Can wine become an American habit? (Fortune, 1934)
Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to a feature from 1934 on the U.S. wine industry (original headline: “The Wines of the U.S.”). Prohibition, which lasted for just under 14 years before it was repealed on December 5, 1933, decimated the U.S. commercial wine industry. After the repeal, American winemakers and merchants had to play a serious game of catch up, both in their quest to make decent wines and in converting U.S. drinkers.
Today, California is one of the finest wine regions in the world. And in 2010, the U.S. surpassed France and became the world’s largest wine consumer — by total volume, not per capita — a far cry from the situation in 1934. One additional note: The writing below is a product of its time. It does not reflect the cultural sensitivity that we at Fortune observe today.
Fine sleet beat a painful tattoo against the windows of the Manhattan apartment in which Mr. Paul Garrett sat nursing a fever and talking about utopia. A utopia of vineyards stretching southward to the Gulf and northward to the Lakes and across the debt-ridden farm belt down to where California pokes a long fingernail into the tropics. Outside, the holiday traffic rumbled through East Seventy-ninth Street, making jagged discords in the shrill music of the sleet upon the windowpanes; inside the only sounds were Mr. Garrett’s hoarse voice and the soft burr of a sliver of jewel scraping against the wax cylinder that was Mr. Carrett’s only audience.
There was good reason why Mr. Garrett could talk about a vineyardist’s utopia. Everybody called Mr. Garrett the Dean of American Wine Growers, although sometimes Mr. Garrett didn’t like to be reminded of that. If he had not so persistently kept his mind upon utopia, Mr. Garrett might perhaps have become bitter … The cylinder began to whir beneath the sharp sapphire and Mr. Garrett resumed his monologue into the mouthpiece.
“In France the average per-capita consumption of wine is thirty-seven gallons a year. The population of France is less than one-third that of the U.S. About 7,000,000 people are employed in France in the growing of wine grapes, wine making, and in the transport and sale of wine. If we apply these figures to this country we have 130,000,000 people each consuming thirty-seven gallons of wine a year, which makes 4,810,000,000 gallons of wine. At the same rate of man-hours per gallon the production and distribution of 4,810,000,000 gallons of wine would give employment to 21,000,000 people. The development of a wine industry in this country comparable to that in France would wipe out unemployment and provide a shortage of labor able to absorb further technological unemployment for a generation to come.”
Now Mr. Paul Garrett is no idle dreamer. It took a very practical man to promote the only American wine whose name almost everybody knew — Virginia Dare. Mr. Garrett had been in the wine business since 1876, when he was thirteen and began work in the North Carolina vineyards his father and uncle had bought at the close of the Civil War. While still in his teens he took over the management and conceived the idea of establishing a name for his wine and selling it in bottles, a procedure hitherto unheard of in the U.S. By prohibition time Virginia Dare was selling 1,000,000 cases a year and was by far the most popular bottled wine in the country … And so Mr. Garrett switched off his dictaphone and ran over in his mind some statistics he knew by heart.
In 1918 U.S. wine consumption was 51,000,000 gallons. During prohibition it trebled. Mr. Garrett was one of the few people who realized that amazing fact — that by 1928 the annual consumption of wine had become about 160,000,000 gallons a year. During those years liquor consumption increased only 50 percent — by gallons, 60,000,000. Yet the liquor business was organized and aggressive, and the wine industry had been disrupted.
The statistics told Mr. Garrett more. In 1918 some 3,000,000 gallons of wine were imported to fill the slippers of chorus girls and the gullets of the rich. Most of the 51,000,000 gallons produced domestically was sold in bulk and drunk by the foreign-born people of the cities. Of the 159,000,000 gallons consumed in 1928 only a few thousand were imported and only 5,000,000 produced legally and domestically for refreshment while communing with the Lord. That left 154,000,000 gallons which were made illegally in cellars and legally in homes. Since the foreign-born population has not increased since 1918, it seems logical to conclude that much of the 100,000,000-gallon increase in those years was due to new habits contracted by the rank and file of the population. In other words, prohibition has done something very startling to the taste of this nation.
If wine consumption trebled in a dry decade, suppose it trebled during the next wet decade? And again in the next two, which would take it until about 1960, or a generation, to approximate 4,810,000,000 gallons a year and produce an eight-billion-dollar industry and the utopia of Mr. Garrett. The only trouble with drawing such a conclusion is that it is contingent upon wine’s being plentiful and good and cheap, and that is why Mr. Garrett, knowing whereof he spoke, did not draw it. The rumble of the traffic and the patter of the sleet kept Mr. Garrett from going too utopian … The cylinder whirred again.
“Are these figures fantastic? Possibly. Then let us reduce them by two-thirds. Let us assume that consumption of wine in the U.S. could be brought to twelve gallons per capita per year — one bottle a week, with a few left over for Christmas and birthdays … Well, even that small ration would call for the production of 1,600,000,000 gallons a year (ten times more than we have ever produced to date) and the employment of — let me be very conservative and say 5,000,000 men and women.”
