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Wine Wise - American Wine Traditions

( Originally Published 1933 )



TO THE unsophisticated wine drinker, American wine traditions are something of a confusion, because of the wide range of wine types produced in this land. There is in the United States no "wine of the country" corresponding to the "vins du pays" of which European wine-producing lands are so proud. Owing partly to climatic and geographic circumstances, and partially to the fact that our American melting pot has inherited wine traditions from many lands, American wine lore covers a multitude of wine-making customs.

Wine making is a comparatively new industry in this country, really less than a century old, as compared to the woo years of wine making to which France, Italy and Spain can point with pride. Nevertheless, American wine makers have behind them a vast wealth of experience, to which is added wider range of grape growing conditions than is found in any other land. Hence, in spite of the youth of the industry in this country, they have been able to produce wines which have taken the highest awards at international exhibits.

The making of good wine depends upon several factors. First, we might say, is the development of fine grape varieties. Next come the soil and climatic conditions which ripen the grapes with the proper amount of sugar and acid for the wine desired. Then comes skill in frementation, and finally, most important of all, the art of blending, which calls not only for experience but the proper varieties of wine to create the type desired. Today, the American wine maker has all of these factors so much in his favor that he can consistently produce wines that compare with those of any land., but the struggle to achieve this position was a long and discouraging one. Success came to American wine makers only after generations of patient experiment and many failures. It is one of the stirring romances of American industry.

Even today, this country is not thought of as one of the great wine lands of the world. Yet, the first thought of the white men who discovered our land was of its possibilities as a source of wine. In the year 1000, when Leif the Lucky, the great Norse navigator, discovered America, he named it Vinland, because of the 'profusion of wild grapevines growing in the vicinity of New York, where he landed. Following Columbus' rediscovery of America in 1492, the Spaniards brought grape cuttings to the colonies they established, and their priests cultivated the vine around the numerous missions they established.

Even the English were enthused over the new land as a source of wine. Sir Walter Raleigh's reports to Queen Elizabeth spoke glowingly of the luscious grapes found in the Virginias and he proposed to establish there a colony of vineyardists. This was a particularly timely idea, because England's wine supply, in those days, was frequently cut off when Spain and Portugal were involved in the succession of European wars. In that era, wine was almost a necessity, as the only known means of purifying water from typhoid and other dread diseases.

The English colonists in New York, New Jersey, the Virginias and the Carolinas, and the Germans in Pennsylvania, all made earnest attempts to establish vineyards. In several of the colonies public money was appropriated to engage experienced vineyardists and wine makers, notably from France, to establish the vintage in the new world. Unfortunately, all of these vineyardists, instead of domesticating the native American grape, imported European varieties, which did not flourish in the soil and climate of the eastern part of our land. Even to this day attempts to grow European grapes have failed in the eastern and middlewestern states on account of the cold winters.

However, grape culture and wine making in the eastern states made little headway until certain pioneers abandoned the idea of acclimating European grape varieties and turned to wild native American vines as a source of stock. During the 1830's, Nicholas Long-worth, in Ohio, succeeded in domesticating the Catawba variety. His plantings and those of his neighbors spread year after year along the Ohio River until the valley became known as the Rhineland of America. Unfortunately, in later years, disease wiped out most of these vineyards, but Ohio's grape industry was revived anew on the shores and islands of Lake Erie. The city of Sandusky became a center of wine making.

In North Carolina, Sidney Weller experimented in the 1830's and 1840's with the Scuppernong Grape, and succeeded in developing an extensive wine business. The luscious Scuppernong made a fine wine of distinctive and flowery flavor, but the vine itself defied cultivation, though it thrives when let alone in woods and along fences of the Carolinas. To this day, wine makers who use Scuppernongs are obliged to gather the grapes from far and wide, a few baskets from each farmer, wherever the grape grows.

In New York State, vineyardists turned to the Concord variety, the popular slip-skin grape well known to American tables. This prolific native grape submitted readily to domestication and prospered in vine-yards. The oldest vineyard in the country, it is claimed, is that planted at Washingtonville, Orange County, New York, in 1837. Still vigorous, this vineyard has produced wines every year since 1841, and it is said that some of the original vintage is still in existence, proving that American grapes produce wines of great keeping qualities.

