The Curious History Of Wine Consumption
The history of wine consumption in
America has been fraught with starts, stops, and inconsistencies. The
American population has always had a love-hate relationship with
alcohol. Historic prohibitionist attitudes amongst much of the American
population have blurred the line between moderate wine consumption and
detrimental alcoholism. As a result, regular, moderate consumption of
wine by the American public continues to face ideological and legal
The History of Wine Consumption During
the Colonial Years
Since its origins, the history of wine
consumption in America has been both encouraged and despised by
different demographic groups. Spanish missionaries produced the earliest
New World wine during the early 17th Century. Shortly thereafter, French
immigrants began to cultivate grapes in the Hudson River Valley. They
made wine, juice, and preserves.
The early history of wine consumption
in America was dominated by immigrants whom were primarily Catholic, and
of Central or Southern European descent. The bulk of wine-drinking
immigrants came from the wine loving nations of France, Italy, Germany,
and Spain. They descended from cultural traditions that valued social
wine consumption with the evening meal.
The aforementioned wine drinkers were
counterbalanced by immigrants from Northern Europe. Many held Puritan
belief systems that discouraged or banned alcohol consumption of any
kind. The nativist movements of the early 18th Century cast suspicion on
immigrant groups that retained Old World customs and did not entirely
assimilate into American society.
Wine consumption was a lightning rod
for these discriminatory points of view. Although not accurate,
alcoholism was seen as a problem only associated with certain ethnic
groups that enjoyed wine. Whiskey and beer was the actual source of vast
majority of problematic inebriation. Nonetheless, early prohibitionist
forces were very effective at linking wine to the ills of American
History of Wine Consumption During the
In the 1830s, Americans consumed
massive amounts of whiskey and beer. Alcoholism was extremely widespread
and was affecting the stability of the American family. Husbands spent
time in the saloons instead of with their families, and rampant
drunkenness increased instances of philandering and crime.
Ironically, as Prohibitionist fervor
gained national momentum in the nineteenth century, the American wine
industry boomed. From 1860-1880, Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of
France. California wine production greatly increased to fill the
international void. Huge tracts of vineyards were planted in Southern
California to satisfy the international demand for wine. However, most
of this production was exported and it did not have a major impact on
the history of wine consumption in America.
By the mid-1880s, European wine
production rebounded, causing a glut of American wine. To make matters
worse, Pierce's Disease and Phylloxera simultaneously struck Southern
California's vineyards. Rising population and real estate values in the
Los Angeles Basin was the last nail in the coffin of extensive
viticulture in the region. With Prohibitionist attitudes constantly
gaining momentum, American demand for wine was insufficient to make up
for the loss of the much larger European market.
History of Wine During the Prohibition
In response to the massive outcry of
many Americans against alcohol consumption, Congress passed the 18th
Amendment in 1917. It banned the commercial production and sale of
alcohol in America. The Volstead Act was ratified in 1920 and expounded
on the actual implementation of Prohibition. It also mandated several
loopholes in alcohol production and consumption. Physicians could
prescribe alcohol and it could be consumed for religious purposes.
Additionally, a head of household was legally allowed to produce 200
gallons of wine a year for personal use. This was largely a concession
to the significant Italian-American electorate.
Because of the Volstead Act, American
wine consumption actually increased during Prohibition. The traditional
American alcoholic beverages of beer and distilled spirits were illegal
to produce and sell from 1920-1933. As a result, regions like Lodi saw a
massive increase in demand for grapes used for home winemaking.
Prohibition did not curtail the
American appetite for alcohol, it merely destroyed the legal framework
that governed alcohol sales. Due to the inaccessibility of alcohol, the
use of other drugs, including cocaine and marijuana greatly increased.
Additionally, the government lost a major source of revenue from taxing
alcohol as organize crime took over the means of production and
distribution. The American public became increasingly disillusioned with
the government's stubborn attempt to attain the impossible.
The 21st Amendment: Repeal of
After a decade of the "noble
experiment", Congress passed the 21st Amendment. It ended national
Prohibition and transferred the authority to allow or ban production and
sale of alcohol to individual states. Many states relegated this
authority to the county level. Counties in some states prohibit alcohol
to this day. The history of wine production and sales since the repeal
of Prohibition has been governed by the 21st Amendment, not the free
trade mandates of the U.S. Constitution.
