History Of Wine in America
by Ben Bicais
The history of
wine consumption in America has been frought with starts, stops, and
inconsistencies. The American population has always had a love-hate
relationship with alcohol. Historic prohibitionist attitudes amongst
much of the American population have blurred the line between
moderate wine consumption and detrimental alcoholism. As a result,
regular, moderate consumption of wine by the American public
continues to face ideological and legal impediments.
Consumption During the Colonial Years
Since its origins,
the history of wine consumption in America has been both encouraged
and despised by different demographic groups. Spanish missionaries
produced the earliest New World wine during the early 17th Century.
Shortly thereafter, French immigrants began to cultivate grapes in
the Hudson River Valley. They made wine, juice, and preserves.
The early history
of wine consumption in America was dominated by immigrants whom were
primarily Catholic, and of Central or Southern European descent. The
bulk of wine-drinking immigrants came from the wine loving nations of
France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. They descended from cultural
traditions that valued social wine consumption with the evening meal.
wine drinkers were counterbalanced by immigrants from Northern
Europe. Many held Puritan belief systems that discouraged or banned
alcohol consumption of any kind. The nativist movements of the early
18th Century cast suspician on immigrant groups that retained Old
World customs and did not entirely assimilate into American society.
was a lightning rod for these discriminatory points of view. Although
not accurate, alcoholism was seen as a problem only associated with
certain ethnic groups that enjoyed wine. Whiskey and beer was the
actual source of vast majority of problematic inebriation.
prohibitionist forces were very effective at linking wine to the ills
of American society.
History of Wine
Consumption During the 19th Century
In the 1830s,
Americans consumed massive amounts of whiskey and beer. Alcoholism
was extremely widespread and was affecting the stability of the
American family. Husbands spent time in the saloons instead of with
their families, and rampant drunkedness increased instances of
philandering and crime.
Prohibitionist fervor gained national momentum in the nineteenth
century, the American wine industry boomed. From 1860-1880,
Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France. California wine
production greatly increased to fill the international void. Huge
tracts of vineyards were planted in Southern California to satisfy
the international demand for wine. However, most of this production
was exported and it did not have a major impact on the history of
wine consumption in America.
By the mid-1880s,
European wine production rebounded, causing a glut of American wine.
To make matters worse, Pierce's Disease and Phylloxera simultaneously
struck Southern California's vineyards. Rising population and real
estate values in the Los Angeles Basin was the last nail in the
coffin of extensive viticulture in the region. With Prohibitionist
attitudes constantly gaining momentum, American demand for wine was
insufficient to make up for the loss of the much larger European market.
History of Wine
During the Prohibition Years
In response to the
massive outcry of many Americans against alcohol consumption,
Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1917. It banned the commercial
production and sale of alcohol in America. The Volstead Act was
ratified in 1920 and expounded on the actual implementation of Prohibition.
It also mandated
several loopholes in alcohol production and consumption. Physicians
could prescribe alcohol and it could be consumed for religious
purposes. Additionally, a head of household was legally allowed to
produce 200 gallons of wine a year for personal use. This was largely
a concession to the significant Italian-American electorate.
Because of the
Volstead Act, American wine consumption actually increased during
Prohibition. The traditional American alcoholic beverages of beer and
distilled spirits were illegal to produce and sell from 1920-1933. As
a result, regions like Lodi saw a massive increase in demand for
grapes used for home winemaking.
not curtail the American apetite for alcohol, it merely destroyed the
legal framework that governed alcohol sales. Due to the
inaccessibility of alcohol, the use of other drugs, including cocaine
and marijauna greatly increased. Additionally, the government lost a
major source of revenue from taxing alcohol as organize crime took
over the means of production and distribution. The American public
became increasingly dissolutioned with the government's stubborn
attempt to attain the impossible.
Amendment: Repeal of Prohibition
After a decade of
the "noble experiment", Congress passed the 21st Amendment.
It ended national Prohibition and transferred the authority to allow
or ban production and sale of alcohol to individual states. Many
states relegated this authority to the county level. Counties in some
states prohibit alcohol to this day. The history of wine production
and sales since the repeal of Prohibition has been governed by the
21st Amendment, not the free trade mandates of the U.S. Constitution.
state has the power to make their own laws regarding wine sales, it
has effectively made commercial wine distribution a convoluted mess.
