The Father of American Sparkling Wine

His explosive invention made Nicholas Longworth the 19th century's most influential wine figure
Jun 28, 2004

Nicholas Longworth was the first American to produce commercially successful sparkling wine.
Recommended American Sparkling Wines

When you think of American sparkling wine today, you think of wines such as the ones recommended below, high quality bottlings that rival the world's best bubbly, including those from Champagne. These American sparklers are most often from California and other major U.S. wine regions and are made from European Vitis vinifera grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

It is unlikely that you would think of sparkling Catawba. But this sweet, zingy wine was America's first sparkler and, for many years, one of the country's best wines and the flagship wine of Ohio, once the biggest wine-producing state in the country. And it is even more unlikely that you would think of Nicholas Longworth, the diminutive lawyer who created the first sparkling Catawba and triggered Ohio's wine boom. So to celebrate America's Independence Day and the evolution of American sparkling wine over the past two centuries, we pay tribute to Longworth and his fizzy creation.

Longworth moved to Cincinnati from New Jersey in 1803, the same year Ohio officially became a state. The 21-year-old began studying law and soon after started his own law firm, which became wildly successful. Less than two decades later, Longworth was the wealthiest man in the state.

At the time, the beverage of choice in the heartland frontier was whiskey. Aside from its more obvious effects, hard liquor was actually one of the safest things to drink in 19th century Ohio. "If you didn't have a well, there was a good chance the water would make you sick," said Paul Lukacs, author of American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine (Houghton Mifflin Co.). "If you didn't own a cow or goat you couldn't drink milk. So there wasn't much else to drink besides whiskey."

A supporter of the Temperance Movement, Longworth was appalled at his fellow citizens' jug habits and wanted to give Ohio an alternative beverage, something safe, with a long shelf-life, but less punch than 80-proof liquor. "Longworth wasn't a great wine lover, nor did he know much about wine, but he wanted to make Cincinnati -- and later Ohio and the rest of the country -- a healthier place," Lukacs said.

In 1813, Longworth planted his first vineyards, near the Ohio River and tried his hand at his new hobby, but with limited success. He dabbled with native varieties and imported French Vitis vinifera vines, which quickly died due to the European vines' vulnerability to disease and parasites, such as the devastating phylloxera.

But in 1825, Longworth found his grape. He had heard about a hybrid called Catawba, a crossing of native Labrusca and vinifera vines grown by a fellow Ohioan, Major James Adlum. He planted a vineyard with the new crossing as tried his first Catawba wines three years later. They were musky, as were other native varietals, but showed potential.

Thinking the wine's musky flavor might be caused by the skins, Longworth decided to remove the skins from the grape juice before fermentation. The result was a sweet, light-bodied pink wine, similar to white Zinfandel.

Catawba's popularity quickly spread across the Ohio Valley (especially among German immigrants, whom it reminded of their homeland tipple), and Longworth quit his law practice and devoted all of his time (and much of his fortune) to making wine. During the 1830s, Longworth planted more vineyards and increased production as his business grew. But it wasn't until 1842, after some wine was unintentionally fermented a second time, that Longworth had his next breakthrough.

The accidental bubbly was best wine he had produced yet, but Longworth didn't know how to properly control the winemaking process. He hired French vignerons to teach him the méthode champenoise, but the process was still not perfect, and Longworth lost about a third of his production to bottles exploding from the pressure. Regardless, demand soared for this intriguing wine, even among wealthy wine drinkers who had previously drunk nothing but authentic French Champagne.

By 1859, Ohio was America's biggest wine producer, bottling more than 570,000 gallons of wine a year, twice as much as California. Longworth and his Catawba wine were king and scepter of the industry, with a production of more than 100,000 bottles a year and distribution across the country and even in Europe.

The wines even impressed the famous Ohio poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who praised Longworth's flagship grape in the Ode to Catawba Wine, which begins: "Very good in its way/ Is the Verzenay,/ Or the Sillery soft and creamy;/ But Catawba wine/ Has a taste more divine,/ More dulcet, delicious and dreamy."

But just as Ohio's wine fame was peaking, the industry came tumbling down. In 1860, vineyards across the state were plagued with black rot and Oidium, or powdery mildew, which destroyed more than 10,000 vines in southwestern Ohio.

Longworth was also past his prime, and when he died in 1863, the remains of his wine empire were split up among his heirs. But "Old Nick" is remembered as an important figure in America's wine history.

"Longworth was really the first person to make wine in America that was commercially successful," Lukacs said. "He was also the first to make wine that was sold on a large scale. You could make a strong case that he is the father of American wine."

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These American sparklers show how far we've come from the days of Catawba, and are perfect for popping on the Fourth of July (or any celebration):

Recommended American Sparkling Wines

Wine Score Price
ROEDERER ESTATE Brut Anderson Valley L'Ermitage 1998 90 $39
A very classy effort, with a sleek core of ripe, spicy, ginger and pear flavors, turning smooth and elegant, with hints of hazelnut and citrus carrying a long, refreshing aftertaste. Drink now through 2007. From California. 4,500 cases made. --J.L.
DOMAINE CARNEROS Brut Carneros 2000 89 $24
Earthy, yeasty, doughy aromas turn rich, with complex layers of earth, pear, apple, honey and yeasty notes, finishing with a long, smooth, creamy aftertaste. Drink now through 2007. From California. 32,000 cases made. --J.L.
SCHRAMSBERG Brut Blanc de Noirs Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino-Monterey-Marin Counties 1999 89 $30
Rich and yeasty, with dough, pear, citrus, ginger and spicy Pinot Noir flavors that are complex and elegant, with a long, flavorful finish. Drink now through 2008. From California. 9,015 cases made. --J.L.
DOMAINE STE. MICHELLE Blanc de Blanc Columbia Valley NV 88 $11
Bright and crisp, lively with peppery peach and citrus flavors, lingering nicely on the finish. Drink now. From Washington. 49,700 cases made.
J Brut Russian River Valley 1998 88 $30
Intense and vibrant, with complex and refreshing earth, pear, spice and citrus notes, turning to hazelnut and yeast. Drink now through 2007. From California. 25,000 cases made. --J.L.
SILVAN RIDGE Early Muscat Oregon Semi-Sparkling 2002 88 $14
Light, delicately effervescent, sweet and fragrant with litchi, spice and pear flavors that linger attractively, remaining balanced and lively. Drink now. 2,650 cases made. --H.S.
MUMM NAPA Brut Napa Valley Prestige NV 87 $18
Creamy, intense and lively, supporting pear, spice and vanilla, finishing with a clean, refreshing aftertaste. Drink now through 2007. From California. 180,000 cases made. --J.L.
DOMAINE CHANDON Brut California Classic NV 86 $17
Complex, with a cedary, sour lemon edge to the pear and citrus flavors, finishing with a lemon blossom scent and good length. Drink now. 160,000 cases made. --J.L.
DOMAINE STE. MICHELLE Brut Columbia Valley Cuvée NV 86 $11
Bright and appealing for its citrusy apple flavors, shaded with toasty notes as the flavors echo. Drink now. From Washington. 210,000 cases made. --H.S.
TUALATIN Muscat Willamette Valley Semi-Sparkling 2002 86 $16
Light and fragrant, delicately sweet and barely sparkling in texture, with sweet pear and litchi flavors, finishing slightly syrupy. From Oregon. Drink now. 1,150 cases made. --J.L.
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