America’s first great wine is one you’ve probably never heard of. The Pilgrims did not produce it. Despite his dreams of flourishing vineyards at Monticello and his belief that America could produce wines “doubtless as good” as Europe, Thomas Jefferson did not create it either. American’s first great wine was a pink sparkling libation made from a hybrid grape called Catawba, grown in the Ohio River Valley outside of Cincinnati. The visionary behind it, Nicholas Longworth was convinced Catawba would become the greatest grape in America, possibly the world.
Longworth was born in 1783 to Loyalist parents in Newark, New Jersey. After the Revolutionary War, his family lost their land holdings and slipped into poverty. Longworth worked hard at odd jobs, passed the bar exam, moved to Cincinnati, and began practicing law. His wealth, however, came from land speculation. Longworth amassed a fortune through real estate investments—his first holdings came from a client who was unable to pay him in cash and offered a plot of land instead. Land value skyrocketed; at one point, Longworth’s wealth is said to have represented a significant percent of the GDP of the United States.
According to Paul Lukacs in his excellent book American Vintage, Longworth began experimenting with grape growing as early as 1813, but he did not devote himself seriously to it until 1820. He had plenty of land on which to plant grapes, and his natural interest in horticulture led him to plant as many vine varieties as he could find. By the time Longworth began producing wine, hundreds of people had brought European vine cuttings (from the esteemed vitis vinifera species) to America in hopes of seeing them grow. (Thomas Jefferson had done this repeatedly with cuttings from the world’s most famed vineyards, only to see the vines whither because of the then-unknown phylloxera root louse that attacks vitis vinifera vines.)