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The Father of American Wine


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In 1803, a penniless young man arrived in a frontier town called Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio River, a log village of 800 brawling, whiskey drinking ruffians. A glass of wine was the furthest thing from their minds.

Forty-eight years later, the gentleman was one of the richest men in America and his winery---the first successful commercial one in the United States---was garnering reviews from around the world, including one from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London that proclaimed, “Cincinnati has become the chief seat of wine manufacture in the United States.”

To prove his gene pool ran long and deep, seventy-two years further into the future his grandson, bearing his name, was elected the 43rd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and was eventually memorialized by having one of the current House office buildings named in his honor.

This wine patriarch was affectionately known as “Old Nick” at the height of his career but history records him as Nicholas Longworth, an American wine icon.

True enough, grapes were planted and wine produced in states as divergent as California, Virginia and Texas for as long as two hundred years before Ohio tossed its hat into the wine ring. But none of these early efforts resulted in a viable wine industry. Often the finished product tasted terrible, or if palatable, was used in religious ceremonies. Dropping by a general store and grabbing a bottle of wine for dinner was not an option for our forefathers. When entrepreneur Longworth appeared on the scene, he permanently changed the domestic wine landscape.

The Longworth family dated to the early days of our nation’s history. During the Revolutionary War they remained loyal to the British Crown rather than join the fevered cause of independence. The price they paid was the destruction of their estate in New Jersey. Following the war, Nicholas headed west to clear the family name of the loyalist taint and to rebuild the family fortune.

Standing just five feet tall and blessed with a passion for hard work, framed by modesty and likeability, he quickly began making his mark in the turbulent river town of Cincinnati. One of his contemporaries wrote that he was, “shrewd, sagacious, quick-witted; with great common-sense and acquisitiveness.” The man would have been quite comfortable in one of today’s executive suites.

Much like Thomas Jefferson, Longworth believed the future of the United States lay in the building of an agrarian society of stable farm families, not industrialists and merchants. In retrospect, it was a charming vision that would not prevail. In the early 1800s, the second Industrial Revolution was just emerging and widespread use of steam and locomotive power was still a few decades off. Farming the land was seen as the path to establishing a strong nation.

Ironically, his first major business success came as a real estate investor. Shortly after moving west, he turned to the practice of law. One of his early clients could not pay his legal fees and Longworth accepted a deed to fourteen acres of land on the

outskirts of town as payment. The value of the property quickly skyrocketed and our

future wine icon began a career in land speculation that eventually made him a multi-millionaire. He now had the money to pursue his philosophy of expansive land cultivation. Enter wine grapes.

Exhibiting another Jeffersonian belief, Longworth abhorred the consumption of hard liquor. Today, we under appreciate the reasoning behind the temperance movement. But in the mid-1800s, alcohol abuse was rampant, along with its associated ills of destroyed families and careers. Wine was a naturally made alcoholic drink that fostered civility while eliminating the heartbreak of distilled spirits. Its consumption perfectly matched Longworth’s agrarian vision.

His first attempts at vine growing met with typical failure. Disease and weather took a heavy toll on most palatable wine grapes. To make drinkable wine that did not turn bad after bottling, distilled spirits were often added. This technique did not comport with Longworth’s desire to produce a naturally fermented, modest alcohol beverage. Eventually, he settled on growing the red Catawba grape and producing a musky smelling dry wine. His only problem was nobody wanted to drink it. Only sweet and fortified wines were marketable to the rustic, frontier population.

He observed that the odd aroma of the Catawba grape came from the skins so he tried fermenting the wine without skin contact, creating a blush libation that the local German population enjoyed. However, Longworth wanted wider acceptance of his wine and began experimenting with hundreds of varieties, including the classic European grapes. They all succumbed to the difficult climate and insect life of the Ohio Valley. Then a fortunate accident of fate occurred.

In 1842, a cuvée of his Catawba---a grape resistant to the cultivation problems of most grapes---underwent an accidental secondary fermentation producing a champagne-like wine. It tasted far better than his previous efforts. He committed to produce more but needed the expertise of French winemakers. Now a wealthy man, he hired professional winemakers from the Champagne region of France to create a sparkling wine using the traditional méthode champenoise.

Soon he was bottling a substantial amount of his Ohio sparkler but the process came with some serious drawbacks. One major hiccup was the unfortunate side effect of exploding bottles. Since a second fermentation occurred in the bottle---creating all those zesty bubbles---it produced significant pressure inside the vessel. In one of his first years in producing the wine, forty-two thousand bottles exploded in his wine cellar. Can you imagine how much fun it must have been to work at his winery? “Duck!” was likely shouted numerous times a day as bottle after bottle sprayed wine and glass all over the cellar.

Undaunted and rich enough to indulge his passion, Longworth started buying thicker bottles, employing even more experienced winemakers and dramatically increasing the volume of his sparkling Catawba. Soon not only the locals but wine lovers from around the country began to purchase the unique wine. He never claimed it was champagne out of respect for the original French product but more that one critic claimed it was a superior product.

By the mid-1850s, he was producing nearly 100,000 bottles annually and running advertisements nationwide. As expected, the wine caught the attention of the Europeans. One British writer with the Illustrated London News wrote that the wine “transcends the Champagne of France.”

Longworth’s success triggered a growth in vineyards throughout Ohio and by 1859 the region was producing nearly 600,000 gallons of wine, or three million bottles. There were over 2,000 acres under vine in not only Ohio but also portions of Kentucky and Indiana. The American wine industry had been born.

But as is the case with many success stories, it did not endure. Over time, the Catawba grape, which was a hybrid of an American native and classic European grape, began to succumb to the pressures of black rot, downy mildew and insect depredations. During dry years the problem was held in check but humid, rainy summers took their toll. During the 1850s, only three vintages were dry enough to produce quality wine. The industry began to fade back into obscurity.

In 1863, Longworth passed on to the Valhalla vineyard in the sky leaving behind the legacy as the first successful commercial winemaker in the United States. His estate was valued at ten million dollars, an enormous sum of money in the 1860s, and valued today at more than a quarter of a billion dollars. By any measure, the man was a success, and especially as the Father of American wine.

Among his last words was his lifelong dream of discovering, “a new vine,” one that “would neither mildew nor rot.” His son-in-law later wrote that, “He never found it in this world.” Today, in all fifty states a vibrant industry free of diseased vineyards is thriving.

Notwithstanding his failure of achieving permanently healthy vineyards, Nicholas Longworth demonstrated that quality wine could be produced and marketed in the United States. Shortly after his death, winemakers around the country slowly began to build upon his success. Today, his single winery has grown into an industry of over 6,500 wineries producing 711 million gallons of wine a year and is third largest wine producing nation in the world.

The man embodied the American Dream and the dream prevailed.

For Tales From the Vine to the Wine Visit Hagarty-on-Wine.com

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