The United States is the world's fourth-biggest wine-producing nation (behind France, Italy and Spain) and produces roughly 18.5 million hectoliters each year – about 15 percent more than the next largest producer, Argentina. Not just a key producer, the nation is also a leading consumer of wine, making it an important export market for many other wine-producing nations.
Wine has been produced in the U.S. since the early 17th century, when European colonization began in earnest. Repeated attempts were made by the early settlers, who brought with them the winemaking knowledge and practices of their European homelands. The various vine species native to North America (such as Vitis labrusca) were known to be both robust and high-yielding, so very few vine plants accompanied these migrants on their voyage across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, these native vine species produced wines which matched neither the style nor the quality to which European settlers were accustomed.
European vinifera vines were not shipped to the Americas in any quantity until the mid-17th century. These invariably suffered at the hands of native pests (e.g. phylloxera) and fungal diseases (e.g. powdery and downy mildews). Over the next three centuries, it became clear that vine breeding and grafting were the keys to establishing a balance between manageable vines and palatable wines. Today, almost every wine-bearing vine in the U.S. is either a hybrid variety (e.g. Seyval Blanc) or a vinifera vine scion grafted onto the rootstock of a native (phylloxera-resistant) variety.
The United States’ wine industry has had something of a rollercoaster ride ever since the Californian gold rush of the 1840s, which created massive demand for wine and led to widespread vineyard plantings all over the state. This knee-jerk reaction sparked a volatile cycle of surplus and deficit which lasted for several decades.
The first half of the 20th century brought Prohibition, economic depression and war, collectively suffocating the American wine industry. It wasn't until significant social, cultural and economic development set in after World War 2 that things began to change. In the 1970s, the leading lights of the Californian wine industry brought about renewed winemaking interest across the U.S., ultimately sparking the national wine renaissance. This period saw a proliferation of new, small-scale wineries throughout the country and the upscaling of longer-established operations and created significant momentum, which carried the industry well into the 21st century.
Today, all 50 states produce wine, although 95 percent of it comes from just four of them. California is by far the most prolific producer, and makes more than five times the combined total of the other three, Washington, Oregon and New York. The 5 percent that comes from the other states, led by Texas and Virginia, is produced largely for local consumption rather than national or international markets. The topographical, geological and climatic diversity of the American continent has provided the states with all manner of vine-growing conditions, from higher-altitude, continental climes (e.g. Fair Play) to coastal, fog-laden areas (e.g. Edna Valley).
Regional identity is as important to wine in the U.S. as it is in Europe. The concept is embodied by the country’s 200 or so officially demarcated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Although these are similar to European-style appellations, there are crucial differences: where most European appellations directly govern geographical, viticultural and oenological factors, AVA titles are less restrictive, and indicate only the region of origin (i.e. where the grapes were grown). The AVAs, more than half of which are in California, vary in size from one quarter of a square mile to almost 30,000 square miles (77,700 square kilometers).
For further wine information on each state, its wines and its AVAs, please use the menu to the left.