A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition

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Berkeley, CA 1989 Hard cover NEW, Hardcover edition as pictured. ISBN 0520062248 New in new dust jacket. NEW, Hardcover edition as pictured. ISBN 0520062248. Minor shelf wear ... Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 553 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. NEW, Hardcover edition as pictured. ISBN 0520062248. Minor shelf wear Read more Show Less

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The Vikings called North America "Vinland," the land of wine. Giovanni de Verrazzano, the Italian explorer who first described the grapes of the New World, was sure that "they would yield excellent wines." And when the English settlers found grapes growing so thickly that they covered the ground down to the very seashore, they concluded that "in all the world the like abundance is not to be found." Thus, from the very beginning the promise of America was, in part, the alluring promise of wine. How that promise was repeatedly baffled, how its realization was gradually begun, and how at last it has been triumphantly fulfilled is the story told in this book.

It is a story that touches on nearly every section of the United States and includes the whole range of American society from the founders to the latest immigrants. Germans in Pennsylvania, Swiss in Georgia, Minorcans in Florida, Italians in Arkansas, French in Kansas, Chinese in California—all contributed to the domestication of Bacchus in the New World. So too did innumerable individuals, institutions, and organizations. Prominent politicians, obscure farmers, eager amateurs, sober scientists: these and all the other kinds and conditions of American men and women figure in the story. The history of wine in America is, in many ways, the history of American origins and of American enterprise in microcosm.

While much of that history has been lost to sight, especially after Prohibition, the recovery of the record has been the goal of many investigators over the years, and the results are here brought together for the first time.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520062245
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1989
  • Pages: 553
  • Product dimensions: 7.44 (w) x 10.35 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Pinney is William M. Keck Distinguished Service Professor and Chairman of the Department of English at Pomona College. He has published scholarly work on George Eliot, Lord Macaulay, and Rudyard Kipling. A History of Wine in America is the outcome of his long-standing interest in American wines dating back to his graduate school days.

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Read an Excerpt

A History of Wine in America

From the Beginnings to Prohibition
By Thomas Pinney

University of California Press

Copyright © 1989 Thomas Pinney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-06224-8

Chapter One

The Beginnings, 1000-1700

The history of the vine in America begins, symbolically at least, in the fogs that shroud the medieval Norsemen's explorations. Every American knows the story of Leif Ericsson, and how, in A.D. 1001, he sailed from Greenland to the unknown country to the west. The story, however, is not at all clear. Historians disagree as to what the records of this voyage actually tell us, since they are saga narratives; they come from a remote era, from a strange language, and are uncritical, indistinct, and contradictory. Most experts, however, will agree that Leif-or someone-reached the new land. There, at least according to one saga, while Leif and his men went exploring in one direction, another member of the company, a German named Tyrker, went off by himself and made the discovery of what he called wine-berries-vinber in the original Old Norse, translated into English as "grapes." The Norsemen made Tyrker's "grapes" a part of their cargo when they sailed away, and Leif, in honor of this notable part of the country's produce, called the land "Wineland."

As a German, Tyrker claimed to know what he was talking about: "I was born where there is no lack of either grapes or vines," he told Leif. But the latest opinion inclines to the belief that the vines of Leif Ericsson's "Wineland"-most probably the northern coast of Newfoundland-were in fact not grapes at all but the plants of the wild cranberry. Another guess is that what the Vikings named the land for was meadow grass, called archaically vin or vinber, and misinterpreted by later tellers of the saga. No wild grapes grow in so high a latitude. Though it is powerfully tempting to believe that the Vikings really did discover grapes in their Vinland, the evidence is all against them unless we suppose that the climate of the region was significantly warmer then than now. Their name of "Wineland," however, was excellent prophecy. For the continent that they had discovered was in fact a great natural vineyard, where, farther to the south, and from coast to coast, the grape rioted in profusion and variety.

Grapes grow abundantly in many parts of the world: besides the grapes of the classic sites in the Near East and in Europe, there are Chinese grapes, Sudanese grapes, Caribbean grapes. But, though the grape vine is widely tolerant and readily adaptable, it will not grow everywhere, and in some places where it grows vigorously, it still does not grow well for the winemaker's purposes. The main restrictions are the need for sufficient sun to bring the clusters of fruit to full ripeness, yet sufficient winter chill to allow the vine to go dormant. There is another consideration. The so-called "balance" of a wine requires that the sugar content of the grape-essentially the product of heat-not overwhelm the acid content. Too much heat leads to too much sugar and reduction of flavor. Too little, to too much acid. Either extreme destroys the balance of elements. Since the continental United States lies within the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, it is, most of it, potential vineyard area-though not necessarily good vineyard area. In fact, more species of native vines are found in North America than anywhere else in the world. The number of its native species varies according to the system of classification followed, but it is on the order of thirty, or about half of the number found throughout the entire world.

