by Jane Garvey
In July, one thinks about all things American, and the history of this nation’s relationship with the vine comes to my mind. Chiefly Italian, German, Spanish and French fingers are all over early viticultural attempts in this country, but there are others as you‘ll soon see.
The first winemaking in the North American continent probably was achieved in the 16th century by French Huguenots in northeast Florida. And most likely they used native grapes, as any European varieties they might have brought with them would not have withstood the climate and disease conditions.
And in California, the missions that Spanish priests built along the Camino Real planted the Mission grape to make sacramental wine. Missionaries also planted that grape in Texas even earlier than in California, in the 1650s. And Russian settlers in northern California made wine from the Palomino grape imported from Peru. New York’s Dutch and French Huguenot settlers began plantings in the 17th century. But none of this activity was for commercial purposes.
That first commercial winery was the work of a Swiss Frenchman, Jean Jacques DuFour, in Kentucky, where the first commercial winery in the United States was founded in the late 18th century. A horrific freeze killed off the vines, ending that experiment, but some of his first vintage (1803) is said to have been sent to Thomas Jefferson.
Undaunted by this failure, across the Ohio River in Indiana, Swiss immigrants succeeded in viticulture in what is today called Switzerland County. They named the town they founded after their home in Switzerland, Vevay, which still serves as the county seat. The last weekend in August, beginning the Thursday before the weekend, the Swiss Wine Festival in Vevay, IN, annually marks the small town’s connection to this history. Fittingly, the festival wraps up with fireworks along the Ohio River. With 16 million acres in four states, the Ohio River Valley is the nation’s largest AVA.
Recalling that history, and rebuilding its original site as close to accurate as possible, Thomas Beall today is re-creating “First Vineyard,” as DuFour called his Kentucky operation. An avid historian, Beall bought the property not knowing it was the site of America’s first commercial winery, but by 2002 he had it figured out and began its restoration, replanting the original terraces to Cape, the grape type DuFour planted that later was re-named Alexander. “They were clearly there,” he says of the terraces DuFour built. “All I had to do was clean them up.”
Beall has his doubters. But he also has his proof.
“People like to argue that [first commercial winery assertion] with me,” he says laughing, “but I’ve got the documentation.” And I’ve seen on line the original grant naming DuFour and granting him that commercial license to make wine. The date? 1798.
An avid historian, Beall has dug deeply, so to speak, into what he inadvertently purchased, and in addition to restoring the terraces, is building a tasting room and has accommodations. He figures to turn out no more than 250 cases a year, he told me. Make an appointment if you’re gong there, so you can see all the materials, artifacts and evidence that Beall has assembled. (www.firstvineyard.net). He plans a grand opening for late July. Today, the state that launched American commercial viticulture–Kentucky–boasts 65 wineries.
So is DuFour, then, the father of American viticulture? Or would it be John Adlum, the Pennsylvanian whose farm stood partly on the site occupied today by the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.? Thomas Jefferson? Or his Italian neighbor and spirit brother, Filippo Mazzei? Mazzei’s farm near Jefferson’s Monticello today is the site of Virginia’s Jefferson Vineyards. Or perhaps a contemporary of Adlum’s, Nicolas Herbemont, the French South Carolinian, who in the late 18th through the first third of the 19th century planted everything he could get his hands on in that state? All these contributed mightily to American viticulture.
But it’s Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863), great grandfather of a future speaker of the House of Representatives married to Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, who merits the title “Father of American Viticulture.” Lawyer, banker, real estate speculator, and winemaker, Longworth planted grapes and made wine in the Cincinnati area, and made sparkling Catawba wine from that was praised and sold from California to Europe.
Get a taste of what Catawba can do at Huber Orchard, Winery & Vineyard in Indiana, about 10 miles from Louisville, KY, across the Ohio River. They make perhaps the best Catawba I’ve ever tasted, a semi-sweet rosé, and it’s quite quaffable.
Longworth’s wine appealed to German immigrants who were coming into Ohio, making Cincinnati a very German city from its earliest days. But other Germans pressed ahead to Missouri in the 1820s, where they founded Hermann and planted vineyards. Leading the post-Prohibition renewal of Missouri winemaking, Jim and Betty Held bought Stone Hill Winery in the 1970s. The place had weathered Prohibition and post-Repeal period by raising mushrooms in the old, spectacular caves that its German founders had dug. Stone Hill Winery in the pre-Prohibition era was turning out 1 million plus gallons of wine yearly, and winning awards in European competitions. Hard to imagine mushrooms making up for that lost revenue.
