America’s First Great Wine…Made in 1842
Before Napa was even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, the first great American wine was made on the banks of the Ohio River by a land speculator in 1842. The story of how he inadvertently made a Champagne-style wine that even wowed Europe and inspired a poem by Longfellow.
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.)
Vines that grow native in America (vitis labrusca, among others) are known for “foxy” or musky aromas and flavors. In short, they produced terrible wine that no one wanted to drink. When Longworth began planting vines, a few hybrids (vitis vinifera + vitis labrusca) had emerged in the market, and Catawba was one of them. Longworth purchased some Catawba cuttings from a friend. While the skins continued to produce a distinctly musky note, Longworth decided to press the grapes before fermentation. In essence, he created a pink-hued wine, a predecessor to White Zinfandel. To everyone’s surprise, the wines he produced weren’t bad.
Longworth’s ambitions surpassed simply making less-terrible wine, though. In America during the nineteenth century, whiskey was a daily staple for most adults. (It was safer to drink than water, juice, or milk.) Almost all wines were fortified with sugar and brandy to make them palatable and stable, carrying alcohol levels to between 20—40%. Longworth yearned to make quality table wine that tasted good enough on its own that it didn’t have to be doctored with sugar or brandy. He envisioned an America that drank dry table wine (much lower in alcohol at 12% by volume) instead of whiskey. More importantly, Longworth viewed wine as a critical piece of the temperance movement.
Longworth’s neighbors enjoyed his wines, and they achieved a great deal of local fame. However, his vinous breakthrough occurred after a happy accident in 1842, when some of his barrels began re-fermenting in his cellar and produced a sparkling wine. Apparently this version hardly tasted foxy at all—and because he could afford to do so, Longworth hired winemakers from Champagne and began to make the wine in the traditional method, in which a secondary fermentation occurs inside the bottle.
This sparkling wine struck a chord with Americans and Europeans alike. Popularity spread from Cincinnati to the East Coast, and eventually to Europe where journalist Charles Mackay contended in the Illustrated London News that Longworth’s Catawba “transcends the Champagne of France.” Most famously, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow celebrated it in his poem “Ode to Catawba Wine,” in which he praises its “divine” taste, “More dulcet, delicious and dreamy” than wines made from other varieties.
Longworth’s success transformed wine culture in America. By 1859, Americans had planted vines in Kentucky, Indiana, and farther east in Ohio, resulting in nearly 600,000 gallons of wine. The Cincinnati Commercial proclaimed him “the father of wine culture in America.”
Even after Longworth’s death in 1863, Catawba continue to impress up until the vines began to suffer irreparably from black rot and downy mildew—weaknesses inherent in its partial vitis-vinifera ancestry. The 1850s brought seven particularly harsh vintages, and the Civil War followed shortly after. In 1870, a brewery purchased the late Longworth’s bottling plant and winery.
While we may never know how Longworth’s sparkling Catawba actually tasted, I give thanks, this holiday, to Nicholas Longworth for following his curiosity and intuition and turning Americans on to the notion of drinking (sparkling) wine.
Ode to Catawba WineBy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Written In Praise of Nicholas Longworth’s Catawba Wine made on the banks of the Ohio River)
This song of mine Is a song of the Vine To be sung by the glowing embers Of wayside inns, When the rain begins To darken the drear Novembers.
It is not a song Of the Scuppernong, From warm Carolinian valleys, Nor the Isabel And the Muscadel That bask in our garden alleys.
Nor the red Mustang, Whose clusters hang O’er the waves of the Colorado, And the fiery flood Of whose purple blood Has a dash of Spanish bravado.
For the richest and best Is the wine of the West, That grows by the Beautiful River, Whose sweet perfume Fills all the room With a benison on the giver.
And as hollow trees Are the haunts of bees, Forever going and coming; So this crystal hive Is all alive With a swarming and buzzing and humming.
Very good in its way Is the Verzenay, Or the Sillery soft and creamy; But Catawba wine has a taste more divine, More dulcet, delicious and dreamy.
There grows no vine By the haunted Rhine, By Danube or Quadalquivir, Nor on island or cape, That bears such a grape As grows by the Beautiful River.
Drugged is their juice For foreign use, When shipped o’er the reeling Atlantic, To rack our brains With the fever pains, That have driven the Old World Frantic.
To the sewers and sinks With all such drinks, And after them tumble the mixer, For a poison malign Is such Borgia wine, Or at best but a Devil’s elixir.
While pure as a spring Is the wine I sing, And to praise it, one needs but name it; For Catawba wine Has need of no sign, No tavern-bush to proclaim it.
And this Song of the Vine, This greeting of mine, The winds and the birds shall deliver To the Queen of the West, In her garlands dressed, On the banks of the Beautiful River.