In March of 1681 William Penn made an offer to King Charles II of England. Penn was an ardent Quaker who saw that many of his faith’s adherents could not practice freely in their home country. The solution was to find religious freedom and harmony in the vast wilds across the Atlantic Ocean. The King owed a monetary debt to Penn, so the proposition was to take a large tract of land in the New World as payment. The King agreed, and the new territory would soon bear the name Pennsylvania or Penn’s Woods.
At first glance, there are few people who would equate this event with anything having to do with viticulture. However, in fact there were some strong ties between the founding of this new colony and wine making in America. Penn was a strong advocate for the bountiful potential of agriculture in his acquired land as well as the spiritual virtues of working the land by the transplanted Quakers. One of the main potential crops generating high expectations was the cultivation of grapevines. The English were heavy importers of wine, especially from France but continual battles with their neighbors across the channel led to inconsistent supply and often-high prices. Early travelers to the New World reported the abundance of native grapevines that grew along the Atlantic seaboard. Therefore, naturally if these local grapevines thrived in the colonies then it would be relatively easy to transplant the European grape varieties the English were partial toward. Wine grape cultivation would provide a strong source of revenue to the emerging colony and the English would get an assured source of wine, while the added competition would help drive down prices from France as well.
All good in theory. Penn was quick to establish a vineyard near the residence he built for himself in the colony, although it would be over a year before he physically got to see his land acquisition. Penn hired a French vintner, Andrew Doz, to cross the ocean and realize his vision of creating a French style Claret in the New World. However, consistently within a couple of years from planting these European vines would begin to wither and die would no clear idea of what was causing their demise. It would take another couple of centuries to realize that the plants were susceptible to the phylloxera louse that was endemic to North America but not present in Europe leaving these imported vines with no natural defenses to this disease. The experiment with non-local grapevines proved literally and figuratively, fruitless.
Pennsylvania once again factored into the story of wine in America about a century later. Peter Legaux from Metz in France came to America and organized the Pennsylvania Vine Company, which took almost a decade — until 1802 — to garner sufficient equity for full operation. However, the company never was profitable and continued to have difficulties until its apparent demise around 1813. This venture can lay claim to having been the first attempt at a commercial vineyard in America although another Frenchman has actually usurped this distinction. Jean-Jacques Dufour began his commercial winemaking enterprise in Kentucky after Legaux, but was much better at signing up equity subscribers, including notable names in the area like Henry Clay and Daniel Boone. Therefore, Dufour was able to launch his fully funded formal business sooner than Legaux and thus lay claim to being “first”.