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American wine has been produced for over 300 years. Today, wine production is performed in all fifty states, with California leading the way in wine production followed by Washington State, Oregon and New York. The United Statesmarker is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world after France, Italy, and Spain. The production in the U.S. State of Californiamarker alone is more than double of the production of the entire country of Australia.

The North American continent is home to several native species of grape, including Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis, but it was the introduction of the European Vitis vinifera by European settlers that led to the growth of the wine making industry. With more than under vine, the United States is the fifth most planted country in the world after Francemarker, Italymarker, Spainmarker and Turkeymarker.


The first Europeans to explore North America called it Vinland because of the profusion of grape vines they found. The earliest wine made in what is now the United States was from the Scuppernong grapes by French Huguenot settlers at a settlement near Jacksonville, Floridamarker between 1562 and 1564. In the early American colonies of Virginia and the Carolina, wine making was an official goal laid out in their founding charters. However, settlers would later discover that the wine made from the various native grapes had flavors which were unfamiliar and which they did not like. This led to repeated efforts to grow familiar Vitis vinifera varieties beginning with the Virginia Company exporting of French vinifera vines with French vignerons to Virginiamarker in 1619. These early plantings were met with failure as native pest and vine disease ravaged the vineyards. In 1683, William Penn planted a vineyard of French vinifera in Pennsylvaniamarker that may have interbred with a native Vitis labrusca vine to create the hybrid grape Alexander. One of the first commercial wineries in the United States was founded in Indianamarker in 1806 with production of wine made from the Alexander grape. Today French-American hybrid grapes are the staples of wine production on the East Coast of the United States.

The first commercial vineyard and winery in the United States was established by an act of the Kentucky Legislature on November 21, 1799. The vinedresser for the vineyard was John James Dufour formerly of Vevey, Switzerland (same authority as above). The vineyard was located overlooking the Kentucky River in Jessamine County, Kentucky and was named First Vineyard by Dufour on November 5, 1798. The vineyard's current address in 5800 Sugar Creek Pike, Nicholasville, Kentucky. The first wine from the First Vineyard was consumed by the subscribers at John Postelthwaite's house on March 21, 1803. Two 5 gallon oak casks of wine were taken to President Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C. in February 1805. The vineyard continued until 1809 when a killing freeze in May destroyed the crop and many vines at the First Vineyard. The Dufour family then relocated to Vevay, Indiana after the abandonment of the First Vineyard.

In Californiamarker, the first vineyard and winery was established by the Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra near San Diegomarker in 1769. Later missionaries would carry the vines northward, with Sonoma's first vineyard being planted around 1805. California has two native grape varieties, but they make very poor quality wine. Therefore, the missionaries used the Mission grape, which is called criolla or "colonialized European" in South America. Although a Vitis vinifera variety, it is a grape of "very modest" quality. Jean-Louis Vignes was one of the early settlers to use higher quality vinifera in his vineyard near Los Angelesmarker.

The first commercially successful winery in the United States was founded in Cincinnati, Ohiomarker in the mid-1830s by Nicholas Longworth, who made a sparkling wine from Catawba grapes. In the 1860s, vineyards in the Ohio River Valley were attacked by Black rot. This prompted several winemakers to move north to the Finger Lakesmarker region of New York. During this time, the Missouri wine industry, centered around the German colony in Hermann, Missourimarker, took off and was soon second to California in wine production. In the late 19th century, the phylloxera epidemic in the West and Pierce's disease in the East ravaged the growing American wine industry.

Prohibition in the United States began when the state of Mainemarker became the first state to go completely dry in 1846; it culminated in the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 which forbade the manufacturing, sale and transport of alcohol. Exceptions were made for sacramental wine used for religious purposes and some wineries were able to maintain their facilities under those auspices. Others resorted to bootlegging. Home winemaking also became common, allowed through exemptions for sacramental wines and production for home use.

Following the repeal of Prohibition, American wine making reemerged in very poor condition. Many talented winemakers had died, vineyards had been neglected or replanted with table grapes, and Prohibition had changed Americans' taste in wines. Consumers now demanded cheap "jug wine" (so-called dago red) and sweet, fortified (high alcohol) wine. Before Prohibition dry table wines outsold sweet wines by three to one, but after the ratio was more than reversed. In 1935, 81% of California's production was sweet wines.

Leading the way to new methods was research conducted at the University of California, Davismarker and some of the state universities in New York. Faculty at the universities published reports on which varieties of grapes grew best in which regions, held seminars on winemaking techniques, consulted with grape growers and winemakers, offered academic degrees in viticulture, and promoted the production of quality wines. In the 1970s and 1980s, success by Californian winemakers help to secure foreign investment dollars from other winemaking regions, most notably the Champenoismarker. Changing taste in the American palate has also helped to foster this growth, with 668 million gallons of wine being consumed in the United States in 2004. Today the American wine industry faces the growing challenges of expanding international exports and dealing with domestic regulations on interstate sales and shipment of wine.

Wine regions

There are nearly 3,000 commercial vineyards in the United States with at least one winery in all 50 States.

Appellation system

The early American appellation system was based on the political boundaries of states and counties. In September 1978 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) developed regulations to establish American Viticultural Areas (AVA) based on distinct climate and geographical features. In June 1980, the Augusta AVA in Missourimarker was established as the first American Viticultural Area under the new appellation system. For the sake of wine labeling purposes, all the states and county appellations were grandfathered in as appellations. There were 187 distinct AVAs designated under U.S. law as of April 2007.

Appellation labeling laws

In order to have an AVA appear on a wine label, at least 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must be grown in the AVA.

