by Fred McMillin
for March 25, 1999


The Explosive Start of American Champagne


1848: In Ohio, Nicholas Longworth has produced America's first sparkling wine. However, he nearly abandonded the effort when 42,000 of 50,000 bottles exploded.

The Rest of the Story

Reader Tim Jarlock is compiling a history of sparkling wine in the United States. I sent him these highlights.

  • Nicholas avoided economic disaster by collecting the exploded wine and distilling it into brandy.
  • 1855: The first California sparkler is produced, but has its own problems. Benjamin Wilson of Pasadena reported the next year that he felt "about fifty earth-quakes in the last two weeks, three of which rocked the house very much" and stirred up all the sediment into the wine again.
  • 1863: New York, which will become the country's second largest producer, makes its first sparkler.
  • 1870's: America's best American champagne to date is made by Arpad Harazthy, son of the legendary "father of California viticulture," Count Agoston Harazthy. The sensational bubbly was called "Eclipse" and was made from the Zinfandel grape.

Now let's fast-forward a century. President Nixon takes 13 cases of California Schramsberg to a summit meeting in China. Then, on May 31, 1988, President Reagan served a different California sparkler at a Moscow summit.(pictured) The current release of that wine is today's selection. Here's the story.

An Echo of the Past

Pacific Echo Pacific Echo is the new name of the Scharffenberger winery, so we'll use it. Pacific Echo had created its first Cremant sparkler (not quite as severe as a Brut) for the event. After a meal that started with lobster bisque and ended with carrot souffle, along with music by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, there was one of the most significant toasts of the century. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev raised the Echo and said "we are standing on the threshold of a unique period in the history of the two nations," the ending of the cold war. (See photo.) Hence, if you enjoy serving conversation pieces, serve this echo of the past.

Pacific Echo Cremant Sparkling Wine
Appellation—Anderson Valley, Mendocino County
Rating—Very popular in my classes. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for those that eschew the very dry.
Contact—Matt Egan, (212) 888-7575
Price—$19 range


Good references on early American sparklers:

    Thomas Pinney, A History of American Wine, p. 296+
    J. Baxevanis, Wine Regions of America, p. 94+
    John Melville, Guide to California Wines, 1955, p.35+
    Andre Simon, Champagne, 1962, p.175+
    Schoonmaker & Marvel, American Wines, 1941 p.170+

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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