As Mr. Garrett becomes excited his accent returns to North Carolina, where he was raised. Mr. Garrett’s dictaphone was now getting the benefit of his broadest speech, for he was talking not to the machine but to the members of an industry that he knew from long association with it to be shortsighted and jealous and stubborn.
“There is no reason why our industry should be a small industry. It ought to be — it can be — bigger than the automobile industry, bigger than the steel industry, if wine makers will seize the opportunity that lies before them … The opportunity has never existed at any time in this or any other country. There is no likelihood that it will ever come again … Who knows that we are a nation of hard drinkers? We were a nation of hard drinkers, but maybe we are willing now to be sensible-reasonable. Who knows that if wine were properly presented to the American people they might not accept it for what it is — a wholesome, health-giving accompaniment of good food? … Millions of people are out of work and government agencies are trying to find work for them. Millions of acres of land, now unproductive or to be withdrawn from agriculture owing to overproduction in every other line, are eminently suitable for the growing of wine grapes. Federal and state governments should be willing to provide funds for getting this land under vines. No investment would be more self-liquidating provided the government, at the same time, would stimulate consumption by liberating the wine industry from the shackles of onerous regulation and restriction. To induce the government to do this will not be difficult if the case be intelligently presented.”
Mr. Garrett snapped off his machine, blew his nose, took some medicine. His speech, like all good speeches, did not tell all. He knew very well that his utopia was far distant. He knew very well that there was not enough wine in the U.S. to meet the present demand. For a people that will want 150,000,000 gallons of wine there are in storage 25,000,000 gallons. In 1933 California produced about 30,000,000, three times its prohibition average. The rest of the country probably produced two or three millions. Of this total of less than 60,000,000 gallons about one-half will be put on sale. The rest will be kept for aging and blending with the wines of future years.
For, unlike whiskey, even the worst wine cannot be produced overnight. It takes from three to five years for a grapevine to bear. What Mr. Garrett and every other wine man knows too well is that it will be five years before U.S. wineries will be able to distribute annually 150,000,000 gallons of wine, from good wine grapes, at least one year old. Meanwhile it will be neither plentiful nor cheap.
Nor will it be so very good.
Wine is a habit, an industry, and an art. The men who pick and trample barefoot the rare fine grapes beside the Gironde have their own carafes filled with a liquid poorer than the grand Medocs, and in Jerez de la Frontera, whose brave wine the linguistically lazy English made famous, the people drink manzanilla, which is the unfortified wine of the country and cheap. A tall sleek bottle of Liebfrauenstift would not make a Rhenish peasant so gemütlich as beer; and the gypsies that sing plaintively across the Danube on still nights have their jugs filled, but a real Tokay is rarer than a clean gypsy. Fine wine is tradition and pride and love; it is not drunk by the peasantry and it is not conceived by fourteen years of prohibition.
Wine men like Mr. Garrett and many a similar character before him have wanted to be artists. Few in this country have succeeded; few will succeed in the near future. Mr. Garrett and some of his contemporaries would like to be educators, to give the U.S. peasantry a good, cheap wine, and to teach them to like it. But to live they must be businessmen, and their living lies in that broad middle class of wine the production of which is everywhere an industry. U.S. wine is in the immediate future forced into that class, whether or not Mr. Garrett and his colleagues like it. For of the 1,500,000,000 gallons of wine consumed annually in France at least four-fifths is vin ordinaire, while of the 150,000,000 gallons consumed last year in the U.S. at least four-fifths was, in price, wine of the middle class. That is to say, most of the people who bought wine in a speakeasy or from an Italian delicatessen paid from $1 to $4 a bottle for it. Even if the more honest wine producers would like to sell their wine frankly as vin ordinaire — which it is — they could not do so because most state laws forbid the selling of wine in bulk. The wine people might get these laws changed in time to teach the country the habit of wine; just at the moment they are satisfied with their limited field of competition because it looks like a very profitable field.
Since repeal became imminent the U.S. has been flooded with wine propaganda. In every metropolitan newspaper, experts have conducted daily columns on the art of wine drinking. Makers of the variously shaped glasses from which one drinks hock and Sauternes and Burgundy have done a boom-time business. The Marquise de Polignac, whose husband makes French champagne, has been repeatedly interviewed. The propaganda has been paid for by the French wine interests and by California’s. (The French are now feeling pretty glum about their quota.) But however it started, it has made the drinking and serving of wine, for the moment, as much a fad as was the cross-word puzzle or mah jong. So U.S. wines have a market worth competing for, an opportunity which may not come again for many, many years.
