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Pennsylvania Wine: A History

Pennsylvania Wine: A History

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Pennsylvania Wine: A History

217 pages
2 hours
Jun 22, 2012


From the banks of the Delaware River to the shores of Lake Erie, the fields and hillsides of Pennsylvania are home to a rich tradition of winemaking. Though both William Penn and Benjamin Franklin advocated for the production of wine, it was not until 1787 that Pierre Legaux founded the first commercial vineyard in the state and the nation. Veteran wine journalists Hudson Cattell and Linda Jones McKee offer more than just a taste of the complex story of the Pennsylvania wine industry from the discovery of the Alexander grape and the boom of Erie County wineries in the nineteenth century to the challenges of Prohibition and the first farm wineries that opened in the 1970s. Join Cattell and McKee as they explore the Keystone State s distinct wine regions and tap the cask on their robust history.
Jun 22, 2012

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Hudson Cattell and Linda Jones McKee founded Wine East magazine in 1981 and published it until the magazine was merged into Wines & Vines in 2008. In 1976, Hudson first wrote about Pennsylvania wine as co-editor of the Pennsylvania Grape Letter and Wine News and in his book Presenting Pennsylvania Wines. Linda Jones McKee co-authored Pennsylvania Wineries in 2000 with Richard Carey. Both authors continue to be active in the wine industry, and together they edit the Wine East section within Wines & Vines magazine. Linda is the co-owner of Tamanend Winery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has judged professionally in national and international wine competitions. Hudson Cattell is widely known as a journalist covering the wine industry in eastern North America and has written extensively on the history of wine in the East

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Pennsylvania Wine - Hudson Cattell


Chapter 1


The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

The earliest reference to grapes and wine in Pennsylvania goes back to the seventeenth century when Sweden’s Queen Christina sent Colonel Johan Printz to New Sweden to become its governor. At that time, New Sweden consisted of what is now southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. The instructions to Printz dated August 15, 1642, had twenty-eight articles that informed him of what he was expected to accomplish.

Among his duties were to determine what kinds of mulberry trees would be best suited for the silkworm and to ascertain the character of native grapes and their suitableness for wine. Colonies were to be of economic benefit to their mother countries, and Sweden was not alone in the New World in hoping to get silk and wine in return for its investment. Although Printz was in New Sweden from 1643 to 1653, there is no record of his taking the time to look into either silkworms or grapes.

The hostilities that eventually broke out between the Swedes and the Dutch over the land occupied by New Sweden effectively ended for Pennsylvania in 1681 when William Penn received a land grant from King Charles II of England. With his arrival in what became Philadelphia a year later, the wine history of Penn’s Woods, now Pennsylvania, really got its start.

William Penn ordered grapevines from Bordeaux before he left England, and he brought them with him on his voyage. In 1683, the vines were planted by Huguenot vigneron Andrew Doz in a vineyard located on what is called Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the vineyard did not thrive. Vines brought from Europe (Vitis vinifera) lacked the resistance to insects and diseases they encountered in the New World and never survived for the length of time needed for colonists to make wine from them.

William Penn planted grapevines that he brought from Europe in his vineyard along the Schuylkill River in 1683. While his vineyards failed, one of his vinifera vines pollinated a native vine. This chance hybrid was discovered around 1740 by James Alexander, Thomas Penn’s gardener. The Alexander grape became America’s first important grape variety. John Sartain engraving, circa 1830.

The first permanent settlement of German immigrants in America came in 1683 when Francis Daniel Pastorius brought thirteen Mennonite families from Krefell, Germany, to live in what would become Germantown, now part of Philadelphia. Pastorius was a friend of William Penn, and it is known that European vines were planted at their settlement but that they also failed to survive.

These German immigrants were followed in the 1700s by the Pennsylvania Germans who settled widely in the eastern part of the colony. They were accustomed to growing vines in their homeland, and when they discovered grapes growing in the wild, they planted them in their own vineyards, which ranged from one to three acres in size. While they made wine from grapes, many other fruits were readily available, and the majority of the wines they produced were fruit wines. Wines made from cherries, elderberries and even dandelions could be styled to resemble traditional wines made from grapes. They especially favored apple wines that reminded them of their German heritage. In the Bethlehem area, the Moravians made communion wine from currants.

Although the European vines died before they could bear grapes, they survived long enough to pollinate native vines to create chance hybrid seedlings. These new grape varieties, often called wildings, combined the hardiness and disease resistance of the native grapes with the favored fruit quality of the European grapes to produce grapes that would make wine that was more pleasing than that made from native grapes. As many as twenty different wildings may have been discovered at one time or another during these early years and used for wine. The most famous of these was found growing in the Philadelphia area sometime before 1741 by James Alexander, the gardener to Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons. Known as the Alexander grape, and by other names as well, the new variety soon became widely planted in Pennsylvania and other states because of its performance in the vineyard and its wine quality.


We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage of Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain, which descends from Heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.

