A Very Brief History of Wine

It’s probably a little bit unsettling to entertain the idea of libations anywhere near the quills that were endorsing the Declaration of Independence (which Sam Adams signed), or even a flagon of wine in Constitutional Convention.

As we come up on another President’s Day, let us hearken back to the days when we threw tea into Boston Harbor, stayed far away from town wells during cholera season, and took baths a couple of times a year. Let us return to an America without a Napa, Sonoma or—we can barely speak of it!—Malibu.

Wine has been a staple beverage since the earliest days of American colonialism, even in the early 1600s. Eight ounces of alcohol was not abnormal for a New Englander, and wines—from Madeira to port to sherry—were commonplace on dinner tables throughout the colonies. The stronger the better—these stiff , fortified wines could make the long Atlantic voyage from the continent without spoiling. Unfortunately, native grapes didn’t prove to make the best wine, and it took a bit before folks around these parts figured out how to work the terroir.

New York state’s Brotherhood Winery holds the honor of being the oldest continuously operating vineyard in the nation, but Founding Fathers dabbled in viticulture themselves. Thomas Jefferson was a known lover of wine who attempted to start a vineyard of his own at his famous Monticello estate in Virginia. In fact, Virginia might have been a wine colony if tobacco hadn’t proven more lucrative and a tad easier to grow. Not to mention, dependably fresh water was a bit hard to come by in those days.  Virginia remains a vibrant wine-growing region in the eastern United States, largely due to Jefferson’s influence and investment in wine culture. Jefferson was sommelier to the early presidents, and one of his lasting contributions to the White House was a decked out cellar.

As more and more Europeans flocked to the New World, they brought with them knowledge of winemaking and vine-tending that had created their beloved European wines from vinifera grapes. None of this knowledge was much good for overcoming the temperamental east coast weather and phylloxera aphids that made growing palatable European grapes a nightmarish endeavor.

Despite these difficulties, the average colonial American drank about a gallon of wine per year, and about 40 gallons of spirited drinks total. Wine in particular was viewed as an investment in one’s health—a colonial wives’ tale that has actually gained some credibility as scientists have learned more about grape goodness. By the mid-1800s, Americans were learning how to work their native grapes and create something pretty delicious. And, today, of course, the Great American West is home to some of the most enviable wine in the world—stuff that would make Mr. Jefferson pretty proud.

Celebrate this President’s Day with a toast to America wine history, and explore the many great wine-making regions across the country. Three cheers for the red, white and blue!