For richest and best
Is the wine of the West,
That grows by the Beautiful River;
Whose sweet perfume
Fills all the room
With a benison on the giver...
"Ode to Catawba Wine" – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Long before California became known as the center of American wine production, hillside vineyards on the northern banks of the Ohio River once produced millions of bottles of sparkling wine a year. The first successful commercial wine business in North America originated in the 1820s, when Cincinnati’s real estate millionaire, Nicholas Longworth I (1783-1863), used his fortune to test, develop and grow wine making grapes.
If it weren’t for Longworth’s Tory ancestry, we might never have heard of him. His father, Thomas Longworth, as Regent to the King of England in New Jersey, however, had lost everything in the revolution, forcing his three sons to seek their fortunes far away from any rumors of allegiance to England. Nicholas landed in Cincinnati in 1803, where he studied law, and began amassing valuable downtown real estate as payment for his services. Pretty soon the rents from these lands were able to fund his arts philanthropy and his foray into winemaking.
After testing several varieties, Longworth found success growing the native Catawba grape, which he used to make sort of a fortified sparkling champagne that the many German immigrants of Cincinnati adored. Nicholas set up incoming Rhineland immigrants in Cincinnati and its eastern hills as tenant grape growers to supply his winehouses. Longworth’s award winner was called Golden Anniversary, named after his own golden wedding anniversary in 1857.
By the 1850s, Longworth had built a huge four story winehouse near downtown Cincinnati, and held interest in two other wineries in Cincinnati that together could produce over a million bottles annually. All remnants of the three Longworth winehouses in Cincinnati are gone. However, some of the south facing hills on the Ohio River that extend ten miles east from Longworth’s Belmont Mansion, to Columbia Tusculum, still have wild Catawba grape vines that survive. Longworth’s former Belmont Mansion is now the Taft Museum of Art.
One last structural remnant of Longworth’s wine business has stood the test of time, perhaps protected by its now obscure location near Buena Vista, Ohio. It’s Flagg’s Stone Wine Cellar on Lower Twin Creek, built in 1859 by William Joseph Flagg (1818-1898), the son-in-law, of Nicholas Longworth. Constructed from hand-cut stone, brought down out of nearby Dog Hollow, this historic structure is one of only a handful of buildings still extent that were built exclusively with Buena Vista Freestone. In time, the Flagg Estate would encompass some 10,000 acres of hill country, stretching back from the Ohio River into the headwaters of Rock Run and Lower Twin Creek. Here, Flagg combined his interests in viticulture with a sandstone quarry operation, thereby playing his part in local industry and commerce.
In 1852, after a quick courtship, William Joseph Flagg had married Longworth’s second oldest daughter Eliza Longworth (1809-1891), who was nearly ten years his senior and in her forties. William’s sister, Cettie Flagg Gwynn, a neighbor of the Longworths, was a bit of a millionaire matchmaker and orchestrated the union. Cettie would arrange her own daughter’s match to uber millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. She knew that her brothers were all eccentric creative types. Three became noted portrait artists, but they also came into financial ruin through failed real estate ventures. She tried to help them, supporting one, Jared Bradley Flagg, for a bit in Cincinnati and using her social circle ties to get him portrait commissions. Cettie thought that at least one of her brothers should be stable, and the fortune that Eliza offered would make William a very stable gentlemen, and afford him the capital to do what he wanted.
William was an artist like his brothers, but in a different way. Rather than a talented painter, William was a writer, philosopher, and a man of some political ambition. So getting him to agree to a match with an older woman, who would not bear him any children, wasn’t such a hard sell. In the end, they made a good match.
William became very involved and passionate about his father-in-law’s wine business. Flagg had a large log cabin constructed at the point of Buckhorn Ridge, which he and Eliza occupied as a seasonal residence, staying a few months a year from 1856 to 1868.
Flagg’s Stone Wine Cellar on Lower Twin Creek was based on the design of Longworth’s Winehouses in Cincinnati. It was a two story operation. From the ground floor entrance, workers loaded grapes into a press at the top of a large central fermentation tank. The basement level below was where the wine could be emptied into barrels and bottles for aging.
Nicholas’ grandson William Pope Anderson would take over the Longworth wine business after his death in 1863, but converted the largest of Longworth’s three winehouses into a cottonseed oil factory by 1867, which became the American Cotton Oil Company. In the 1850s and 60s, Phyloxera, or black rot, decimated the vines that supported Longworth’s Winehouses and William spent three years in Europe searching for answer and cure that would save the vineyards. But, it was to no avail.
It is even written that on his deathbed Nicholas asked for his son-in-law, William, because he had found a grape resistant to the black rot that had decimated his vineyards. He worked with Nicholas, studying with his winemaster, Jules Masson, whom he imported from Burgundy, France, learning the best way to grow grapes and make wine.
For three years after the end of the Civil War, from 1865-1868, William and Eliza would tour the winemaking regions of Europe, which would result in his book “Three Seasons in European Vineyards" (1869). William would write two other fictional works set in region of his beloved Buckhorn Cabin. “A Good Investment,” which involves, in part, the story of Morgan’s Civil War Raid, first appeared in serialized format in Harper’s Magazine in 1872. In “Wall Street and the Woods, or Woman the Stronger," first published in 1885, Flagg relates a story involving counterfeiting and murder that ends with a fictionalized Buckhorn Cabin going up in flames.
In the 1870s, after moving from Cincinnati, the Flaggs split time between large residences in Ridgefield, Connecticut; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Grammarcy Park, New York City. Eliza had been quietly shunned and guarded from society by her mother, after she had given birth at an early age to an illegitimate son, the father one of the Glenn-Fowkes prospecting party who passed through Cincinnati on their way out West. In a trial that earned national media attention, William would testify in Cincinnati District Court against the proof of this illegitimate son, John Wiggins Flora (1822-1898), who sued the Longworth estate in 1894, demanding his stake in the family fortune.
William owned his Buena Vista lands until his death in 1898, at which time it passed to his nephew, the prominent architect, Ernest Flagg, who would own the lands until his death in 1947. Ernest added to the land holdings and converted the vineyards in to apple orchards. In their long absences, both William and Ernest hired locals to manage their properties. The small caretaker’s cottage still stands next to the Stone Wine Cellar on Lower Twin Creek. From 1866 to 1917, John T. Sullivan, an Irish immigrant, cared for the lands. Then from 1917 to 1929, Fred Droege took over, and from 1929-1948, C. E. Drumheller cared for the lands.
In 1946, Flagg negotiated the sale of 9,000 acres to the state of Ohio, which then added land to the Shawnee State Forest. Today the Flagg Stone Wine Cellar remains in private hands, an in-holding, surrounded by the Shawnee State Forest’s Wilderness Area.