Save $10 on any purchase over $75 at - promo code: SW-8937

Click for California Wine Club

"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 Wine Industry

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 that grape."

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 all.

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 it. 

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.
  Wine production in Ohio moved north to the Lake.


"Old Nick" is little remembered today, but his family is.  If you search for "Nicholas Longworth" on the Internet, the reference you are most likely to find is one of his descendants: Nicholas Longworth, U.S. Congressman, Speaker of the House of Representatives -- and husband of Teddy Roosevelt's oldest daughter, Alice.


The information for this article came primarily from Paul Lukacs' excellent book, "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine".  We've placed a link to it on our site that you can see by clicking here.


 Last modified: August 07, 2007