America’s First Famous Wine Was Made In Ohio. In The 1840s

Among things you didn’t know about Ohio: it’s the first city in the states to have police cars. It has an alley dedicated to Dave Grohl. And it’s the birthplace of Teri Garr, Stephen Spielberg, and Charles Manson.

It’s also America’s first successful wine-making region. California may dominate these days, and they may have won the 1976 Judgment of Paris (basically slapping the beret right off France’s very regal-looking face), but Ohio was the first American state to gain international wine street cred—in a typically unlikely American fashion.

Which, no surprise, starts with a plucky guy from Jersey. Nicholas Longworth—basically your classic “small guy with big dreams”—moved to Cincinnati from Newark in 1803, became a lawyer, and made a ton of money. Longworth also had a penchant for horticulture, and decided—as rich dudes often can—to invest in a totally random, expensive projection: starting a winery.

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Growing grapes in a state with a river valley and the warming effects of nearby Lake Erie wasn’t a totally wild idea. It just hadn’t been done, certainly not to much commercial success, until Longworth—who came to be known as “Old Nick”—decided he’d like to give it a try, planting his first vines in 1813. Success didn’t come immediately, but as you can guess, a Jersey millionaire named “Old Nick” is not likely to take tribulation lying down.

American Champagne

Longworth did eventually find his success with the native Catawba grape. But once more, there was a slight stumbling block: Catawba (already a bit finicky to grow, preferring a longer season to mature) has a distinct “foxy” flavor—a bit musty, with a hint, or a slap, of wet dog. Longworth’s solution was to simply remove the more pungently aromatic skins from the grape juice early enough to avoid any foxy unpleasantness.

The result was a slightly pinkish-hued, sweet wine that was so popular—remember, we liked our booze sweeter back in the day—that very rapidly, Longworth found himself at the helm of the first commercially successful winery in the U.S. And luck wasn’t done with him yet. In 1842, an accidental second fermentation—the way Champagne is made—yielded a batch of sparkling pink Catawba that was even more popular than the still stuff. By 1860, Ohio was producing one third of the nation’s wines, and Old Nick was riding high on a bubbly pink wave.

Still, luck was not done with our plucky rich guy, only this time it was bad luck, instead of good. Catawba eventually fell victim to more than a couple pests and stumbling blocks: downy mildew, the Civil War, and the early stages of the abstinence movement. So while production of Catawba wines continues to this day, in and outside of Ohio, the full-scale glory of what Old Nick created—a wine that literally inspired poetry—lives on only in memory.

So next time you veer right to the California section of your wine store, just remember, the Father of the American Wine Industry was a kid from Newark, living the dream in Ohio.

“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.”

– from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Ode to Catawba Wine”