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Wine is increasingly appreciated as an alternative to beer or hard liquor, and is being recognized as having health benefits as well as being nice to drink.

The US is the fourth largest wine producing nation in the world, with a huge range of wines to choose from, grown in all 50 US states.

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An Introduction to the US Wine Industry in General

Part 1 of a series mainly about Washington wine trail touring and tasting

Grape growing - and wine making - occurs throughout all 50 states in the US.

Part one of a series on wine trail touring in WA, see also

1.  About the US wine industry in general
2.  Wine making in Washington state
3.  Wine touring in Washington state
4.  Wine costs, pricing, and quality
5.  Wine trail tours and tasting around Seattle - the large wineries
6.  Touring the boutique wineries in the Woodinville area near Seattle

7.  Wine trail tours around Leavenworth
8.  Wine tasting in downtown Leavenworth



Wine is becoming a more multi-dimensional product in the US, with the public showing a growing appreciation of the different varieties and styles of wine.

In addition, grapes are being grown, and wine is being made, in a ever wider range of places throughout the country, from Alaska to Florida, from Hawaii to Vermont.

In the first part of this series, primarily focused on visiting wineries in Washington, we provide some background information on wine growing in the US in general.

Wine in the US in General

The United States is the fourth largest wine producing country in the world.  Unsurprisingly, France is top of the list, then comes Italy and Spain.  In fifth place, after the US, is Argentina, closely followed by Australia.  You're almost sure not to guess the seventh country, however - the answer is in the last paragraph of this section, in case you want to try and guess before reading the answer.

There are over 3,000 commercial vineyards in the US, and there is at least one winery in all 50 of the states (yes, this does include Alaska).

To put this number in perspective, there are over 12,000 wineries in the Bordeaux region of France, alone.

The US has its own native types of grape (most notably Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis vulpina, and Vitis amurensis), but these are seldom used in wine making - instead they may be used for table grapes, grape juice, and raisins.

It was the introduction of Europe's classical Vitis vinifera grape varieties (grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as more than one hundred other varieties) by European immigrants that underpinned the growth of wine making in the US.

Everyone automatically thinks of California, and the Napa Valley in particular, when thinking of US wine producing regions.  In terms of ranking, currently the top states are California, followed by Washington, then New York and then Oregon.  Just two years ago, the order was CA NY WA OR (followed by FL NJ KY OH TX).

It is true that California is by far the largest producer of wine in the country, but continued growth in Washington has now propelled the state to become the second largest producer of wine in the country, with (as of 2008) 32,000 acres of vines (for wine making purposes), 11 official regional appellations (AVAs), 610 wineries and 102 million bottles (20 million gallons) of wine produced.

By comparison, California has 2843 bonded wineries, 480,000 acres of grapes (for wine making purposes), 107 AVAs, and produced 2.4 billion bottles of wine in 2008.  To answer the question in the first paragraph, the seventh largest wine producing country is China.  It will be a long time before WA overtakes CA's massive lead!

Wine Controls and Labeling

Initially, winemaking was subject to few if any controls on its labeling and marketing, with such controls as there may have been being developed at state levels rather than nationally.

In 1978 the then Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (since 2003, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) first released regulations to define specific geographical regions as part of an appellation system similar to that found in other countries, where wines can be officially labeled as coming from a particular named grape growing area.  These regions became known as American Viticultural Areas (or AVA for short).

To be approved as an AVA, an area needs to show a distinctive characteristic that applies only to that region such as climate, soil type, or elevation.  And for a wine to use an AVA name, it must comprise at least 85% of grapes from that AVA.

Some AVAs are sub-sets of larger AVAs - for example, the Santa Clara Valley AVA is part of the larger San Francisco Bay AVA which in turn is part of the still larger Central Coast AVA.

The first AVA was established in June 1980, although the previous vague state and country labelings that had previously been used were grandfathered in to the new system.  This first AVA was in Augusta, MO.

Nowadays there are 193 different AVAs (as of Feb 2009), ranging from a mere 62 acre designation (the Cole Ranch AVA in Mendocino County, CA) up to the massive 26,000 square mile Ohio River Valley AVA that spans four states (IN KY OH WV).

Most of the wine that is sold in the US does not have an AVA rating on its label.  Citing an AVA on a wine label is no guarantee of any level of quality at all, and a wine that is not from an AVA may be as good or better than the AVA wine.  It merely signifies the grapes used to make the wine as coming primarily from one specific area.

In addition to AVA labeling requirements, some states have requirements associated with claiming a wine comes from that state.  California, for example, requires that wines shown as coming from California must have 100% Californian wine in them.  Washington state requires 95% Washington wine content.

International labeling conflicts

In addition to domestic US labeling requirements, there are some international issues that are becoming more prominent.

For many years, makers of sparkling white wine freely referred to their product as 'champagne', much to the massive annoyance of the French, who claim that champagne refers uniquely and specifically only to wine made in the Champagne region of France, and via a special bottle fermentation process.

The French have successively managed to get almost every other country in the world to accept their claim over this word, and these days US wines have modified their naming slightly, now claiming to be 'American champagne'.  Similar restrictions are starting to be imposed on other wine styles such as Claret, Burgundy and Bordeaux.


Internationally, it is probably true to say that wine consumption and production has been rising slightly, or at least holding its own and taking market share from other alcoholic beverages, due to wine becoming increasingly valued as an alternative to both harder spirits and beer.

But in the US, the amount of land for grape growing has remained more or less constant over the last decade, hovering around 940,000 acres.  Prior to that, however, grape growing expanded during the 1990s, rising from about 750,000 acres in the mid 1980s.

There are some regional shifts in grape growing across the US, most notably the much greater than normal growth of wine growing in Washington state.  In addition, wine growing is becoming more widely found, with more small wineries appearing in new regions not formerly closely associated with grape growing and wine making.

Increasing globalization has created - and continues to create - the potential for competition from other countries, and improvements in wine making in some of these other countries is increasing the strength of the competition they offer.  This is perhaps one factor that is limiting the growth of US domestic wine production - although US wine consumption is growing, much of that growth is coming from imports rather than from domestic production.

Part one of a series on wine trail touring in WA, see also

1.  About the US wine industry in general
2.  Wine making in Washington state
3.  Wine touring in Washington state
4.  Wine costs, pricing, and quality
5.  Wine trail tours and tasting around Seattle - the large wineries
6.  Touring the boutique wineries in the Woodinville area near Seattle

7.  Wine trail tours around Leavenworth
8.  Wine tasting in downtown Leavenworth

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Originally published 15 May 2009, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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