Speculation about the birthplace of the North American wine industry might conjure images of sun-kissed vineyards in California. But the first commercially successful winery in the United States was more centrally located. Swiss vintner Jean-Jacques Dufour came to the fledgling nation in the late eighteenth century after decades of hearing stories told by French veterans of the American Revolution about the scarcity of wine in the New World. Upon arrival, Dufour consulted with Thomas Jefferson, who was growing wine grapes at his Virginia estate, Monticello, and Peter Legaux, who was in the process of establishing a vineyard at Spring Mill, just north of Philadelphia.
Dufour was encouraged to explore the potential for wine production on the banks of the Ohio River, in the area established by that time as the Northwest Territory. Discovering wineries in operation in the Ohio towns of Marietta and Gallipolis, along with many others that had been abandoned, Dufour was adequately convinced to try his luck. Seventeen members of Dufour’s extended family joined him in his first attempt at Midwestern viticulture, setting up production in 1801. The venture failed in its initial location on the Kentucky River near Lexington; the Swiss contingent was, furthermore, dismayed about the practice of slavery in the Southern state.
The following year, Dufour purchased a 2500-acre tract of land on the Indiana side of the Ohio River. Cultivation of such grapes as the native Alexander, and a hybrid variety known as the Cape proved successful at the Swiss Vineyards, also known as New Switzerland. The area would become the core of Switzerland County, which in 1813 took as its seat the town of Vevay, named for a Swiss town on the north shore of Lake Geneva famous for its Winegrowers’ Festival and as the headquarters of the Nestlé Corporation. Patriotism inspired by the War of 1812 resulted in a popular demand for homegrown wine, but Dufour’s bottles were esteemed even by such connoisseurs as Jefferson and Henry Clay. Dufour’s 1826 publication The Vinedresser’s Guide , became the authoritative text on growing grapes in the new country.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Ohio River Valley became known as the American Rhineland for the wineries thriving on both of its banks. Although viticulture diminished after the Civil War, the region remained the country’s tenth-ranked producer of wines until Prohibition, during which the industry slowed to a halt. Since the late 1960’s, however, wineries in the area have resuscitated Dufour’s legacy, resulting in the current recognition the Ohio River Valley as the largest American Viticultural Area. Every August, the town of Vevay toasts its heritage with the Swiss Wine Festival.