Ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass holds promise as an alternative fuel. However, industrial stresses, including ethanol stress, limit microbial fermentation and thus prevent cost competitiveness with fossil fuels. To identify novel engineering targets for increased ethanol tolerance, we took advantage of natural diversity in wild Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. We previously showed that an S288c-derived lab strain cannot acquire higher ethanol tolerance after a mild ethanol pretreatment, which is distinct from other stresses. Here, we measured acquired ethanol tolerance in a large panel of wild strains and show that most strains can acquire higher tolerance after pretreatment. We exploited this major phenotypic difference to address the mechanism of acquired ethanol tolerance, by comparing the global gene expression response to 5% ethanol in S288c and two wild strains. Hundreds of genes showed variation in ethanol-dependent gene expression across strains. Computational analysis identified several transcription factor modules and known coregulated genes as differentially expressed, implicating genetic variation in the ethanol signaling pathway. We used this information to identify genes required for acquisition of ethanol tolerance in wild strains, including new genes and processes not previously linked to ethanol tolerance, and four genes that increase ethanol tolerance when overexpressed. Our approach shows that comparative genomics across natural isolates can quickly identify genes for industrial engineering while expanding our understanding of natural diversity.