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Virginia Dare 

Winery Insight Featured Article - November 2004 by Timothy O. Rice


Wine bottle for sale: $100


I was a bit surprised when I saw the ad online. It was for an old Virginia Dare wine bottle, empty of wine and filled with colored water to show off the lettering on the clear glass. I had no idea if that was a good price or not, but then I don't collect wine bottles. I barely knew there had been an American wine called Virginia Dare at some date well in the past. Intrigued a bit, I began to look for information, and the search became the reward, so I thought I'd share what I found with you.


The Virginia Dare brand belonged to a company called Garrett & Company. They were founded in 1835 in New York, making wine from a native American grape called the Scuppernong. Casting about for a name, they settled on the legend of Virginia Dare. They had other brands they marketed (Pocahontas, Minnehaha, etc.), but Virginia Dare was their big seller. Before Prohibition, it was the most popular brand of wine in the nation.


Although I did not know it when I started searching, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in North America, on August 18, 1587 at the famed and ill-fated Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina. Her grandfather was John White, the colony's governor. He had sailed back to England to bring back supplies and new colonists, but arrived to find England at war and the Spanish Armada descending upon the country. It was 1590 before he and Sir Walter Raleigh could return, only to find the colony mysteriously vanished. Later legend told of a beautiful young woman among the Native Americans, Virginia Dare, mistaken for a doe and killed by a hunter's arrow. With time, the legend grew and Virginia Dare became a symbol for purity.


The Garretts were from upstate New York and the family lived near Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes, but their grapes came from vineyards in many places over the years. Shrewd marketers, they built the most powerful wine brand in America after the Civil War, after Nicholas Longworth's vine empire around Cincinnati was stricken with the phylloxera louse. Since Virginia Dare was based on native American vines (the Scuppernong) and not the delicate European vitis vinifera grapes, they were spared the ravages of phylloxera. By the early Twentieth Century, Garrett & Company was hugely successful.


But times change. After World War I, the temperance movement finally passed Prohibition, the banning of the sale of alcoholic beverages. As 1919 dawned, Garrett & Company (along with every other American winery) was in a desperate situation. Like all others that managed to survive, they had to find new ways to earn money. Wineries sold "wine tonics" (wine disguised as a health remedy) and grapes for home use in making "grape juice". Many new "churches" sprang up across America to buy "altar wine" for their services as well.


The Garretts were a different breed than most. Faced with the collapse of their wine business, they established a new one, building on the Virginia Dare reputation. They went into the business of manufacturing flavoring extracts, where they could employ the expertise they had gained in the wine and spirits business. By 1923, the Virginia Dare Extract Company was established and continues to this day.


Prohibition eventually ended, and the Garretts brought Virginia Dare wine back to the market, the first American winery to do so. But "Captain" Garrett died in 1940, and without his drive and determination the brand eventually floundered and faded. In 1965 it was purchased in a royalty arrangement by Constellation Brands. Today, as far as I could determine, the Virginia Dare name is owned by their Canandaigua Wine Company division, but I see no indication it has been produced or sold in many years. A sad fate for the oldest wine brand in America.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007