The Makers of American Wine
A Record of Two Hundred Years
By Thomas Pinney
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
John James Dufour, or the Uses of Failure
A MAN WITH A MISSION
THE BRIG SALLY, CAPTAIN MITCHELL COMMANDING, arrived at the port of Philadelphia on August 12, 1796, after an uneventful voyage of sixty days from Le Havre. Among its passengers was a Swiss named Jean Jacques Dufour (John James in his American years), no longer in his first youth—he was then thirty-three years old—and remarkable at first glance only for having a left arm that ended at the elbow, probably a congenital defect. Whether he had any English before he left home is uncertain, but no doubt he had learned some on the voyage to add to his native French.
Among the stream of emigrants seeking their fortunes in postrevolutionary America, Dufour had nothing to distinguish him, except for the accident of his arm. But he came to the new republic possessed by a single purpose: to make wine for a wineless country. And the extraordinary fact is that he succeeded. That success was limited, it was of brief duration, and it was largely carried out by others. But without Dufour's determination and his willingness to take advantage of what the country offered, it would not have come about as it did.
Dufour was the eldest son of a family of vinedressers, as the term was then, living in the commune of Chatelard, near Vevey, on the terraced northern slopes of the Lake of Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux. This region, called La Côte in Switzerland, is ancient wine-growing country, the largest single concentration of vines in the country and the source of some of Switzerland's most distinguished white wines. Vevey is also the home of the venerable Fête des Vignerons, a celebration whose recorded history goes back to 1651 but which is probably even older than that.
Dufour would thus have grown up in an atmosphere saturated in wine. But why, one wonders, should he have left a secure and established wine region for the infant United States, where wine growing was effectively unknown? That very fact seems to have been a part of Dufour's reason for making the venture: it had not been done, and he was romantic enough to think that he might be the one to do it (more prosaically, the family historian, Perret Dufour, says simply that the elder Dufour determined that his children should go to America for the sake of opportunity).
John James Dufour himself said that he had been fascinated by the idea of making wine in America from the time he was fourteen years old and read in the papers some reports from French soldiers serving with the American armies in the Revolution complaining about the lack of wine "in the midst of the greatest abundance of everything else." There were all-too-good reasons for the absence of native wine in America, as explained in the introduction. Those reasons, however, remained essentially unknown in Europe, just as they were largely unrecognized still in America itself.
When he consulted a map of the country to which he had determined someday to go, Dufour found that parts of America lay in the latitude of "the best wine countries in the world—like Spain, South of France, Italy, and Greece," and this seemed to him to be a promise of sure success. It is a fact that the northern limit of wine growing in Europe is roughly the fiftieth parallel, and that in America all of the contiguous states lie south of that. New York City and Rome are both on the forty-second parallel; Richmond, Virginia, and Athens are both on the thirty-eighth parallel. These coincidences seduced many an early entrepreneur into believing that wine might be grown as readily in New York or Richmond as in Latium or Attica. But the belief was a delusion; the differences in climate are so extreme as to make the argument from latitude utterly unreliable. Dufour, however, did not yet know that.
When, at the end of his life, Dufour set down his account of his experience in the new world in his American Vine-Dresser's Guide (1826), he took an almost sacramental view of his purpose. By successfully producing wine, he wrote in his loose and difficult sentence style, he would "engage and enable the people of this vast continent to procure for themselves and their children, the blessing intended by the Almighty; that they should enjoy, and not by trade from foreign countries, but by the produce of their own labor, out of the very ground they tread, from a corner of each one's farm, wine thus obtained, first handed from the grand Giver of all good, pure, genuine, and unmixed by avarice, that it may have the effect on his heart and family intended by the Creator." Not only that, native wine would turn Americans away from their habitual use of ardent spirits—whiskey especially—and contribute to making the country temperate and sober. These arguments for the high social value of wine growing were heard from the very beginning of American settlement and form a kind of chorus behind almost every one of the countless attempts to establish it. Dufour was one of a long line in this matter too.
Of course Dufour hoped to make money as well as to confer solid public benefits. He never did get rich, but something of his high expectations may still be heard in his language at the end of his life: "Millions," he wrote, "will accrue to the country at large" from the work he had done. And that, too, is one of the constant themes in the pioneer history of wine growing in this country: temperance, good cheer, and unbounded wealth are all mingled in the vision of America as a wine land. It is still an attractive vision.