Marketing wine in the U.S. continues to be a difficult and
frustrating task, especially for smaller wineries.
The effects of the
21st Amendment have had a major impact on the history of wine
consumption in the U.S. during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Its
legacy is a tangle of state and county laws that regulate the
production and sale of wine.
the repeal of Prohibition, wine consumption dropped as Americans had
renewed access to spirits and beer. From the repeal of Prohibition to
the late 1950s, high-alcohol dessert and fortified wines dominated
the market. These were the darkest days of the history of wine
production and consumption. Many fortified wines were produced and
sold extremely cheaply, and catered to the "misery market".
"Winos" drank these overly alcoholic concoctions becauses
they were the cheapest way to get drunk. In the quest for short-term
profits, unscrupulous producers stamped a black mark on the history
of wine in America.
From 1934 to the
early 1950s, immigrant families consumed the majority of table wines.
Unfortunately, many of their offspring did not follow their parents
traditional drink choices and began consuming beer and cocktails as
they assimilated into American society. Table wine was a mysterious
beverage to most Americans and was associated with high-society and
recent arrivals from Southern and Central Europe.
The Jug Wine Years
for non-fortified wines finally began to develop in the early 1960s.
The majority of these new wine drinkers were young, well-traveled,
and relatively affluent. As the Baby Boom generation came of age, the
ranks of wine drinkers increased. Even still, the majority of
consumers bought simple, sweet wines.
The early 1980s
saw the height of the frenzy to promote and sell inexpensive wines to
the American public. The White Zinfandel rage was and continues to be
a major part of the market. Total American wine consumption reached
an all-time high due to a massive influx of capital and advertising.
Despite predictions of continued increases, it did not materialize.
At the same time,
overall alcohol consumption decreased in the United States during the
1980s. The anti-drug and alcohol movement justifyably discouraged
dangerous levels of drug and alcohol ingestion. Unfortunately,
extremists in the movement also attacked the history of wine
consumption in America. Zero-tolerance attitudes portrayed moderate
wine consumption as not only hazardous to the individual, but also as
detrimental to the entire population.
The Renaissance Years
In the late 1980s,
jug wine consumption fell sharply. American tastes were changing, and
the market began to demand wines with defined characteristics. Mike
Benziger's Glen Ellen Winery entered the void, creating the hugely
popular "fighting varietals" genre. These wines bridged the
gap between the generic production of the past, and the boutique
wineries of the following decade.
Much of America's
current interest in quality wine stems from a 1991 60 Minutes Program
that examined the health benefits of moderate wine consumption. The
"French Paradox" is the fact that the French consume fatty
foods, significant red wine, and have a very low incidence of heart
disease. This news had a major impact on American wine consumption,
especially in aging, affluent demographic groups.
Future...Factors to Consider
society becomes increasingly more fast-paced and hectic, fewer
families are sitting down together for dinner. This is not a positive
sign for American wine consumption as few people open up a bottle of
wine to drink with their drive-thru or take-out dinners.
Wine enjoyment is
symtomatic of relaxation, and these days American society is anything
but relaxed. The history of wine is also synonymous with stable
family relationships, and the divorce rate in the U.S. is currently
is a complicated subject that generally requires a certain amount of
leisure time and money to become a true adherent. Additionally, wine
has an unflattering image amongst many American alcohol consumers who
prefer beer or liquor. In my opinion, there are limits to how large
the quality wine market can increase.
On a more positive
note, the American population is aging, and older, more affluent
people tend to enjoy wine more than other demographic groups.
Hopefully they will pass their appreciation of wine to the next generation.
In many ways, the
history of wine consumption in the U.S. is a microcosm of both the
positives and negatives that have come with the innate American
experience. Studying the history of wine consumption in the U.S.
illuminates the political, cultural, religious, and racial diversity
that has made the nation what it is today.
America has a
relatively small but growing population of wine-lovers. Although the
number of regular wine drinkers are far from being a majority, they
will continue to grow as the population ages. Future trends will
probably include an increase in consumption of quality varietals
grown in specific, terroir-driven locations.
About The Author
Ben Bicais lives
in the Napa Valley and is the webmaster of www.california-wine-tours-and-accessories.com.