Benjamin Franklin’s words of praise for wine are widely quoted today, but his encouragement of grape growing is less well known. In 1743, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, he gave directions on how to make wine from grapes which grow wild in our woods. He took care to point out that his instructions were for beginners and not for those who were already skilled in making wine. As he advocated grape growing over the years, he increasingly promoted the desirability of making wine from native grapes.

Also in 1743, Franklin and John Bartram founded what is today America’s oldest learned society, the American Philosophical Society. Bartram, who established America’s first botanical garden in Philadelphia, was the leading botanist in the colonies. To reach his goal of documenting the native flora in the New World, he traveled widely. His son William later joined him in collecting many different native vines for exhibit in Bartram’s Garden.

The American Philosophical Society attracted many of the leading minds of the day to become members. It started as a general scientific society whose members read and planned to publish learned scientific papers. When Franklin complained that its members were too idle, the society lost its momentum until it merged with the American Society for Useful Knowledge, which had been founded in 1766 by a group of younger people in Philadelphia who were interested in the development of better agricultural methods and domestic manufacture. When the merger took place in 1769, Franklin was elected the first president of the new American Philosophical Society.

In 1765, Franklin once again decided to provide instructions for making wine from native grapes and published an adaptation of Directions for Cultivating Vines in America, a short paper written by Aaron Hill, an Englishman who had never been to America. There was increasing interest in making wine from native grapes during the decade before the American Revolution. A miller and farmer by the name of Thomas Livezey purchased a house and mill along Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia in 1747 and made wine from grapes he found growing there. In 1767, he sent a case of his wine to Franklin, who was in England at the time. Franklin acknowledged receipt of the wine and informed Livezey that he had shared it with others who considered it to be excellent.

Others in the Philadelphia area were also growing grapes and making wine. On June 21, 1768, samples of wine made by three men were exhibited at the American Philosophical Society. The wines aroused enough interest that the society decided to look further into American grapes and wine, and in August, they invited Edward Antill to come from New Jersey to meet with them. In June 1769, he sent them An Essay on the Cultivation of the Vine, and the Making and Preserving of Wine, Suited to the Different Climates in North America, which was subsequently published as the first volume in the society’s Transactions.

One of the viticultural entrepreneurs of the time was John Leacock, a successful goldsmith and silversmith in Philadelphia, who began his retirement in 1767 by purchasing a twenty-eight-acre plantation in Lower Merion Township, west of Philadelphia. He planted several varieties of grapes a year later and was so encouraged by his success that on December 29, 1772, he informed the American Philosophical Society that he proposed to establish a public vineyard for the cultivation of as many varieties of grapes as could be obtained. Cuttings would be made available to the public at no charge as a gift to the future of the country. To finance the vineyard, he decided to hold a Public Vineyard Cash Lottery in 1773. Two attempts to hold the lottery were made, but neither was successful.

Top part of a handbill circulated in Philadelphia in 1773 to promote John Leacock’s lottery, which was intended to raise funds for a vineyard. Since it was illegal to hold lotteries in Philadelphia, they were customarily held on Petty Island on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The American Revolution brought an end to the increasing interest in growing grapes and making wine. The occupation of Philadelphia by the British in 1777 led Leacock to flee his farm, and he never returned to it. Elsewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, there were more important things to think about.


After the American Revolution, a Frenchman named Pierre Peter Legaux arrived in the United States. He had belonged to an aristocratic family in France, and by 1780, he was moving freely in the highest circles of Philadelphia society. He became known by the leaders in political life and by the end of the decade was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.

In 1786, Legaux bought a 206-acre property near Spring Mill along the Schuylkill River, two miles from Conshohocken and thirteen miles north of Philadelphia. Part of the land was already under cultivation, and Legaux planted several acres of European grapes that spring. The Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia that year, and it is known that George Washington, General Mifflin and four other members of the convention visited Legaux on July 22 and, in particular, made favorable comments on his manner of handling bees.

Lacking financial backing for his vineyard enterprise, Legaux was successful in getting the Pennsylvania legislature to pass an act on March 22, 1793, to enable the Governor of this Commonwealth to incorporate a Company for the purpose of promoting the cultivation of vines. For the charter for the Pennsylvania Vine Company to be issued, five hundred shares out of an authorized one thousand had to be sold at twenty dollars a share, and cultivation of vines had to begin within three years of the date of the passage of the act. When the required five hundred shares were sold, the governor would issue the letters patent for the company to come into existence.

Pierre Legaux’s house in Spring Mill north of Philadelphia is still standing. His winery, located a short distance away, has been replaced by a firehouse. Photo by Hudson Cattell.

Stock certificate issued in 1811 by the Pennsylvania Vine Company as part of a fundraising effort by Pierre Legaux. Courtesy of Hudson Cattell.

Subscription sales were slow, and Legaux had spent most or all of his money on improvements to the property including a mill, an inn, a ferry across the river, roads, a lime kiln and underground vaults for wine. In 1794, he unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Senate for support. Despite financial hardship when he lost much of what he had built up, Legaux somehow managed to keep his vineyard business going. The European vines he had procured had failed, but he had bought the Constantia vine from the

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