His preparation lasted much longer than one would expect. For twenty years or more, after he had formed his resolve to go to America, he was still in Vevey, where he had a wife and a son—hardly evidence of a restless spirit. About the wife nothing is known, except that she would never go to America; the son was an only child, named Daniel Vincent. Dufour was surrounded in Vevey by a large family: his father, also Jean Jacques, was still living, as were seven other children of the father's two marriages. What determined the moment at which John James Dufour finally set out for America can only be guessed, but the anxieties created by the French Revolution and by the Napoleonic Wars that followed are likely to have been among the main reasons. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, there were severe political disturbances in Geneva felt all along the lake. When Dufour at last left Switzerland for America in 1796, Napoleon had not yet invaded the country, but he would do so two years later. Maimed as he was, it is not likely that Dufour would have been drafted as a soldier into the French armies, but the uncertainty of the times made the possibility of finding a new security in America attractive as it had never been before. Probably the idea of having the whole family emigrate to America had already been discussed, for Dufour was making inquiries about the possibility within a few months of his arrival in the United States.
In any event, John James Dufour at last set out, alone, on his journey to America in March 1796, traveling by way of Paris to the port of Le Havre. While in Paris he bought fifty-nine silver and gold watches. These were to be used as a form of negotiable wealth after he arrived in America. When he needed to pay for something there, he could sell a watch. I suppose he feared that he would suffer considerable loss if he exchanged his Swiss money in America; the watches would have been less vulnerable to the vagaries of exchange rates.
IN SEARCH OF WINE
Once Dufour had landed in Philadelphia, he lost no time in scouting out the land. His disappointment was immediate and disturbing, for wherever he went he found only evidence of failure or of struggling and unprosperous survival in all attempts to grow wine grapes. At first, of course, he toured the settled East. We do not have a detailed record of his movements, but we know that he went to Baltimore, where he visited the small vineyard maintained by Charles Carroll of Carollton; he went up the Susquehanna River to Middletown, Pennsylvania, where a German had kept a then-decayed vineyard that had, allegedly, produced some wine. He saw some vines growing successfully in gardens in New York City and in Philadelphia, but these did not offer much encouragement to a commercial grower. Outside Philadelphia he visited the vineyard at Spring Mill where Pierre Legaux carried on the most ambitious and most promising of all the early efforts to produce an American wine.
Legaux (1748–1827), originally from Metz, had bought the Spring Mill property in 1786 and began planting vines—all French—in 1787. He seems to have been a difficult and unlikable man, but he had a knack for publicity. His vineyard excited wide interest, and when, in 1793, he proposed to incorporate as the Pennsylvania Vine Company the idea was well received in Philadelphia. In that same year he announced that "the first vintage ever held in America" would be held at Spring Mill; it wasn't that, of course, but there was no way to contradict such statements. Legaux did not explain why his first vintage waited until six years after his vines had been planted, but one may guess: most of the original vines had probably died, and those that survived gave only a meager yield. Still, he did manage some sort of vintage (no figures for it are known), as few had managed to do in the many years since American settlement began.
When Dufour visited Spring Mill in 1796, he found a desolate scene. The shares of the Pennsylvania Vine Company had not been fully subscribed and would not be for another six years; Legaux was in desperate financial circumstances, and his vineyard was not prospering. Dufour found that only "about a dozen" of Legaux's vines appeared to be worth the trouble of cultivating—and this after some thousands of vines had been planted. Yet no one else was doing any better than, or even as well as, the struggling Legaux. When the time came for Dufour to buy vines, he would get them from Legaux, who maintained a nursery in connection with his vineyard.
Since the coastal settlements offered Dufour almost nothing hopeful, he would see what the frontier West might offer. At the end of September 1796, about six weeks after he had landed in Philadelphia, Dufour set out for Pittsburgh, three hundred miles away, probably on foot. From Pittsburgh he went down the Ohio River as far as Marietta, Ohio, but the winter was now closing in. Dufour retreated to Pittsburgh, where he dug in for the winter.
In the spring of 1797 Dufour was on the move again. He had heard, while in Philadelphia, that the Jesuits of the Kaskaskia mission in Illinois, founded in 1703 on the banks of the Mississippi River, had had a flourishing vineyard. Since the Jesuit order had been suppressed in 1762 in France's American possessions, including Kaskaskia, the chances that anything useful still survived after thirty-five years of neglect were obviously poor indeed. Yet Dufour decided to make the long and difficult trip despite the odds; since he had not yet found anything at all promising in this country, why not? When he reached Kaskaskia he did in fact find the Jesuits' asparagus bed there, but no vines: "A thick forest was covering that spot, with a luxuriant undergrowth." Dufour doubted that they had ever had any luck with vines in that place, despite the stories he had heard.