One must emphasize the word native. The vine of European winemaking, the vine that Noah planted after the Flood, is the species vinifera-"the wine bearer," in Linnaeus's Latin-of the genus Vitis, the vine. Vitis vinifera is the vine whose history is identical with the history of wine itself: the leaves of vinifera bind the brows of Dionysus in his triumph; the seeds of vinifera are found with the mummies of the pharaohs in the pyramids. It was the juice of vinifera, mysteriously alive with the powers of fermentation, that led the ancients to connect wine with the spiritual realm and to make it an intimate part of religious ceremony. In the thousands of years during which vinifera has been under cultivation, it has produced thousands of varieties-4,000 by one count, 5,000 by another, 8,000 by yet another, though there is no realistic way to arrive at a figure. The grape is constantly in process of variation through the seedlings it produces, and the recognized varieties are only the tiny fraction selected by man for his purposes from among the uncounted millions that have grown wherever the seeds of the grape have been dropped.

The grapes that vinifera yields for the most part have thin skins, tender, sweet flesh, delicate flavors, and high sugar, suitable for the production of sound, well-balanced, attractive wine. The wines that are pressed from them cover the whole gamut of recognized types, from the coarse hot-country reds to the crisp, flowery whites of the north. Among the great number of excellent and useful varieties of vinifera, a tiny handful have been singled out as "noble" vines: the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux and the Pinot Noir of Burgundy among the reds; the Riesling of the Rhine and the Chardonnay of Champagne and Burgundy among the whites; the Semillon of Sauternes for sweet wine. A few other essential names might be added, and a great many other excellent and honorable names, but the point is that after centuries of experience, and from thousands of available varieties, a few, very few, vinifera vines have been identified and internationally recognized as best for the production of superior wines in the regions to which they are adapted.

No such grape is native to North America. The natives are, instead, tough, wild grapes, usually small and sour, and more notable for the vigor of their vines than for the quality of the wine made from their fruit. They grew and adapted to their circumstances largely unregarded by man, and while the development of Vitis vinifera was guided to satisfy the thirst of ancient civilizations, the North American vines had only survival to attend to. The natives are true grapes, no doubt sharing with vinifera the same ancestor far back along the evolutionary scale. But in the incalculably long process of dispersion and adaptation from their conjectured point of origin in Asia, the native grapes have followed widely different patterns of adaptation. That is one of the most striking facts about the numerous wild American grapes-how remarkably well adapted they are to the regions in which they grow, and how various are the forms they take. There are dwarf, shrubby species growing in dry sand or on rocky hills; there are long-lived species growing to enormous size, with stems more than a foot in diameter and climbing over one hundred feet high on the forest trees that support them; some kinds flourish in warm humidity, others on dry and chill northern slopes; some grow in forests, some along river banks, some on coastal plains. As the great viticultural authority U. P. Hedrick observed early in this century, so many varieties of native grape are distributed over so wide an area that "no one can say where the grape is most at home in America." But the fruit that they produce is often deficient in sugar, or high in acid, and sometimes full of strange flavors, so that the wine pressed from it is thin, unstable, sharp, and unpleasing-if drinkable at all. Wine from the unadulterated native grape is not wine at all by the standards of Vitis vinifera.

Early Explorers and Native Grapes

All of the explorers and early settlers made note of the abundant and vigorous wild grape vines-they could hardly help doing so, since they were obviously and everywhere to be seen along the coast of eastern North America. Within two years of Columbus's discovery, for example, the Spaniards reported vines growing in the Caribbean islands. The Pilgrims in New England found the species now called Vitis labrusca growing profusely in the woods around their settlements. The labrusca, or northern fox grape, is the best looking of the natives, with large berries that may come in black, white, or red. It is the only native grape that exhibits this range of colors. Labrusca is still the best known of the native species because the ubiquitous Concord, the grape that most Americans take to be the standard of "grapeyness" in juice and jellies, is a pure example of it.

The name "fox grape" often given to labrusca yields the adjective foxy, a word unpleasant to the ears of eastern growers and winemakers as an unflattering description of the distinctive flavor of their labrusca grapes and wines, a flavor unique to eastern America and, once encountered, never forgotten. One of the dominant elements in that flavor, the chemists say, is the compound methyl anthranilate; it can be synthesized artificially to produce the flavor of American grapeyness wherever it may be wanted. But why this flavor (which, like all flavors, is largely aroma) should be called "foxy" has been, and remains, a puzzle (see Appendix 1).

