A Brief History of Wine In America, Part 1: Failure

Sunshine State

The year? 1562. The place? Florida. That’s right–Florida, the same place synonymous with bath salt face-eating and wife-swapping retirees, is the original HQ of American wine.

Close to 20 years prior to Roanoke Island, French Huguenots settled in St. Augustine, Florida and made wine with the American native Muscadine grape. However, if you’ve ever tasted Muscadine wine, you may be acutely aware that quality Muscadine is bit of an… adventure to create. Oxidizing quickly, meant to be served chilled, and typically pretty damn sweet, let’s just say that this varietal never quite took off back home.

Native Vines

Now it’s time to fast forward to 1585 and up north to Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Sir Walter Raleigh and his plucky bunch of colonists also needed something to drink and help them forget how much setting up a new colony sucks. Like the Huguenots before them, they also ended up giving us a new variety of Muscadine–the Scuppernong, named for the coastal river running alongside the colony. In fact, there’s still a 400 year-old “Mother Vine” Scuppernong grapevine in North Carolina–possibly the oldest producing grapevine in the world (as long as you’re getting your info from North Carolina–Eastern Europe and Australia each claim this).

One again though, the wine failed to find success back in Europe. But hope was not lost. By the time Jamestown was settled in 1607, wine making was an official goal in the settlement charter. Tobacco actually became Virginia’s first profitable export, but these smart Brits still saw promise in the Old Dominion. In fact, by 1619, Acte 12 was signed into law. It required each male settler to plant and maintain a minimum of 10 grape vines. Just one catch–Europe wanted to use the American colonies to grow vinifera, wine of European origin.

Vinifera

American native grapes didn’t (and frankly still don’t) suit European palates. Think about it–When is the last time you saved a fine bottle of Concord for a special occasion?

With every effort to grow vinifera, only failure followed. Why? Well folks, I’m here to introduce you to a tiny little asshole known as phylloxera. Phylloxera are nearly microscopic insects that feed on roots and leaves of grapevines. Here’s the catch though–American grapevines have a natural defense against those tiny motherfuckers. If you cut into an American grapevine root, you’ll notice a sticky sap. Naturally, this sap seeps through roots and will clog the phylloxera’s mouth. Even if the phylloxera do manage to get through, the sap forms a natural band-aid around the root.

Unfortunately, European grape varietals may taste better, but they have no such phylloxera resistance. In fact, we wiped out over 40% of French vineyards in the mid-1800’s when phylloxera were accidentally imported to the village of Pujaut. The Great French Wine Blight devastated the French economy to the tune of over 10 billion Francs. See? I told you these buggers were assholes.

As you may have deduced by all the wine you’ve drank sine the beginning of quarantine, hope lies ahead! Coming next week, we cover Thomas Jefferson being a failure, vine grafting, and so much more. Welcome to your quarantine series on fancy boozin’ in America. I’ll see you next Thursday for Part 2!

Need more before next Thursday?

Check out my sources for a deep dive of American wine history with less swearing.

Florida Wine History

A Guide to Muscadine Wines

Virginia Wine History

The Mother of All Vines

The Great French Wine Blight

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