06. November 2005 · Comments Off on That Old Wino: Jefferson · Categories: Eat, Drink and be Merry, History, Site News, That's Entertainment!

Please note that this post ushers in a new category: Eat, Drink and be Merry: Foods, Beverages and the Joy of Breaking Bread. I think this is in order; we’ve done many posts on the subject to date. And, while it may just be the season, we seem to be doing more all the time.

I have just watched (with several interruptions) The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine, on my local PBS station. To any lover of wine, or of history (and most know I am both), this should be considered a must see.

It is almost cliche that, here in California, wine is central to our culture. But, as I was reminded of with this comment from my dear friend, Jude, the same is true, to one degree or another, of many other regions of America. Indeed, wine grapes are grown in every state of the Union, save for Alaska and Wyoming.

But it wasn’t always that way. Grapes are not native to North America. Historians believe that what Leif Eriksson actually saw, when making landfall in Newfoundland, were cranberries – not grapes. And the early colonists found their attempts to introduce grapes quite frustrating. While Jefferson was a great lover of wine, and became quite the connoisseur during his time in France, he was never successful in his attempts to grow grapes at Monticello. I have been aware of the basics of this for some time, but I found the detail and color offered by this program quite enriching.

Update: As my readers have pointed out, I was incorrect in my statement that grapes are not native to North America. However, early Americans – on the east coast at least – did have difficulties growing wine grapes (PDF – 55 pgs.):

British settlers first attempted to plant Vitis vinifera in the U.S. in 1619, but were faced with difficult conditions and low yields. The poor growing climate of the east coast even prevented accomplished European growers brought over by the colonists from establishing any sort of sustainable venture. It was not until 1818 in York, Pennsylvania, that Thomas Eichelberger was able to become the first commercially successful grower. Still, production was rather small and wine drinkers had to rely mainly on European imports.229 The first permanent and extensive wine production came later in the 1830s with the establishment of Nicholas Longworth near Cincinnati, Ohio.230

At the same time, unbeknownst to the isolated east coast, a separate wine industry began to take root in the west. Jesuits from Spain moved north from Mexico around 1700 and began setting up missions throughout California. Father Juniper Serra set up twenty-one such missions, all of which had vineyards. Wine served a sacramental purpose for the missionaries, but had little outside use at the time. Thus, when the missions began to diminish in importance later in the century, the vineyards also fell into disrepair without any interested parties to care for them.231

The California wine industry remained on the fringe until the influx of settlers from the Gold Rush arrived in the mid-1800s. Finding mainly missionary grapes, the settlers called for something better. In 1860, Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy helped create the Viticultural Commission to oversee the development of the wine industry in California. Haraszthy brought back many vines from his travels in Europe and distributed them throughout California. When phylloxera swept through the world in the late 1800s, it was discovered that indigenous vines from the eastern U.S. were not susceptible to the disease. This led producers around the world to begin grafting western and European vines onto the roots of the eastern vines in hopes of preventing future outbreaks. Slowly producers and consumers alike began pushing for higher standards of quality, which led to the creation of the Board of Viticultural Commissioners and the State Agricultural Experiment Station to control the artistic, scientfic, and business aspects of the industry.232

Disaster struck the U.S. wine industry when the 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919 instituting Prohibition. Many vineyards were either abandoned or forced to survive on government permits to produce small amounts of medicinal, sacramental, or cooking wine.233 Other vineyards were torn up and planted with inferior grapes that were used for unfermented juices, jams, and jellies. Some wine production did go underground, however. Such homemade wines were often heavier and were fortified to have higher alcohol contents. In fact, after Prohibition ended, two-thirds of wine produced was over 20 alcohol.234 When Prohibition came to an end in 1933, the industry was in shambles. An estimated 1000 commercial wineries had been reduced to 150, many of those only having survived as a result of the government permits.

Producers also refused to replace the inferior vines that they had planted during Prohibition, claiming that replanting was too expensive and that their products had been selling adequately before.235 In 1935, the Wine Institute was created to oversee, stabilize, and monitor the regrowth of the industry.236 The Wine Institute also served as a government lobby and a publicity board for the fragmented industry, although it failed in its campaign to make Americans realize that wine should be drunk with food and not merely for intoxicating purposes. In fact, consumer preference for a higher alcohol content remained through World War II, when 75% of wine made in the U.S. was fortified. It was also around the time of World War II that the wine industry finally started to rebound.237

The 1940s marked a period of consolidation as large distillers began to buy up vineyards. Four companies Schenley, Hiram Walker, Seagram, and National, owned almost half the industry at the time. Consolidation also allowed for vast improvements in consistency and quality. By the 1970s, the rise of wine had begun, as many discovered table wine as an alternative to fortified wines. Finally, the 1980s marked another resurgence where wine became viewed as part of a healthy, civilized lifestyle, rather than a source of inebriation.238.

229 Richard McGowan, Government Regulation of the Alcohol Industry 37 (1997).
230 Oxford Companion to Wine, supra note 10, at 726.
231 McGowan, supra note 229, at 37. California now accounts for 90% of U.S. wine production. Id at 99.
232 Id at 43-44.
233 Id at 49.
234 Paul Lukacs, American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine 100-02 (2000).
235 Id at 103-04.
236 McGowan, supra note 229, at 49.
237 Lukacs, supra note 234, at 103, 108.
238 Id at 110, 128, 188. Ironically, per capita wine consumption in the U.S. peaked at 2.43 gallons in 1985. The current level
is around 2.0 gallons. Id at 188.

Interestingly though, the area around Monticello is now a hub for winemaking.

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