Because every state has the power to
make their own laws regarding wine sales, it has effectively made
commercial wine distribution a convoluted mess. Marketing wine in the
U.S. continues to be a difficult and frustrating task, especially for
The effects of the 21st Amendment have
had a major impact on the history of wine consumption in the U.S. during
the 20th and 21st Centuries. Its legacy is a tangle of state and county
laws that regulate the production and sale of wine.
The Fortified Wine Years
Immediately after the repeal of
Prohibition, wine consumption dropped as Americans had renewed access to
spirits and beer. From the repeal of Prohibition to the late 1950s,
high-alcohol dessert and fortified wines dominated the market. These
were the darkest days of the history of wine production and consumption.
Many fortified wines were produced and sold extremely cheaply, and
catered to the "misery market". "Winos" drank these
overly alcoholic concoctions because they were the cheapest way to get
drunk. In the quest for short-term profits, unscrupulous producers
stamped a black mark on the history of wine in America.
From 1934 to the early 1950s, immigrant
families consumed the majority of table wines. Unfortunately, many of
their offspring did not follow their parents traditional drink choices
and began consuming beer and cocktails as they assimilated into American
society. Table wine was a mysterious beverage to most Americans and was
associated with high-society and recent arrivals from Southern and
The Jug Wine Years
America's taste for non-fortified wines
finally began to develop in the early 1960s. The majority of these new
wine drinkers were young, well-traveled, and relatively affluent. As the
Baby Boom generation came of age, the ranks of wine drinkers increased.
Even still, the majority of consumers bought simple, sweet wines.
The early 1980s saw the height of the
frenzy to promote and sell inexpensive wines to the American public. The
White Zinfandel rage was and continues to be a major part of the market.
Total American wine consumption reached an all-time high due to a
massive influx of capital and advertising. Despite predictions of
continued increases, it did not materialize.
At the same time, overall alcohol
consumption decreased in the United States during the 1980s. The
anti-drug and alcohol movement justifiably discouraged dangerous levels
of drug and alcohol ingestion. Unfortunately, extremists in the movement
also attacked the history of wine consumption in America. Zero-tolerance
attitudes portrayed moderate wine consumption as not only hazardous to
the individual, but also as detrimental to the entire population.
The Renaissance Years
In the late 1980s, jug wine consumption
fell sharply. American tastes were changing, and the market began to
demand wines with defined characteristics. Mike Benziger's Glen Ellen
Winery entered the void, creating the hugely popular "fighting
varietals" genre. These wines bridged the gap between the generic
production of the past, and the boutique wineries of the following
Much of America's current interest in
quality wine stems from a 1991 60 Minutes Program that examined the
health benefits of moderate wine consumption. The "French
Paradox" is the fact that the French consume fatty foods,
significant red wine, and have a very low incidence of heart disease.
This news had a major impact on American wine consumption, especially in
aging, affluent demographic groups.
The Future...Factors to Consider
As American society becomes
increasingly more fast-paced and hectic, fewer families are sitting down
together for dinner. This is not a positive sign for American wine
consumption as few people open up a bottle of wine to drink with their
drive-thru or take-out dinners.
Wine enjoyment is symptomatic of
relaxation, and these days American society is anything but relaxed. The
history of wine is also synonymous with stable family relationships, and
the divorce rate in the U.S. is currently about 50%.
Furthermore, wine is a complicated
subject that generally requires a certain amount of leisure time and
money to become a true adherent. Additionally, wine has an unflattering
image amongst many American alcohol consumers who prefer beer or liquor.
In my opinion, there are limits to how large the quality wine market can
On a more positive note, the American
population is aging, and older, more affluent people tend to enjoy wine
more than other demographic groups. Hopefully they will pass their
appreciation of wine to the next generation.
In many ways, the history of wine
consumption in the U.S. is a microcosm of both the positives and
negatives that have come with the innate American experience. Studying
the history of wine consumption in the U.S. illuminates the political,
cultural, religious, and racial diversity that has made the nation what
it is today.
America has a relatively small but
growing population of wine-lovers. Although the number of regular wine
drinkers are far from being a majority, they will continue to grow as
the population ages. Future trends will probably include an increase in
consumption of quality varieties grown in specific, terroir-driven