"If a man abstains from wine to such an extent that he
does serious harm to his nature, he will not be free from blame."
St. Thomas Aquinas, Italian theologian
Nicholas Longworth: Father of the American
Winery Insight Featured Article -
July 2003 by Timothy O. Rice
Without Nicholas Longworth, there
might never have been any successful wineries in the United States.
The reason is that European grapes
are primarily from the species Vitis Vinifera (Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay,
etc.) American grapes were from different species: Vitis Labrusca, Rotundifolia,
Riparia, Aestivalis and Cordifolia (these are the primary ones; there are more
in America, about half the known species in the world). American grapes thrive
in the wild; European grapes are primarily cultivated plants that do poorly when
not cared for. In early 19th Century America, almost no one grew grapes
commercially because there was little economic benefit to them. (They were not
a big table food, and Dr. Welch had not developed the process for making
commercial non-alcoholic grape juice [which he considered the true wine of the
Bible -- he was a Temperance man.]) Essentially, if you did not make them into
wine or raisins, they were economically worthless in the market of the time.
The problem with American grapes was that they did not yield either good wine or
good raisins. No one wanted them.
American grapes produced wine with a distinct musky taste and odor. Early
settlers called them "fox grapes" because of their "rank Taste when ripe,
resembling the Smell of a Fox" [Robert Beverly, 1705, "History and Present State
of Virginia"). Fermentation accentuated this taste. Early colonists tried to
make wine from them and gave up. Then they tried to import vitis vinifera from
Europe and grow them here. In 1619, Lord Delaware imported 10,000 French vines
and French growers. They all died. In 1622, Lord Baltimore planted 300 acres.
They died. So did the vineyards planted in the Hudson Valley and around
Charleston by French Hugenot immigrants. All of the immigrant colonists tried
this in what is now the US, from Spanish Florida to French Louisiana to the
English colonies. All the vines died.
People kept trying, generation after generation. The Virginians probably tried
hardest, led on by Thomas Jefferson. The vines kept dying. The reason was
disease and biology, which no one knew much about in those days before Darwin.
American vines could survive black rot, downy mildew, and powdery mildew.
European vinifera vines were devastated by them. If the vines somehow survived
those blights, parasites got them: grape leafhoppers, berry moths, and
phylloxera. Americans lived in a natural vineyard where you could not grow and
produce drinkable wine.
It wasn't until the 1780's that anyone made progress. Assuming that, since some
wine made from American grapes tasted less bad than others, there might be a
worthwhile variety, people kept trying. A French schemer named Legaux planted
18,000 vines in Pennsylvania, mainly European vinifera. Only one variety
prospered: an American grape called Alexander's, after a man who had cultivated
it in the 1740's; Legaux called it the Cape because he was sure it came from
South Africa. By 1810 Legaux was bankrupt, but he had sold some clippings along
the way to a man named John Dufour, a Swiss immigrant headed for Kentucky first,
then Indiana, where he planted a small vineyard at Vevay in an area he called
New Switzerland. Dufour sent some of his wine to then-President Thomas
Jefferson. At the same time, a Major Adlum was cultivating the same grape in a
Maryland vineyard. Jefferson was impressed and urged growers to "push the
culture of that grape", predicting that America's "first success will be from
The Alexander (which apparently no longer exists) is said to have been an
accidental hybrid -- a crossing somewhere of a native Labrusca with a European
Vitis Vinifera, probably one planted by William Penn near where James Alexander
discovered the Alexander grape around 1740. The Labrusca side allowed it to
survive, the European side improved the taste. This is 50 years before
hybridization was really understood, and about 100 years before Mendelian
genetics [which explains hybridization] were accepted principles.
Adlum also found and cultivated the grape we call the Catawba today, another
apparent accidental hybrid. His wines weren't all that good, by accounts, but
around 1825 he sold some clippings to a self-made millionaire named Nicholas
Longworth from Cincinnati, a lawyer with the Midas touch for real estate and a
Temperance man in the mold of Thomas Jefferson. "Old Nick", as he was known,
was a bit of an oddball, but beloved in his city.
He started with vineyards in 1813, but only became serious about it near 1820.
