8 part video series on the history of Champagne filmed in France

America's First Sparkling Wine

Here's a radiant Columbia drinking American sparkling wine, as a scowling older woman, carrying champagne labeled Rheims, leaves for a French ship in the harbor.

(For those not already aware, "Columbia" was once a common name referring to the United States.)

“Because everything good had to be shipped across the Atlantic, Americans in the early nineteenth century drank very little wine.

Most of what they did drink was fortified – port, sherry and Madeira. This was to some degree because fortified wine would not spoil, but more because it contained so much alcohol. A public accustomed to rum and whiskey wanted strong wine if it wanted wine at all.” states Paul Lukacs in his book
American Vintage.

After 200 years of failure in making a good tasting American wine, Cincinnati’s Nicolas Longworth succeeded in 1842.
He has been called the Father of American wine industry. He owned the first commercially successful winery in the United States!

He produced a good tasting wine from a hybrid grape called “Catawba”. It was a naturally occurring grapevine cross between a European vine and a Native American one. Although nearly 50% of the world’s grape species are native to North America, they are mostly bad for winemaking. i.e. they taste awful. The Catawba grape was an accidental hybrid between a Native American grape species, impervious to many local pests and disease, with a European grape that makes great wine, but is highly susceptible to North American pests and disease.

Longworth also accidentally discovered sparkling Catawba wine that tasted even better than his Catawba still wines, when in 1842 a batch of his still wine underwent a second fermentation. He did not know how to duplicate the creation of this sparkling wine himself so
he shrewdly hired winemakers from the Champagne region in France. They brought with them the techniques known as méthode champenoise where the 2nd fermentation takes place in the bottle.

Pink fizz
People liked Longworth’s pink bubbly wine very much. By the mid 1850’s he was making 100,000 bottles annually and advertising nationwide. Even some Europeans began to drink it then!

Longworth’s sparkling Catawba was, indeed, the first successfully sold sparkling wine in the USA!

This led to an explosion of the wine industry in Cincinnati. He also, no doubt, inspired others to follow in his footsteps.

(Yet, one more reason to savor Rosé Bubbly! The next time you have it - perhaps toast to Nicolas Longworth, the Father of America's Wine Industry!)

No doubt Longworth inspired more wineries to "crop" up along the Ohio River in the middle 19th century.

German American Winery in Ohio 19th Cent

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow scribed a poem in dedication to this first American bubbly:
‘Ode to Catawba Wine’:
For richest and best
Is the wine of the West,
That grows by the Beautiful River; (the Ohio river)

Whose sweet perfume
Fills all the room
With a benison on the giver…

Very good in its way
Is the Verzenay
Or the Sillery soft and creamy (Verzenay and Sillery refers to villages in the champagne region)

But Catawba wine
Has a taste more divine,
More dulcet, delicious, and dreamy.
There grows no vine
By the haunted Rhine
By Danube or Guadalquivir,

Nor on island or cape
That bears such a grape
As grows by the Beautiful River.

Kristin Noelle Smith was imprinted with the vine as a child living in Modesto, CA (home of one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of California wines). She received both her B.A. and M.B.A. from Northwestern University and has lived in Chicago for the past 25 years. She seeks to offer historical and business perspectives in her wine commentary, with a vibrant enthusiasm for wine’s many unique and exciting facets. You may read more about champagne on her blog. Contact.