Today, the entire state turns out about that much wine, yet before Prohibition, it was the country‘s second largest producer of wine. And it‘s home to the first AVA declared, Augusta, in 1980. Today, there are about 100 wineries in Missouri.
Discovered in Virginia, where more than 200 wineries operate today, Norton is the grape that set Missouri on the winemaking map, and it’s important once again in Virginia. It’s also grown in north Georgia.
Germans also made wine in the Texas Hill Country, where they settled in the years immediately prior to the U.S. Civil War. Making wine was an early enterprise, but the oldest continuously operating winery in Texas, Val Verde, is an Italian-founded winery dating to 1883. Descendents of Frank Qualia still run the place. Here the icon grape is Lenoir, Vitis Aestivalis, which is about to make its mark in Georgia, thought by some to be the grape’s home state. It was Texas viticulture that sent root stock to France (some of it Lenoir) that saved French viticulture from phylloxera in the 19th century.
So what about California? Wouldn’t the United States’ largest wine-producing state be the likely location of its first commercial winery?
California’s commercial winemaking history began with another Frenchman, this one from near Cadillac in Bordeaux. Jean-Louis Vignes (no joke!), seeking to dig his way out of financial difficulty, founded the first California commercial winery in Los Angeles around 1831. But Vignes only had Mission grapes to work with, and he disliked the resulting wine. So in 1833 he sent to Bordeaux for Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon. They made the trip with their roots embedded in moss and potato slices. He made his wine in the traditional French manner, aging it in barrels–he came from a long line of coopers in France–and shipping it from northern California to the White House and back to France. His 104-acre vineyard, El Aliso, lay between the old town of Los Angeles and the river.
Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy’s Buena Vista Winery was not founded until 1857, but it remains California’s oldest continually operating winery. Haraszthy is most closely associated with Zinfandel, certainly one of that state’s icon grapes, especially in Amador County and the Shenandoah Valley and in Paso Robles. Some historians, hwoever, doubt the tale told by one of his sons that Agoston brought Zinfandel to California, asserting that others did before him. That controversy never has been resolved.
Nevertheless, one of his descendents, Val, still makes a lovely Zinfandel at Haraszthy Family Winery. The Val, by the way, is short for Vallejo, because his other great grandfather was General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the last Mexican governor of California. Two of his daughters married two of Haraszthy’s sons. And Vallejo was already making his own wine when he met Haraszthy, who is supposed to have said of the wine in 1857, “This stuff ain’t bad.” Succinct, huh?
Although Dutch and Huguenot (French) settlers planted vines in New York State in the 17th century, that state’s commercial wine making dates to the 19th century, with the 1839 founding of Brotherhood Winery, the oldest continuously operating winery in the United States. A Frenchman, Jean Jacques, launched this enterprise. But a Ukrainian oenologist, Dr. Konstantin Frank, showed New York how to grow Vitis vinifera, and his successors and descendents still operate in New York. Thanks to Dr. Frank, Riesling is one of the state’s important vinifera grapes, and so is Merlot, on Long Island.
Despite Jefferson’s and Mazzei’s efforts, Southern viticulture looked pretty hopeless until the discovery of the grape now variously called Norton or Cynthiana. Although some vintners continue to insist they are two different grapes, ampelographers assert they are the same grape.
Carroll County official historian Doug Mabry constantly expresses stunned surprise at how many different grape varieties were being grown in Georgia before Prohibition, which kicked in here in 1907, before it did nationally. His ongoing research may turn our notions of the history of wine making in Georgia on its ear. Just in Carroll and Haralson counties in west Georgia, 200 Hungarian families brought down from the coal mines of Pennsylvania were growing grapes AND making wine in the late 19th century. For 30 years they farmed 20,000 acres. There was a glass factory making bottles for the purpose, and the largest cooperative east of the Rock Mountains, he says, adding that he has the documentation to prove it. The two counties today are covered in wild grape vines that descend from those original varieties, although today the genetics are so altered, U.C. Davis has not been able to determine what sort they are.
The results of Mabry’s work will make a great read when it all gets done, but meanwhile farmers in Carroll County are busy planting grapes–a lot of it Norton, but with an eye on planting Lenoir and Blanc du Bois–to restore that piece of American–and Southern–viticultural history to its rightful modern era place.