William Penn and the origins of Pennsylvania wines

Original article published on "The PA Wine Land Post", by Pennsylvania Wines

The story of wine in Pennsylvania is really a tale in two parts. There’s the part you’re probably more familiar with: a dormant period brought on by Prohibition, ended by the passage of the Limited Winery Act in 1968, and followed by a groundswell of growth across the state.

But the first part of this story begins back in 1682 when William Penn sailed from England to the New World with a trove of Bordeaux grapevines in the hold of his ship. In 1683, those vines were planted on what is now called Lemon Hill in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The vineyard was a failure — the vinifera grapes (the species of vine that encompasses most popular European varietals) struggled to combat a raft of unfamiliar bugs and diseases. The legacy of these original immigrant grapes was still important: The plants survived long enough to pollinate native vines. These were the first American hybrids, which earned the nickname “wildings.”

The next few decades featured quite a few ambitious viniculture projects in Pennsylvania.

While the vinifera grapes brought to the Colonies continued to struggle, interest in native grapes was growing. In 1767, a farmer named Thomas Livezey, who had a house along Wissahickon Creek, sent a case of wine — made from grapes he found growing on his property — to Benjamin Franklin in England. Franklin shared it around, and reported that tasters found it “excellent.”

In 1768, locally-made wines were exhibited at the American Philosophical Society. The buzz around these wines led to even more experimentation with native grapes. Local entrepreneur John Leacock purchased a 28-acre plantation in Lower Merion Township and planted several varietals. He proposed establishing a “public vineyard” where cuttings would be available to the public for no charge.

Of course, something big was on the horizon — something that would draw Pennsylvanians’ attention away from agricultural and gustatorial pursuits. The American Revolution broke out, the British occupied Philadelphia, and Leacock fled his farm, never to return.

When peace returned, so did the state’s nascent viniculture movement. In 1787, the country’s first commercial vineyard was founded by Pierre Legaux about nine miles northwest of Philadelphia in Spring Mill. The shareholders featured a who’s who of the day, including Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Johns Hopkins, and Robert Morris.

Like many before him, Legaux tried in vain to get vinifera grapes to thrive. Here’s where the story gets a bit complicated — the winemaker claimed he was successfully growing Constantia, a vine from South Africa, which enabled him to produce his first six barrels in 1793. However, the flourishing plants were actually one of those wilding hybrids: Alexander, a varietal discovered by James Alexander, a gardener for William Penn’s son Thomas. It’s not clear whether Legaux was lying or just confused, but the varietal was a success. He soon had almost 20,000 mature vines and many more in the nursery available for sale.

The eastern edge of the state was not the only site of winemaking. For example, in 1807, the Harmonists, a German religious sect, planted grapes in southwestern PA outside of Pittsburgh. It is still possible to visit the community’s massive stone cellars, which held 30,000 gallons of wine.

By 1900, as the first era of the Commonwealth’s winemaking journey was coming to a close, all 67 counties were making a total of 195,627 gallons of wine. What had begun with a cache of vines in the hold of William Penn’s ship had now become a statewide industry — one that was about to be felled by nationwide Prohibition. Fortunately, we now know that these coming years were just a fallow period, while Pennsylvania prepared for something bigger and better to take root.