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."
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):