From red wine to blue jeans
With the decline of American manufacturing, finding “Made in the USA” labels isn’t as easy as it used to be, though domestic companies continue to produce everything from red wine to blue jeans.
Winemaking is thriving in the United States with more than 6,500 wineries nationwide—a tenfold increase in the last 40 years. Together, they produce about 700 million gallons annually, with California wineries accounting for 90 percent.
While most American wineries were established since the 1990s, a few date to the 19th century.
Fulton Mather became the fourth-generation winemaker in his family’s business in St. Helena, Calif., in 1995. The oldest continuously owned and operated family vineyard in the state, David Fulton Winery was founded in 1860 by Mather’s great-grandfather, who hauled in 100 square yards of volcanic rock to build a cellar beneath three large oak trees.
Fulton’s descendants grow only one type of grape: Petite Sirah, a rich red varietal. Mather, his wife Dink, son Richard and daughter Jennifer tend the vineyard, oversee fermentation and bottle about 400 cases of wine each year.
“This was [my great-grandfather’s] American dream,” says Mather, 80. “And the dream carries on.”
Tim Puchta, 55, also descends from a wine-making family. In 1990, he took the helm at Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann, Mo., the state’s oldest continuously family-owned winery. Puchta’s Bavarian great-great grandfather launched the company in 1855. “When I was a young kid, wine was served with the meal and you were taught that wine was food,” Puchta says.
The winery employs about 35 seasonal workers and produces about 35,000 gallons of wine annually, including a dry red called Norton Vintner’s Reserve and Riefenstahler, a sweet dessert wine fermented from Concord grapes.
In Washingtonville, N.Y., Brotherhood Winery employs about 50 people and produces some 1 million bottles a year. Founded in 1839 by a French Huguenot named Jean Jacques, the winery is billed as America’s oldest.
“We receive emails and phone calls from people all over the country looking for our wine,” says Colleen Hughes, 36, the winery’s creative director. “We are very proud to have such a loyal following.”
American “white goods”—a term that refers to both household linens and large appliances, originally available only in white—haven’t fared as well as the wine industry. Towels and ovens that once were American-made today are manufactured mostly overseas.
Though the trend is troubling, it isn’t dire for domestic manufacturers that cater to patriotic customers or serve a market niche.
“A lot of our customers, since 9/11, look for Made in America products,” says Debi Collier, general manager of Intedge Manufacturing, which employs 30 workers in Woodruff, S.C., who cut and sew tablecloths, napkins, oven mitts, and other items for the national restaurant industry.
“If somebody’s not happy with, say, an apron, they can call me. They can return it to me, and I’ll make it better or I’ll make it right,” Collier adds. “But if you’re buying overseas, are you calling them and returning that one apron? Uh-uh.”
When Paul Mooty, 52, and his cousin Chuck, 52, toured the shuttered Faribault Woolen Mill in Faribault, Minn., two years ago, they found a dilapidated mess. But the legacy of the 1865 company was irresistible. Faribault blankets had traveled with pioneers across the frontier and kept American troops warm during both world wars.
In September 2011, the mill reopened; by the end of the year, Faribault blankets again were being sold in all 50 states. “It is maybe a little counterintuitive to restart a textile company in the U.S.,” concedes Mooty, the company’s president and CEO. “But we felt we had the wind at our back. There’s a desire for American-made right now, and this is a historic brand.”
Thomaston Mills in Thomaston, Ga. (pop. 9,170), boasts a similar story. Founded in 1899 by Robert Hightower, the sheet and towel factory served as a pillar in the community until it was devastated in the 1970s by the decline in American textiles. Robert Zaslow, 44, his siblings and cousins acquired the institutional division of the near-bankrupt business in 2001 and carved a niche as the only domestic sheet mill dedicated to the hospitality and healthcare industries. Today, about 100 employees weave tens of millions of yards of fabric each year, and sew and package the bedding.
Although the housing market bust has hurt American home appliance makers, a few high-end manufacturers have capitalized on the downturn. Sub-Zero/Wolf in Madison, Wis., for example, caters to remodeling homeowners. Established in 1945 by Westye Bakke and now run by his grandson Jim, the company originally sold commercial refrigerators to hospitals and dairy farmers before transitioning to custom-built refrigerators in the 1970s. An oven line was added in 2000.
“There’s never been any question about us moving,” says Michele Bedard, the company’s vice president of marketing. “Our president is very dedicated to staying in the United States.”
In the 1990s, U.S. denim factories produced more than 650 million yards of fabric; today they make about 100 million, and only about 3 percent of jeans worn by Americans are American-made. But a handful of domestic jean makers have found a way to survive.
For three decades, Texas Jeans in Asheboro, N.C., has used only American-made denim, labels, thread, buttons and zippers. Three hundred employees produce up to 4,000 pairs a week at the largest remaining jean manufacturer in the nation.
“If you have a problem with your order, we’ll put you on hold and run out to the plant and find out what’s wrong,” says operations manager Fred Womer, 42. “We really put more into serving the customer than just stocking a shelf.”
Celebrating its 100th birthday this year is Pointer Brand in Bristol, Tenn., America’s oldest cut-and-sew factory still operated by its founding family. Its Western jeans, carpenter jeans and overalls are primarily sold in Southeastern feed, hardware and small department stores. Every component, down to the trademark red zippers, is American-made.
Fourth-generation owner Jack King, 49, who purchased the brand from his dad Riley in 2005, is quick to note that although his hand-sewn coveralls cost slightly more than imports, they’re worth it. “I had a man call me up and he was sort of complaining about how high the price was,” King says. “And during the conversation, he told me that he was wearing a pair of jeans that he bought over 30 years ago. So I said, ‘If my product will last you 30 years, it is worth $5 more.’”
Keeping production in the U.S. can be daunting, acknowledges David Hall, 62, owner of Diamond Gusset Jeans, who received numerous offers to produce his 25-year-old company’s jeans offshore when national online sales boomed in the mid-1990s. “We turned down those offers time and time again, and were told that American-made wouldn’t work, that it was a thing of the past,” he says.
Hall and his 50 employees, who produce about 100,000 pairs of the crotch-gusseted jeans annually at a factory in Blue Ridge, Ga., have disproven the naysayers. Sales have increased 25 percent annually.
“I’m proud to say we make old-fashioned American blue jeans like they used to be made, with rugged, tough denim from cotton grown in the USA, woven at mills in the USA,” Hall says.