Was There Wine in America Before Europeans?

A new archaeological discovery is the first to suggest Native Americans made grape wine before the arrival of Columbus and his ilk

Was There Wine in America Before Europeans?
Dr. Crystal Dozier (right) digs into a site called Etzanoa in present-day Kansas. It was inhabited at the same time as the sites where the possible wine discoveries were made, and the artifacts it yields will be similarly analyzed. (Courtesy of Dr. Crystal Dozier)
Aug 21, 2020

When does the history of wine in America begin? Most of us think of Spanish missionaries, a smattering of Virginians and Thomas Jefferson "pioneering" viticulture, or attempting to. But intriguing new research from archaeological sites in central Texas is the first to suggest that, actually, indigenous Americans were making grape wine more than 500 years ago, before European colonists brought their guns, germs and vines over. Recent analysis of chemical residue on pottery found at six sites turned up evidence of caffeinated beverages—and suggested the presence of grape wine.

Native American pottery wine discovery
One of the pottery fragments analyzed for evidence of very old vintages (Courtesy of Dr. Crystal Dozier)

“I am incredibly excited by this discovery,” Dr. Crystal Dozier, an anthropological archaeologist and assistant professor at Wichita State University, told Unfiltered via email. “This is brand new knowledge about indigenous Native Americans—specifically what they were drinking over 500 years ago.” Dozier's findings were published last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports under the title “Chemical Residue Evidence in Leon Plain Pottery from the Toyah Phase (1300-1650 C.E.) in the American Southern Plains,” co-authored with Drs. Doyong Kim and David Russell.

Dozier's forays into the search for the origins of American wine began with previous research that suggested indigenous peoples in what's now Texas were gathering for feasts and leaving behind pottery, an unexpected activity for nomadic hunter-gatherers, during what scholars call the Toyah Phase; those revelers are thought to be ancestors to tribes like the Lipan Apache. But what was on the drinks list?

Dozier had read several accounts from Spanish explorers of “wild” grapes grown in pre-conquest America (no Hill Country Cabernet, then). “But no mention of winemaking by Native Americans,” she noted. “This context made me want to discover and discern what exactly indigenous people were preparing in [their] pottery.”

Dozier and her team examined 54 pottery sherds uncovered at the six Toyah-era sites, analyzing microscopic chemical residue and hoping the cups would runneth over with anthropological answers. Chemical analysis revealed evidence of a caffeinated beverage in some samples, and in others, tartaric and succinic acids, both commonly found together in grapes, but hardly in any other fruits at the same time and at that high level of concentration (“excepting star fruit, which is native to Southeast Asia," said Dozier).

Native American pottery wine discovery
Dr. Crystal Dozier (center) prepares specimens for chemical ID at the Mass Spectroscopy Laboratory at Texas A&M University. (Courtesy of Dr. Crystal Dozier)

The caffeine probably came from either a chocolate-y cacao drink or, more likely, from the regional “black drink,” a tea made from the Yaupon holly plant. If the Toyah Texas-dwellers were indeed drinking tea and wine, Dozier offers the idea that the drinks were made and poured for special or ceremonial occasions, based on the use of ceramic vessels. And that the Toyah cultures, perhaps, drank local and lived off the terroir: A grapeseed was found at one of the sites.

“This is the first archaeological chemical evidence suggestive of [grape wine's] indigenous production in the Americas, although certainly not conclusive,” wrote the researchers in their published findings. The implications could be huge, but further study is needed; Dozier told us she plans to use DNA analysis to figure out the vine(s) behind the wine, and to scour more pottery samples, at more sites, for other residues. “We could potentially tell if Native Americans were making red or white wine in the process.” They might even be able to tell some characteristics of the wine. And they could prove the "New World” was neither invented by Europeans ... nor even very new at all.


Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.

Unfiltered Art Extra, Extra Texas

You Might Also Like

Taco Bell's 'Jalapeño Noir' Sells Out on Day Uno

Taco Bell's 'Jalapeño Noir' Sells Out on Day Uno

Why does the fast-food chain have a house wine? "Democratizing wine and making it more …

Sep 17, 2020
World of Wine, Secrets of Bubbles: Massive (and Modest) Museums Open in Porto and France

World of Wine, Secrets of Bubbles: Massive (and Modest) Museums Open in Porto and France

Portugal's "WOW" includes, count 'em, six museums devoted to wine, chocolate and cork, but …

Sep 16, 2020
Veuve Clicquot's New 2012s Grow Wild with Trippy Art Garb

Veuve Clicquot's New 2012s Grow Wild with Trippy Art Garb

The Champagne house has partnered with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama to create 100 hand-pain…

Sep 15, 2020
Not-So Laid-Back: Snoop Dogg Releasing a New Gin, as His Wine Project Makes Big NAACP Donation

Not-So Laid-Back: Snoop Dogg Releasing a New Gin, as His Wine Project Makes Big NAACP Donation

The rapper has had a busy 2020 in beverages, getting into the spirits business, while the …

Sep 10, 2020
New 'Star Trek' Klingon Bloodwine Is Here for You to Celebrate Vanquishing Your Enemies

New 'Star Trek' Klingon Bloodwine Is Here for You to Celebrate Vanquishing Your Enemies

Following the success of the Château Picard bottling made at the actual Château Picard, …

Sep 3, 2020
Discovery Channel's New 'I Quit' Show Stars Trio of Winemaker Entrepreneurs

Discovery Channel's New 'I Quit' Show Stars Trio of Winemaker Entrepreneurs

Ashanti Middleton, Tyshemia Ladson and Jasmine Dunn take us behind the scenes of the new …

Sep 2, 2020