Dufour did not venture farther up the Mississippi than Saint Louis, where, after a stay of some weeks, he bought what seems to us a strange commodity for a traveler, nearly six and a half tons of lead pigs (the upper Mississippi region, in what is now Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, has abundant lead). These he would sell on his return journey. The lead was not conveniently portable, as his supply of Parisian watches was; to move it he had to hire a barge and six oarsmen, who engaged to transport the pigs as far as Cincinnati. It seems to have been a successful venture; the last of the lead was sold in Lexington early in 1799 after much labor and expense in moving it up river and over land.
THE KENTUCKY VINEYARD SOCIETY
Before the last lead had been sold, however, Dufour had taken a new direction. In October 1797, he reached Cincinnati, then a frontier town in the Northwest Territory. There he sold a quantity of his lead, put the rest in storage, and headed south for the boomtown of Lexington, Kentucky, across the river and eighty miles south of Cincinnati. Kentucky had been made a state in 1792—the first of the trans-Alleghany states—and Lexington was its most thriving town. Dufour spent some days in and around Lexington and liked what he saw of the men and the countryside there. By this point he had decided to quit the fruitless search for a successful viticulture; it was now time to begin for himself. He had Pierre Legaux's Pennsylvania Vine Society as a model for his scheme, which he no doubt discussed with the leading citizens of Lexington during his stay in the town. By January of 1798 he had sufficiently matured a plan to offer it to the public.
The January 17, 1798, issue of the Kentucky Gazette, the weekly published in Lexington, contained a letter from Dufour addressed "To the Citizens of Kentucky" and proposing the formation of a Kentucky Vineyard Society to carry out grape growing and wine making in Kentucky: "Now, ye citizens of Kentucky," he said, "is the time to begin to plant the vine." Dufour explained that he was an expert in the matter, or, as he put it, "my predominant inclination since my infancy is the culture of the grape vine." The company was to issue two hundred shares at fifty dollars each; with the money thus raised it would buy land—Dufour had already seen that "convenient situations" abounded in Kentucky. The company would need to buy horses, tools, and ten negroes to work the land. Dufour himself would travel to Europe to buy about forty thousand vines with which to start the enterprise. He promised that an acre of Kentucky vineyard would produce at least five hundred gallons of wine, and, at a dollar a gallon, the costs of establishing even a small vineyard of six acres would be quickly paid off; after that, it would be all profit.
In August 1798 he returned to Lexington and began the work of the company in earnest. The first thing to be done was to obtain land for the vineyard. Dufour found what he wanted on the banks of the great bend of the Kentucky River some miles south of Lexington, where he arranged for the purchase of 630 acres. By November of 1798, preparation of the land began.
Dufour's contract with the Kentucky Vineyard Society called for him to supply vines of all kinds, "indigenous as exotic," but the "greater part ... brought from Europe"; the expectation was that he would travel to Europe to secure these, and he was given two years in which to make the trip. Accordingly, he set out at the beginning of 1799 on a winter journey overland for the East; characteristically, he detoured to inspect Thomas Jefferson's vineyard at Monticello—he found that it had been abandoned, like most of the other projects he had gone to see in America. At some point in the course of this journey to the eastern ports, Dufour decided not to go to Europe after all but to buy his stock of vines from sources in this country. The voyage to Europe was too dangerous; it would take too much time; and the vines would be at risk over such a long journey. He would remain in the United States and get his vines here. He thus failed to live up to the terms of his engagement with the Vineyard Society; but as it happened, this failure is ultimately what saved Dufour's whole enterprise.
He bought a few vines in Baltimore from a German nurseryman, went on to New York, where he bought a few more vines, and then went to Pierre Legaux at Spring Mill, Pennsylvania, who sold him ten thousand cuttings of thirty-five different varieties. That, at any rate, is what Legaux must have told Dufour, though it is highly unlikely that all the varieties were as named, or that the number of varieties was exact. We know for certain that at least two of the vines Dufour bought from Legaux were native hybrids, though no one knew it at the time.
But the important thing at this point is that Dufour and the Kentucky Vineyard Society seemed to be set on precisely the same path toward certain failure that all earlier ventures had taken. The idea was still to plant vinifera, or vines "brought from Europe," even if one did not actually get them in Europe. Dufour had now spent more than two years traveling the length and breadth of this country without finding a single successful planting of European vines; he had, on the contrary, found overwhelming evidence that all vinifera plantings had failed. So why would he now plant vinifera? Had he learned anything from all his observations? The answer was, at this point, No. So far as Dufour—and everyone else—was concerned, there really was no alternative. Dufour's contract stipulated that he was to plant "all kinds of grapes," but effectively only one kind was in question. The native hybrids were not recognized for what they were, so the only thing to do was to plant vinifera in new regions and hope, against all hope, for the best. (Continues...)
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