The American Revolutionary War for independence from British rule was a pivotal period for the colonies that became the United States. Lasting from 1775-1783, the conflict saw the colonial rebels form a unified resistance that ultimately prevailed against the British. Wine played an interesting supporting role throughout this tumultuous time period.
Wine Production in the American Colonies
In the decades prior to the American Revolution, viticulture began to flourish in the colonies, especially in Virginia and the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Colonists imported Vitis vinifera grape varietals from Europe to produce wine.
Early American wine focused on making affordable table wines for local sale and consumption. The colonies also imported a great deal of wine from Europe to quench colonists’ thirst. Imported wine was taxed heavily by British authorities – a burden that became an emerging grievance prior to the revolution.
While not as developed or sophisticated as Europe’s wine regions, American colonial winemaking laid the groundwork for a fledgling domestic industry. It helped instill wine culture in American society. Jefferson and Washington were prominent colonial wine devotees, establishing vineyards on their estates.
Wine as a Motivator for the American Revolution
In the years before independence, Britain imposed a succession of unpopular taxes on imported wine and spirits in the colonies. This inflamed tensions and helped motivate the colonists to revolt.
The 1764 Sugar Act raised duties on imported Madeira, a popular wine from Portugal. The 1765 Stamp Act taxed paper goods like labels accompanying wine shipments. Anger over new import taxes prompted colonists to boycott British goods and pass non-importation agreements.
The 1768 Townshend Acts went even further, directly taxing imported wines, inspiring protests like the Boston Non-Importation Agreement. British wine taxes contributed to the “no taxation without representation” outrage. The taxes imposed during these pre-revolutionary years helped galvanize American opposition and push colonies toward rebellion.
John Trumbull: Declaration of Independence
Wine Symbolizes Break with Britain
After fighting broke out in 1775, American revolutionaries aimed to cast off British and European cultural influence – including in the arena of wine. Many saw reliance on imported wines as a sign of continued colonial dependence.
In contrast, drinking domestically produced wines and spirits took on patriotic significance. It demonstrated commitment to economic independence and self-sufficiency. Consuming local wine and boycotting imported wine became acts of resistance.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1775 that “before the present troubles, no small quantity of German and British wines had been imported into America…Future connection with these nations will tempt us again to taste their wines.” Cutting ties with European wines was part of the revolutionary break.
Winemaking Declines During War
Once open warfare erupted, American wine production declined substantially. Agricultural and commerce were disrupted by the impact of military campaigns. Maintaining large vineyards became difficult amidst wartime uncertainty and labor shortages.
Some winemakers shifted to more easily produced food crops to provision revolutionary armies. Shortages of winemaking equipment like barrels and bottles due to reduced trade made production a challenge.
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Transporting wine also grew more perilous. While some wine was still produced yearly, output was limited and stretched thin by wartime conditions. America’s wine industry stagnated during the upheaval, unable to progress meaningfully. Imported wine was extremely scarce.
Lack of Wine Impacts Revolutionary Leaders
The scarcity of quality wine during the war years impacted American military, political, and social elites who previously had access to imported European wines. This was especially true of commanding officers and civic leaders.
George Washington lamented the lack of wine during the war, writing in 1778 that “many genteel families who have been accustomed to drink Claret, Burgundy, etc., have been obliged of late to have recourse to common rum, as whiskey is too dear.”
Life without fine wines took a toll on revolutionary leaders.
There are accounts of prominent revolutionary officers offering rewards of wine for the capture or destruction of British ships in hopes of increasing their personal supply. Securing adequate wine proved a challenge throughout the war years for elite revolutionary Americans accustomed to choice imported vintages.
Soldiers Receive Wine Rations
Enlisted Continental Army soldiers did have occasional access to wine through standard liquor rations. Commander-in-Chief Washington ordered that soldiers receive a gill (four ounces) of either rum or wine twice a day.
Wine for soldiers usually meant cheaper, lower-quality domestic table wine, not the fine imported wines reserved for officers. But soldier diaries and journals record being given Madeira, Port, Sherry or other wines captured from British stores.
