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The First Public Vineyard

Updated: Mar 13

In Philadelphia, plans for a public vineyard were put on hold for the Revolutionary War.




The winemaking European Vitis vinifera grapes, and especially those from the cooler climates of Europe such as Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, have always had a problem in the Eastern and Central United States. Because of extreme cold in the winter, humidity in the summer and a variety of pests and blights against which the vines had no natural defense, the settler colonists were constantly frustrated as the grapes that made their favorite European wines submitted to the adverse growing conditions.


Enter John Leacock, a retired Philadelphia dentist who had been experimenting with different vinifera grapes on his farm in Lower Merion Township. In 1772, he informed the American Philosophical Society of his intention to establish a public vineyard "for the good of all the Provinces, from which might be drawn such vines or cuttings, free of all expense, as might best suit each province."


His idea was to aid winegrowers find the vinifera grapes best suited to the diverse growing conditions of the various provinces. Leacock went so far as to issue tickets in 1773 for his "Public Vineyard Cash Lottery." But by 1775, and after having watched his vines continue to suffer the afflictions of rot, insects and weather, Leacock started to wonder if native vines might not be the answer.


Leacock's work, however, was interrupted by the Revolution and he left his farm in 1777 in advance of the British occupation of Philadelphia. He never returned to pursue his scheme.


Today, a public vineyard exists in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is planted to the same Mission grape that was the workhorse of the Los Angeles wine industry. A vinifera grape brought to the 'New World' by Hernan Cortez in 1520 from the Canary Islands off the Coast of Africa, the grape is suited to the dryer, warmer and sunnier growing climes of the southwest United States as well as to those of much of Mexico and South America, where it goes by a variety of names, including Pais, Mision and Criolla Chica.


Mission vines in Albuquerque's Bio Park Public Vineyard.

The Interpretive Grape Garden in the Los Angeles State Historic Park will be a public vineyard but, in contrast to Leacock's vision, it is designed primarily to allow Angelenos to trace their local history through the grape. It also differs in that it will not be planted exclusively to vinifera grapes. In fact, it will be divided into three sections, one for the native Desert Wild grape, another for the vinifera Mission grape, and the third for the spontaneous hybrid of the two.


It is in this last grape, the hybrid, which is officially known as the Vina Madre grape, that we can see at least one similarity with Leacock's vision for his vineyard. By propagating the hybrid Vina Madre grape, along with other hybrids, the Grape Garden will demonstrate Plant the Vine's commitment to helping winegrowers pursue their strategies of grape hybridization as they confront the challenges of climate change.

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3 Comments


I’m very curious how wine from the Mission grape pairs with a pastrami taco 🌮

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Ned,

This is very interesting! Thanks for sharing this! I want to know more about this Philadelphia vineyard. And when you guys come we can go to the Bio Park. Also, your newsletter looks great! Well done!

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Replying to

Thank you so much, Taylor. We are looking forward to seeing you in Albuquerque, I hope soon. The information about the Philadelphia public vineyard that never was is in "A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition" by Thomas Pinney. He identifies the source of the quote I used as F.J. Dallet, "John Leacock" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography" 78 (1954): 460-62. William Penn had a vineyard that goes back as far as the last decade of the 17th century but it wasn't public. It also did not succeed. We visited the site before Covid and it is now a playground in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia.

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