Pennsylvania’s wine industry has a long and storied history, dating back to the early days of European settlement. The first vines were planted in the state in the 1600s, and by the 1800s, Pennsylvania was one of the leading wine producers in the country. However, the industry suffered a decline in the 20th century, due in part to Prohibition. In recent years, however, the Pennsylvania wine industry has made a comeback, and today there are hundreds of wineries in the state.
In this article, we will take a look at some of the interesting historical facts about the Pennsylvania wine industry. We will learn about the early days of winemaking in the state and the challenges that the industry faced in the 20th century.
First European-American Hybrid
Discovered by one of the Penn family gardeners, the Alexander grape was an accidental hybrid of European grapes (planted by William Penn) and local American grapes. It was the first grape that was able to both withstand the East Coast US climate AND produce a palatable wine in the American colonies, and it opened the door to additional hybridization – an essential development for winemaking here. While Alexander would eventually be replaced by better tasting hybrids, it should be fondly remembered for its contribution to the American wine industry. (One might even say it was a… keystone?)
America’s First Commercial Vineyard
Peter Legaux was a French immigrant who established the Pennsylvania Vine Company – America’s first commercial vineyard – in the 1700s, just outside of Philadelphia. The company was an attempt to establish a wine industry in Pennsylvania. Legaux was successful in growing and distributing grapes for wine, but the company was ultimately unsuccessful due to a number of financial factors.
Role in the Formation of the U.S. Constitution
The wine industry in Pennsylvania played a surprising role in shaping the U.S. Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787, wine played a prominent part in social gatherings among the delegates. It was believed that discussions over wine facilitated better understanding and negotiation, thus contributing to the successful drafting and ratification of the Constitution.
The Influence of German Settlers
Many people understand the influence of German culture on the PA beer industry, but so many of the German immigrants to the area came from the Pfalz region, known in Europe more for its wine production than beer production. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a significant influx of German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, bringing with them their winemaking traditions and expertise, contributing to the diversity and growth of the state’s wine industry. Berks County is one area specifically that had a booming wine scene driven by German immigrants.
Pennsylvania’s Wine Boom in the 19th Century
During the mid-1800s, Pennsylvania experienced a wine boom, and its wine production reached its peak. The state’s vineyards expanded, and it became one of the leading wine producers in the United States. However, this growth was eventually hampered by various factors, particularly the temperance movement and Prohibition.
The Grape Juice State
The Welch family has a long history of grape cultivation in Pennsylvania. In 1869, Charles Welch planted his first grape vines in the Erie area. He and his wife, Anna, started a small winery that eventually grew into the Welch’s Grape Juice Company. The company is now one of the largest producers of grape juice in the world. The Welches are credited with helping to popularize grape juice in the United States. They also played a role in the development of the Concord grape, which is a popular variety of grape used for making juice and jelly.
Impact of Prohibition
Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, had a devastating effect on the wine industry in Pennsylvania. Many vineyards were uprooted, and wine production came to a halt during this period. After Prohibition’s repeal, the industry faced significant challenges in rebuilding itself, mostly due to the establishment of the PA Liquor Control Board and state control of liquor sales.
The Creation of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB):
In 1933, following the repeal of Prohibition, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) was established to regulate the sale of alcohol in the state. The PLCB’s role in the distribution and sale of wine has remained a topic of debate and has influenced the dynamics of the wine industry in Pennsylvania. (See our articles on the establishment of the PLCB and on the Limited Winery Act of 1968 for more details.)