscan missionaries established California’s first vineyard in 1769 and planted the “Mission grape” varietal near present-day San Diego. It wasn’t until the 1850s that vines were planted in Northern California, including Napa and Sonoma counties.

Napa Valley wines did well until a series of natural and manmade crises, from frosts to national Prohibition, crippled the industry. After Prohibition, tastes had changed, and the reputation of California wines suffered. Until the 1970s, it appeared that domestic wines couldn’t compete with imports from Europe.

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976

Also known as the Judgment of Paris, a Paris wine competition in 1976 marked a turning point for American wine producers. British wine merchant Steven Spurrier chose the four best Burgundy whites and the four best Bordeaux reds from his wine cellar and put them up against select California wines in a blind tasting.

To everyone's astonishment, the expert French judges rated Napa Valley wines the highest in both the white and red wine categories.

Best American Wines

Napa Valley, now considered one of the best wine regions in the world, is best known for its signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends. (It was a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars that beat out the French competition in Paris.)

Famous American red wines also include Merlot, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir (try one from Oregon).

If reds aren’t for you, try a Chardonnay from Sonoma or a dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region. With the quality and variety of American wines today, you'll never run out of good options.

Ready to pick up a bottle for yourself? Check out our summer wine offerings and remember you can always stop by the Tap for an expert recommendation.

See What’s On Tap

Category: Wine