Where Modern Wine Production REALLY Began in the United States

Where Modern Wine Production REALLY Began in the United States

When most of us think of American wine, California comes to mind. Napa Valley is known for its legendary Cabernets, along with all of the other world-class wines its numerous makers produce. Other notable areas in the state include Sonoma, Mendocino, Paso Robles, Lodi, Los Carneros and so many more.

Both of its neighbors in the north produce excellent wine as well – Oregon makes some killer Pinot Noirs, and Washington is the second largest wine producer after California. But these states are all the way on the West Coast, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be the first sites of modern wine production in the United States.

So it has to be somewhere in New England, maybe Colonial Virginia, right?


It’s actually Florida!

I know, I was surprised to learn this, too! But remember, the Spaniards and French Huguenots settled Florida in the 16th century, before the Pilgrims even came over on the Mayflower. When they arrived, they were greeted with an overabundance of native Muscadine grape vines (Vitis rotudifolia), as far as the eye could see. The Native Americans were making use of the wild fruit already, but the European settlers had another plan.

As early as the 1560s, the settlers began to harvest the wild grapes for wine [1][2]. To this day, Florida still produces wine from native Muscadines, with 24 certified wineries in the state producing almost 2 million gallons of wine each year [3].

What Other States Got a Head Start on Wine?

About two decades after settlers in Florida started to get their drink on, explorers in North Carolina began to cultivate Muscadines, too[1]. So given our quick refresher on American history, these states make a little sense. But the next two will probably leave you just as puzzled as when you found out Florida owns the title of America’s oldest wine maker.

Flash forward to the 1600s. Although native grapes were plentiful, the Europeans found that they were not similar enough in taste to the wines they produced in their home countries. This led to the exportation of European Vitis vinifera vines to the central Atlantic states. However, these vines brought with them disease and pests, which quickly caused their early plantings in Virginia to meet with failure [4].

Spanish explorers and Franciscan monks were able to smuggle some of these vines out of Spain, and had success in 1629 in New Mexico with their cultivation. Because these grapes were primarily used for Catholic Mass, they were referred to as “mission grapes” [5].

William Penn had some success with his vinifera vines in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, but this is most likely due to the fact that the European vines interbred with the American vines in that area, Vitis lambrusca. This hybrid is known today as the Alexander grape, and they are a staple of wines made in the Central Atlantic states [4].

Final Word

There is obviously so much more history we could cover, just in the United States, alone. Since we covered the 1500s and 1600s, this will be all for this particular piece. But stay tuned for future pieces, were we will cover later history, and go into more depth about other regions and grapes!

So let’s do a quick recap of what we learned:

Florida is the oldest wine making region in the United States, since the 1560s!

In second we have North Carolina, followed by New Mexico and Pennsylvania.

Virginia doesn’t quite make the cut – even though their settlers were required by law to produce wines, they were unsuccessful in their attempts until the 1700s.

Cheers to American Wine history!



[1] Ollien, William C. “The Muscadine Grape: Botany, Viticulture, History, and Current Industry” HortScience 25.7 (1990) 732. ASHS Publications. Web. 29 July 2017. http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/25/7/732.full.pdf

[2] Stevenson, T. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. 4th Ed. London: Dorling Kindersly, 2005. 462. Print.

[3] Florida Wine & Grape Growers Association (FGGA). “Growth of Certified Florida Wineries” FGGA. Web. 29 July 2017. http://fgga.org/

[4] Robinson, J. The Oxford Companion to Wine. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 719. Print.

[5] “History of Wine in New Mexico” NMSU Viticulture. New Mexico State University Board of Regents, 2013. Web. 30 July 2017. http://aces.nmsu.edu/ces/viticulture/history.html


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