More recently, New York's wine industry has centered about Hammondsport, on Lake Keuka, in the Finger Lakes District. Here the grapes flourish in the peculiar shale soil, which resembles in many ways the white chalky soils of the Champagne province of France. The outstanding wines of this region are Champagne and Sparkling Red wine, in addition to which several varieties of American type still wines are produced. New York State is also the center of culture for the Concord grape, which is primarily a table and grapejuice variety, though it makes a distinctive American sweet type resembling Port.

Though it thrives throughout the temperate zone, the grape is a temperamental plant, and when grown for wine-making purposes it will prosper only in a few selected areas where climate and soil conditions are just right. Grapes that do well in one district will not thrive in another apparently similar area a short distance away. Just as it has taken the wine lands of Europe centuries to develop their types, so it has taken patient experiment with many varieties to establish the vine in this country.

In southern New Jersey, near Egg Harbor, the soil a short distance from the seacoast has the appearance of white beach sand. It is anything but promising for agriculture, yet Hiram Dewey, the pioneer New York wine merchant, found it ideal for certain varieties of red grapes used to produce his fine wines. In Missouri and Arkansas certain foothill districts of the Ozarks were discovered to be wine-grape lands. In the south-ern states, where the usual wine types failed, T. V. Munson developed a strain of hybrids which did thrive in southern climates and soils.

Often the discovery of a good new grape variety was purely an accident, as is illustrated by the story of the Ives Seedling, which is one of the leading varieties used for red wines. Henry Ives was a Cincinnati tailor who was fond of grapes. While he was sitting at his work table near a window he was in the habit of eating grapes and throwing the seeds out of the window. One day he :noticed a vine growing outside of the window and he carefully tended this tiny vine and protected it through the winter from the cold. In a few years the vine bore fruit, from which he was able to make some wine which created such a fine impression on his neighbors they all sought cuttings from his vine. In a short time scions from the Ives Seedling were found in most of the vineyards in that part of the country.

By far the most romantic episode in the American wine lore is that of the growth of the wine industry of California. About 90 per cent of all of the wine grapes grown in the United States are produced in the vineyards of California. The state is unique in that its great variety of soil and climatic conditions enables its vineyardists to grow practically all varieties of grapes found in any part of the world. Consequently, the Californians have not had to strike out anew to find new wine-grape varieties but have been able to import those already established abroad. From these, wines can be made that compare favorably with those used in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

As a matter of fact, the vine was successfully grown in California long before any of the experiments along the eastern seaboard had produced good wine grapes. The first California vines were those set out by Franciscan padres, who made the initial planting at San Diego Mission about 1770 from cuttings or seed secured from Mexico or Spain. The missions were small oases in the dry California plains and valleys during the summertime, and the padres guarded their vines jealously behind high adobe walls. Vines were planted in every mission garden and in most of the haciendas of the Spanish and Mexican colonists.

Some of these original vines are still to be found in California. The century-old Trinity Vine near San Gabriel Mission today has a trunk as large as a good-sized tree. The black Mission type grapes yielded a strong, heady red wine which delighted the palates and quenched the thirst of priests and the dusty travelers in the early years of California. The padres produced not only wine sufficient for their own use, but enough to trade to visiting sea captains for merchandise from the Atlantic seaboard.

The gold rush of '49 brought thousands of Americans, French, Germans, Spaniards and other nationalities to California. Among the gold hunters there were men who came from the vineyard districts of Europe, and it was natural that these newcomers should see in the soil of California an opportunity for the founding of a wine industry.

At first they planted Mission vines because no other varieties were available. Later they turned to their home lands for their favorite grape varieties. The French colonists, who settled around San Francisco Bay, brought from France hundreds of grape cuttings, which were preserved during the long trip across the Atlantic, over the Isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific Coast by being stuck into potatoes. These cuttings flourished as did those imported by other pioneers from European lands.