With the larger state and county appellations the laws vary depending on the area. For a County Appellation, 75% of the grapes used must be from that county. If grapes are from two or three contiguous counties, a label can have a multi-county designation so long as the percentages used from each county are clearly on the label. For the majority of U.S. States the State Appellation requires 75% of the grapes in the wine to be grown in the state. Texas requires 85% and Californiamarker requires 100%. If grapes are from two to three contiguous states a wine can be made under a multi-state designations following the same requirements as the multi-county appellation.

American wine or United States is a rarely used appellation that classifies a wine made from anywhere in the United States, including Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.marker. Wines with this designation are similar to the French wine vin de table and can not include a vintage year. By law this is the only appellation allowed for bulk wines exported to other counties.

Semi-generic wines

Current U.S. laws allow American made wines to be labeled as "American Burgundy" or "California champagne", even though these names are restricted in Europe. U.S. laws only restrict usage to include the qualifying area of origin to go with these semi-generic names. Other semi-generic names in the United States include Claret, Chablis, Chianti, Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Rhine wine, Sauternes (commonly spelled on U.S. wine labels as Sauterne or Haut Sauterne), Sherry and Tokay. European Union officials have been working with their U.S. counterparts through World Trade Organization negotiations to eliminate the use of these semi-generic names.

Fighting varietals

Fighting varietal is a term that originated in California during the mid 1980s to refer to any inexpensive cork-finished varietal wine in a 1.5 liter bottle. Fighting varietals have largely replaced the jug wines that were often labeled with semi-generic names. Consumer demand for varietals has essentially dried up the market for semi-generic wines. The exception is very inexpensive sparkling wines that are sometimes labeled "California champagne."

Other U.S. labeling laws

In the United States, at least 95% of grapes must be from a particular vintage for that year to appear on the label. Prior to the early 1970s, all grapes had to be from the vintage year. All labels must list the alcohol content based on percentage by volume. For bottles labeled by varietal at least 75% of the grape must be of the varietal. In Oregonmarker, the requirement is 90%. American wine labels are also required to list if they contain sulfites and carry the Surgeon General's warning about alcohol consumption.

Three-tier distribution

Following the repeal of Prohibition, the federal government allowed each state to regulate the production and sale of alcohol in their own state. For the majority of states this lead to the development of a three-tier distribution system between the producer, wholesaler and consumer. Depending on the state there are some exceptions, with wineries allowed to sell directly to consumers on site at the winery.

Some states allow interstate sales through e-commerce. In the 2005 case of Granholm v. Heald, the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker struck down state laws banning interstate shipments but allowing in-state sales. The outcome of the Supreme Court decision was that states could decide to allow out of states wine sales along with in state sales or ban both altogether.

Largest producers

As of 2005The largest producers of American wine.
  1. E & J Gallo Winery - Accounts for more than a quarter of all U.S. wine sales and is the second largest producer in the world.
  2. Constellation Brands - With foreign wine holdings Constellation is the largest producer in the world and includes Robert Mondavi Winery and Columbia Winery in its portfolio
  3. The Wine Group - San Franciscomarker-based business which owns the Franzia box wine label, Concannon Vineyard and Mogen David kosher wine.
  4. Bronco Wine Company - Owners of the Charles Shaw wine "Two Buck Chuck" line which accounts for nearly 5 million of Bronco's annual average 9 million cases per year.
  5. Diageo - UKmarker based company with American holdings in Sterling Vineyardsmarker, Beaulieu Vineyardmarker and Chalone Vineyard
  6. Brown-Forman Corporation - Owners of the Korbel Champagne Cellarsmarker brand
  7. Beringer Blass - Australian based wine division of Foster's Group and owner of the Beringer wine and Stags' Leap Winery brands
  8. Jackson Wine Estatesmarker - Owners of the Kendall-Jacksonmarker brand

See also

Further reading

  • Clarke, Oz. Oz Clarke's New Encyclopedia of Wine. NY: Harcourt Brace , 1999.
  • Johnson, Hugh. Vintage: The Story of Wine. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  • Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. NY: Scribner, 2005.


  1. United States Department of Agriculture " Global Wine Report August 2006" pg 7-9
  2. T. Stevenson The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia Fourth Edition pg 462 Dorling Kindersly 2005 ISBN 0756613248
  3. H. Johnson & J. Robinson The World Atlas of Wine pg 268 Mitchell Beazley Publishing 2005 ISBN 1840003324
  4. J. Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition p.719; Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0198609906
  5. Littell's Laws of Kentucky Vol.2, pages 268-270
  6. The Swiss Settlement of Switzerland County Indiana, page 293, Day Journal of J.J. Dufour
  7. Kentucky Gazette, March 29, 1803
  8. Library of Congress Doc#25644 Letters of Jefferson and Doc#25657 Letters of Jefferson
  9. The Swiss Settlement of Switzerland County, Indiana, page XVII and The American Vine-Dressers Guide by John James Dufour, Preface page 10 ISBN# 2-940289-00-X
  10. Section 29 of the Volstead Act (27 U.S.C. § 46)
  11. J. Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine Third Edition p.720; Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0198609906
  12. D. Shaw & A. Bahney, The New York Times (October 31, 2003) JOURNEYS; Welcome to Napa Nation
  13. H. Johnson & J. Robinson The World Atlas of Wine pg 269 Mitchell Beazley Publishing 2005 ISBN 1840003324
  14. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau U.S. Viticultural Areas Updated as of 4/23/2007
  15. T. Stevenson The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia Fourth Edition pg 464 Dorling Kindersly 2005 ISBN 0756613248
  16. T. Stevenson The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia Fourth Edition pg 465-466 Dorling Kindersly 2005 ISBN 0756613248
  17. J. Robinson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition p.721; Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0198609906
  18. T. Stevenson The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia Fourth Edition pg 468 Dorling Kindersly 2005 ISBN 0756613248

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