His first efforts used Alexander clippings from the vineyard at Vevay, but the
only way he could make drinkable wine was to add sugar and fortify it with
brandy so that what he called "a tolerable imitation of Madiera" was about 20%
alcohol (40 proof). Since he was a moderate Temprance man who wanted wine to
replace whiskey, he was trying to get a drinkable dry table wine of about 12%
alcohol (24 proof) and this sweet, fortified wine was not good enough for him.
All good wine came from Europe in those days, and what did come was usually
fortified to avoid spoilage in transit across the Atlantic. In addition, a
public accustomed to whiskey and rum wanted strong wine if it wanted wine at
In those days alcohol was actually regarded as a healthy drink, since it might
make you drunk but didn't go bad and make you sick like milk might, or contain
something that made you ill unpredictably, like foul water. However, it was
also seen as associated with vices, and many people were looking for a middle
path: beer, wine, and cider.
Longworth's wines got better with the Catawba grape, but were still not a
commercial success. People weren't interested. Thinking the musky taste might
come from the skins, Longworth began separating the skins from the juice before
fermentation, producing a white or blush Catawba apparently something like a
white Zinfandel today. Anglo-Saxon neighbors didn't get excited by it -- but
the growing tide of German immigrants coming down the Ohio Valley to Cincinnati
liked it. Longworth had latched on to his market -- for German immigrants who
wanted an affordable, drinkable table wine to continue with the traditions of
their homeland, he was virtually the only game in town.
Flush with success, Longworth kept expanding and planting more vineyards
throughout the 1830's. He was determined to transform America's drinking
habits. In 1842, he hit the big break by accident.
He'd had some success with other varieties, like the Isabella, but the viniferas
died on him just as they did for everyone else. A batch of wine was accidently
submitted for a second fermentation, producing a sparkling wine less "foxy" than
anything he had made before. Longworth sniffed success and wanted to follow up,
but he did not really know how to make sparkling wines. So he imported French
winemakers from Champagne to show him how (I told you he was rich, didn't I?)
They introduced the methode champenois, with all that it implied in
time and expense. Bottles kept exploding from the pressure, and Longworth kept
pouring money in. In one year, 42,000 bottles exploded in the cellars.
Longworth bought new bottles, hired new winemakers, and pushed ahead because the
sparkling Catawba was a big success. The non-Germans in Cincinnati liked it.
Soon wealthy Easterners who never drank anything but European were clamoring for
For 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 ...
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Ode to Catawba Wine"
By the mid 1850's, Longworth was actually making a profit, producing 100,000
bottles a year and advertising nationally. Robert Browning drank it. In the
"Illustrated London News", Charles Mackay said that it "transcends the Champagne
of France". A vineyard/winery boom in the Cincinnati area followed. By 1859
there were 2,000 acres of vineyards producing over 600,000 gallons of wine in
the region, mainly Catawba, most still, not sparkling. (Making sparkling wine
took deep pockets.) "Cincinnati Hock", a still wine, was a good seller. In
1857, the Cincinatti Commercial described Longworth as "the founder of wine
culture in America, author of sparkling Catawba, the munificent and judicious
patron of Art."
Meanwhile, American Temperance had
changed. The movement was now anti-alcohol in all forms: tee-totalling
prohibition was on a phenomenal rise in the 1840's and 1850's. In 1851, Maine
passed a law forbiding the manufacture and sale of alcohlic beverages. Twelve
other states followed suit over the next four years. In Ohio, the prohibition
of the sale of alcoholic beverages
was on the ballot in 1853, with Longworth waging a public fight with Samuel Cary
about it. Longworth carried the day, and Cary was forever after bitter, blaming
the result on the German wards.
As the Civil War approached, prohibition took a back seat to sectional issues
like slavery and tariffs. By 1860, ten of the 13 states with prohibition laws
had repealed them. Things should have been good.
Unfortunately, by 1860, black rot and downy mildew struck heavily in the Ohio
vineyards. Catawba vines were susceptible to it, there had always been some,
but it got worse as the vines aged. No one understood the problems well, there
was no cure. Longworth was wealthy and could absorb his loses; others could
not. Longworth died in 1863, and the vineyard industry shrivelled without his
drive and funds. During the Civil War there were many better ways to make a
living, and a shortage of manpower for the labor in the vineyards. By 1870, his
bottling plant closed and was puchased by a brewery.