However, most Californians recognize Colonel Agaston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman, as the father of the modern wine industry in their state. Colonel Haraszthy, who had been a skillful vineyardist in his native land, turned his restless energy to the development of vineyards in California. He first imported in 1852 several Hungarian varieties of grapes, which were planted in San Mateo County near Crystal Springs Lakes. The fog and damp winds of this district hindered the ripening of the grapes, so Colonel Haraszthy replanted his vineyard near the little town of Sonoma.

In 1861, Colonel Haraszthy was commissioned by the governor of California to visit the principal grape-growing districts of Europe, Asia Minor, Persia and Egypt and gather cuttings of grapevines that seemed suited to the soil and climate of California. He secured more than 200,000 cuttings, which were planted in the nursery he established at Sonoma. From this collection vines were soon distributed to almost every county of the state. In this way, a thorough test of the grape-growing possibilities of all California was made.

Later, the varieties Haraszthy introduced were supplemented with vines imported by the first State Board of Viticultural Commissioners, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the University of California and leading growers and nurserymen. These different plantings account for the unusually wide variety of vines to be found in California, and as a result the wine makers are able to reproduce almost any wine of any European region. The California vintners have an amazing array of varieties from which to do their blending.

Numerous experienced French, Italian and German grape growers and wine makers settled in the coast valleys of California, particularly in Sonoma, Napa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties. They brought with them the skill and traditions of wine making that are acquired only through generations of experience in the culture of the grape. Two outstanding wine enterprises in the state deserving special mention were those of the Italian Swiss Colony in Sonoma County and the Italian Vineyard Company in San Bernardino County.

The Italian Swiss Colony was founded by Andrea Sbarboro, to whom this book is dedicated and who first Interested the writer in the beauties of wine and its value as a temperance beverage. He was soon joined by P. C. Rossi, an experienced chemist and viticulturist from Italy. Sbarboro had settled in San Francisco and become a successful banker when he conceived the idea of establishing a cooperative vineyard on a hillside district near Cloverdale, overlooking the Russian River Valley. Vines which were imported from Italy prospered so well that the Asti Colony found it difficult to market the large tonnage of fresh grapes they produced. So a winery was built and the colony became wine makers. When they could not sell their wine gallonage they were forced to become distributors. Italian Swiss Colony wines eventually were recognized as superior wines not only in the East but abroad. After years of patient experiment and the employment of Charles Jadeau, a famous expert from Rheims, France, the Colony were rewarded when their Champagne was awarded the "grand prix" at an international exposition in Turin, Italy. This recognition once and for all proved that wines of European types produced in California were equal in every way to those made abroad.

The Italian Vineyard Company, established by Secondo Guasti, in San Bernardino County in Southern California, is another striking example of what can be accomplished when soil and climatic conditions are favorable. Guasti was an energetic Italian colonist from Piedmont who made his first dollars working in a restaurant. Having a knowledge of grape growing, Guasti conceived the idea of transforming the Cucamonga Desert into a profitable vineyard district. He secured a vast stretch of sandy desert land at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and planted choice European vines with such restless energy that eventually his vineyard covered 4,500 acres. The modern winery buildings with the palatial country home of the owner, the houses of the many employees, the school, church, meeting house, stores and depot make up a little town all its own named after the founder. The Italian Vineyard Company's fame for dry, sweet and sparkling wines is world-wide.

The great Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys attracted numerous vineyardists who grew their vines under irrigation. The hot climate and the soils of these interior valleys were found to be especially suited to the production of wine-grape varieties that are used for Port, Sherry, Angelica, Tokay and Muscatel types. Today these valleys are the principal source of the heavy sweet fortified wines of California, while the coastal counties, contiguous to the Bay of San Francisco, produce the light dry table wines.