Alcohol rations were a frequent soldier complaint early in the war, with many lobbing accusations of cheating with watered-down spirits. In 1777, Washington ordered the rations reduced to just a gill of total spirits per day amidst ongoing complaints and drunkenness. Wine remained part of soldiers’ rations but in smaller amounts.
Privateers Target Wine Cargoes
American revolutionary privateers were privately owned warships authorized by Congress to raid British shipping. Wine cargoes were a prime target for these privateers seeking to capture supplies for the colonial cause.
By disrupting the British wine trade from Portugal, Spain, and France to England, privateers could starve the British of valuable wine commodity tax revenues. Seizing wine also provided revolutionary troops and supporters with a scarce luxury item during wartime scarcity and rationing.
Newspaper advertisements at the time carried announcements of wine prizes captured by American privateers. This enticed thirsty revolutionary sympathizers to purchase the wines at auction and generated profits used to fund the revolution.
Benjamin Franklin wrote from Paris in 1779 of selecting two hundred bottles of “excellent French wine” to send General Washington:
“That it may lose no time, I have put it aboard the same vessel with this letter.”
French wines sustaining American leaders made the alliance doubly meaningful.
Washington also took advantage of the French connection by asking General Rochambeau’s officers in Newport, RI to send “a hundred bottles of best claret” if convenient. French wine rescued parched American patriots.
Did you know? George Washington was a beer maker. At the New York Public Library, his hand written recipe for beer still exists. It goes like this:
Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran Hops to your Taste. Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Melasses (sic) into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask — leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working — Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.
Wine Celebrates Revolution’s End
After the decisive American victory at Yorktown in 1781, the revolutionary cause for independence neared triumph. Wine became part of celebrations marking the war’s victorious conclusion.
When the preliminary Articles of Peace were approved by Congress in April 1783, a dinner was held “accompanied by the best liquors and wine.” The British surrender in November 1783 sparked celebrations like a Philadelphia ball that boasted a “well-chosen collection of the best wines.”
The return of fine wines signaled the return of prosperity and normalcy.
The American wine industry could finally rebuild and unroll plans put on hold by eight arduous years of conflict. With the triumph of liberty, American wine took its rightful place on the table.
Post-Revolution Growth of American Wine
In the newly independent United States, domestic wine production rebounded and expanded in the final years of the 18th century. Commercial wineries multiplied with 12 counted by 1795. Vineyard acreage in Virginia tripled.
Thomas Jefferson championed wine culture as an enlightened endeavor worthy of the American republic. In his 1793 Treatise on the Vine, Jefferson extolled the potential of the young nation to produce fine wines equal to Europe.
But Jefferson’s vision went unfulfilled initially. Wine imports resumed their prominence, stunting the growth of American wine. Yet foundations had been laid by patriots like Jefferson to kindle a uniquely American wine tradition able to ultimately thrive decades later.
Legacy of Wine in the Revolution
The story of wine during the American Revolution reflects the larger struggles and sacrifices of securing independence. Imported wines disappearing illustrated the distress of war. Wine’s return symbolized victory and freedom.
Wine taxes helped light the fuse of revolt and turn colonists against Britain. Seeking untaxed domestic wines reinforced desires for economic independence parallel to political liberty. America’s wine identity was being uncorked along with its national identity.
While unable to thrive amidst wartime turmoil, America’s small wine industry persevered and grew roots for future expansion. The American wine story mirrored the journey of the young nation – challenge and setback followed by achievement and identity.
Did you know? Benjamin Franklin once wrote an article entitled: A Drinker’s Dictionary.
Benjamin Franklin | Getty Images
In closing, wine played a modest but meaningful role in the events and motivations of the American Revolutionary War period. Wine taxes inflamed colonial resentments. Wine shortages during the war affected revolutionary leaders accustomed to European imports. The alliance with France brought supplies of foreign wine to relieve scarcities.
Domestically produced American wines emerged as patriotic symbols of an independent identity during the revolution. Although unable to prosper during wartime, America’s nascent wine industry persisted and provided hopeful promise for the future.
So while limited in scale, wine was not just an alcoholic beverage but took on outsized significance as a touchpoint for broader themes of American identity, liberty, sacrifice, and eventual victory during the revolutionary struggle.
After the American Revolution, America came of age as a wine drinking nation along with its political maturation.