Hundreds of miles to the south of the Pilgrim settlements, and even before the Pilgrims landed, the gentlemen of the Virginia Company at Jamestown encountered a number of native grape species, among them the very distinctive one called Vitis rotundifolia-round leaf grape-that grows on bottom lands, on river banks, and in swamps, often covering hundreds of square feet with a single vine. The rotundifolia grape, commonly called muscadine, differs sharply from other grapes; so different is it, in fact, that it is often distinguished as a class separate from "true grapes." The vine is low and spreading, and the large, tough-skinned, round fruit grows not in the usual tight bunches but in loose clusters containing only a few berries each: hence the variant name of bullet grape. The fruit is sweet, but like that of almost all natives, its juice usually needs to have sugar added to it in order to produce a sound wine. The fruit has also a strong, musky odor based on phenylethyl alcohol that carries over into its wine. Scuppernong is the best-known variety of rotundifolia, and the name is sometimes loosely used to stand for the whole species.

Both Pilgrims in the north and Virginians in the south would have known the small-berried and harsh-tasting Vitis riparia-the riverbank grape-which is the most widely distributed of all native American grapes (difficulties in classification have produced some variant names for this species, of which Vitis vulpina is the most common). Riparia ranges from Canada to the Gulf, and west, with diminishing frequency, to the Great Salt Lake. As its name indicates, riparia chooses river banks or islands. As its range suggests, it has a tough and hardy character that allows it to survive under a great variety of conditions. It is currently, for example, being used as a basis for hybridizing wine grapes for the cold climates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Another grape widespread throughout the eastern United States is Vitis aestivalis, the summer grape, the best adapted to the making of wine of all the North American natives, though not the most widely used. Unlike the rotundifolia and others, it has adequate sugar in its large clusters of small berries; and it is free of the powerful "foxy" odor of the labrusca. Aestivalis fills in the gaps left by riparia and labrusca, for unlike the former it avoids the streams, and, unlike the latter, it prefers the open uplands to the thick woods. Another grape common in the East, Vitis cordifolia, the winter grape, has a taste so harshly herbaceous that only under the most desperate necessity has it ever been used for wine.

As settlement moved beyond the eastern seaboard and made its way west, a new range of species and varieties was encountered, though none of such importance as those just named. The best known is Vitis rupestris, the sand grape, which favors gravelly banks and dry water courses and is distributed through the region around southern Missouri and Illinois down into Texas. Since it is not a tree climber, it has been very vulnerable to grazing stock and is now almost extinct in many areas.

There are many other species and subspecies that might be named among the native vines, but those already given include most of the varieties that formed the stock available to the early settlers and that have since had any significance in the development of hybrid vines. Two things may be said generally about the natives by way of summarizing their importance both to the American industry and to the world of wine at large. First, except for the muscadine, they enter readily into combination with other species, so that by judicious hybridizing their defects have been diminished and their virtues enhanced in combination with one another and with Vitis vinifera. Such improvement through breeding began in the nineteenth century (though some very important accidental crosses had occurred earlier) and has been continued without intermission since: had it been begun earlier in a deliberate way, the whole face of winemaking in the United States might have been changed beyond recognition. Second, the native vines have, or some of them at any rate have, an inherited resistance to the major enemies of the vine in North America: the endemic fungus diseases that destroy leaves and fruit; and the plant louse called Phylloxera vastatrix, a scourge native to North America and introduced with catastrophic effect into Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By grafting V. vinifera to American roots, the winegrowers of Europe were able to save their industry at a time when it seemed likely that the ancient European civilization of the vine was about to become a thing of the past.

The summary just given is based on information laboriously accumulated by professional botanists and field workers over the course of many years, people whose devoted labors have made it possible to state clearly and confidently what grapes belong to what species and where they may be found. It was all very different, of course, when the first explorers and colonists looked about them and attempted to identify what they saw. The early accounts all have in common a certain indistinctness combined with an excited hopefulness, the one probably being the condition of the other.

Take, for example, the earliest reference on record to the grapes growing in what is now the United States. In 1524, only a generation after Columbus, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, coasting north along the Atlantic seaboard, encountered a region so lovely in his eyes that he called it Arcadia. Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, the latest student of the subject, is of the opinion that Verrazzano meant Kitty Hawk, of Wright brothers fame, off the North Carolina mainland-a region that no one would identify as Arcadian now.


Excerpted from A History of Wine in America by Thomas Pinney Copyright © 1989 by Thomas Pinney. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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