The enactment of the prohibition laws practically closed the greater part of the 700 wineries to the grape growers. Because of the encouragement given by the state and the nation, vineyardist had simply refused to believe that wines would be included among the alcoholic beverages which Prohibition was to forbid. In California many interplanted their choice vines with fruit trees and some even uprooted their vine-yards. This they were soon to regret when the American public took to home vintaging. As the miraculous demand for black wine-grape varieties increased in centers like New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, prices soared and those who were fortunate enough to have grapes to sell enjoyed three or four years of tremendous prosperity. Unfortunately, the manner of selling the grapes changed from cash basis to a consignment proposition and instead of the growers fixing the prices it soon became a buyers' market. The planting of tens of thousands of acres of new vine-yards, largely Alicante Bouschet and Carignane, in the San Joaquin Valley led to overproduction, causing the markets to be glutted. For several years the prices of grapes were so low that the prosperity of the vineyardists vanished. Today there are 185,000 acres devoted to wine grapes in California.

The shipment of millions of lugs of wine grapes to eastern markets from California by rail has furnished an interesting clue as to the wine-drinking habits of Americans during the era of Prohibition. The number of carloads of wine grapes rolled across the continent during certain years has been sufficient to make nearly twice as much wine as was produced in any year prior to Prohibition. This is an indication that in spite of Prohibition, wine drinking in the United States has increased materially.

When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, California was noted for its fine wines and wine cellars. Seven hundred wineries crushed the tremendous tonnage, and the annual production was about 45,000,000 gallons of wine. The great establishment at Wine-haven, belonging to the California Wine Association, was the largest winery in the United States. Greystone Winery at St. Helena was perhaps the most picturesque. Both plants have been idle under Prohibition and so have hundreds of others. Only about 150 wineries, producing an average of less than 10,000,000 gallons of wine annually, have been active during the dry regime. But they include some of the big factors in the industry and they have continued to make the choicest dry and sweet wines. Very little sparkling wine has been produced under Prohibition.

Only a comparatively few of the wine lovers of the nation will remember the famous old "California" brands of European types, because during the past fourteen years wine could not be sold for beverage purposes and they have had no chance to drink them. Some of the most popular brands were Cresta Blanca Sauterne, Giersberger Riesling, Schilling's La Perla, De Turk Hock, Wehner Sweet Sauterne, Los Amigos Moselle, Golden State Champagne, Korbel Sec Champagne, Paul Masson Champagne, Bacchus Cabernet, Rixford's La Questa Claret, Italian Swiss Colony Tipo Chianti, California Wine Association Hillcrest, Italian Vineyard Company Grignolino, Schramsberger Zinfandel, Los Hermanos Cabernet, Dresel Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaulieu Vineyard Burgundy, Mount Rouge Burgundy, Repsold's Miranda Burgundy, Matteivista Angelica, Guasti Sherry, Vestal Vintage Tokay, and Lachman and Jacobi's Apollo Port.

Wine lovers will also recall some of the best known "American" wines of pre-prohibition days Garrett & Co.'s Virginia Dare, the Monticello Wine Co.'s Norton's Claret, H. T. Dewey & Sons Co.'s Port, Sauterne and Sherry, Lenk Wine Co.'s Delaware and Catawba, and John G. Dorn's Sweet Catawba and Port. Among the well known Champagnes were the Brotherhood Wine Co.'s Brotherhood Extra Dry and Vin Crest Brut, Germania Wine Cellars' Grand Imperial Sec, Hammondsport Wine Co.'s Golden Age Extra Dry, Pleasant Valley Wine Co.'s Great Western Extra Dry and Brut, Urbana Wine Co.'s Gold Seal, Special Dry and Brut, Roullet Wine Company's Dry Imperial and Prince Consort, White Top Champagne Co.'s White Top Club Special, Hommel Wine Co.'s Hommel's Extra Dry and White Star, and American Wine Co.'s Cook's Imperial Extra Dry.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the wineries that survived the dry era are ready to offer their choice stocks of aged wines and within a short time hundreds of more wineries will be functioning and all the old familiar brands and many new ones will be on the market.

The American public will naturally favor the home product, for after years of costly experiment, practical experience and skilled labor, it is agreed that the wine makers of the country have perfected, in California, types which match those of European wine lands, and in the eastern states, types which are distinctly American, good, sound wines not produced elsewhere. From this wealth of dry, sweet and sparkling wines, the American wine drinker, no matter how exacting or fastidious he may be, will find types that will delight his taste and warm his heart.



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