They will compete with the cheaper wines of Europe and Asia and Africa and Australia, with wines that are frankly mediocre and with mediocre wines masquerading as something else. By now it is an open secret that many French and German blenders — as distinguished from the artists who make and bottle their own vintage wines — put labels on wines that have no right to them. There is more wine bearing the label Chablis than all Burgundy could produce and all the authentic Chambertin in the world comes from a twenty-eight-hectare (seventy-acre) vineyard that in an average year yields 42,000 liters, or less than 60,000 bottles, or just about one-fourth of the so-called Chambertin that will be sold in the U.S. this year. France imports more wine than she exports; it is against the law to mislabel wine, but only the growers are prohibited from buying wine anywhere. The blenders may buy wine from the great vineyards — and from Algeria — and nobody knows how much of either goes into a bottle labeled Pommard. German law demands only that a wine be 51 percent of what it is labeled, and Liebfraumilch is not a wine but a flavor. Mise en bouteille au château and Original-abfüllung are phrases of safety, but many a new chateau has been discovered in the Médoc since December 5. [Editor’s note: Prohibition was officially repealed on December 5, 1933.]
For the great mediocre wine market of 150,000,000-gallons-plus, U.S. wines will have the advantage of a tariff, at present $1.25 a gallon; the disadvantages of inexperience and some very bad habits that have brandy to make imitation ports and sherries, muscatels, etc. California has for twenty years made, and will this year make, 85 to 90 percent of U.S. wine.
The people out there were always starting for utopia on the wrong foot and getting tripped. There was, for instance, the astonishing Count Agoston Haraszthy, who founded the California wine industry and made such a good job of it that it has had a mighty hard time surviving his mistakes. The first California vineyards were planted by the Franciscan missions in the 1700s; the grapes were all of a Sardinian variety called Monica, which in its new setting was naturally known as the Mission. When Count Haraszthy got to California along about 1850 there was still nothing in the big wide state but a few Mission vineyards whose wines nobody much drank. Count Haraszthy changed all that.
In 1852 he imported some cuttings of the Alexandria Muscat, which grape was the backbone of California’s raisin industry when the wine industry went to pieces. Later he imported a lot of cuttings from his native Hungary, among them the one which came to be called the Zinfandel and was the base of most of the pre-prohibition wine that Italo-Americans loved and of the prohibition wine we used to buy for a dollar a bottle and called Château Grosso or Château Bono and which wasn’t so bad at that. Within a few years of his arrival in California Count Haraszthy had a vineyard of some 85,000 vines in the Sonoma Valley and a nursery of 460,000 rooted cuttings. He also had three sons, Gaza, Attila, and Arpad.
By 1860 Count — or Colonel, as he preferred to be called in gun-toting California — Haraszthy had started a great wine boom. Next year the state established a viticultural commission, of which there were three commissioners, Colonel Haraszthy and two figureheads. The Colonel immediately set out for Europe, taking Attila, and when he returned he had with him 200,000 vines and cuttings. These he planted throughout the state. By 1877 California was producing 4,000,000 gallons of wine a year.
Now, all of the vines Colonel Haraszthy introduced in California — and there are few varieties there he didn’t introduce — were of European varieties. The first results were bad: the wine was not fit to drink. The second results were worse: instead of dumping their bad wines the Californians began shipping them to France, where they were blended with anaemic French wines and shipped back to the U.S. under fine old names. Other California wine growers saved themselves that trouble by just importing labels and cases and straw. That stigma of European imitation California still suffers from today.
The 1880s were an era of reform. The state established a board of viticulture, passed a pure-wine law. California wine began to take on an identity of its own. Soon the best vineyards of the coast counties, particularly Sonoma, Napa, and Alameda, had adopted the custom of estate-bottling and California seemed in a fair way to amount to something in the art of wine making. By 1895 the state was making 15,000,000 gallons a year and sending it to the eastern U.S., to Mexico, Central America, Hawaii, and the Orient.
By 1900 California wines had won a few blue ribbons in international expositions. That year California made a great bid for honors in the Paris Exposition. Dr. Harvey W. Wiley took personal charge of the American entries. On the morning of the tasting somebody introduced a resolution barring wines “with labels affixed bearing a false indication of origin.” All the California wines had to be withdrawn. For, since Colonel Haraszthy had planted European grapes in California, California’s wines were called by European names: Chablis and red Burgundy and Médoc and even Château Yquem; sherry, Tokay, Riesling, and Chianti. Dr. Wiley wrote a very clever piece defending the practice, but the wines lost a lot of ribbons nevertheless.
Still, the wine growers did not change their habits. They had an increasing market for their product in the U.S. and abroad and a lot of their wine still went to France for blending. In the next decade production rose to 50,000,000 gallons a year, at which figure it stayed until prohibition. Some of the wine was almost fine, bore the good names of Krug, A. Finke’s Widow, Hoelscher, and others; most of it was vin ordinaire and was sold in bulk and blended by merchants in the cities. All the same, the industry was getting along and if it hadn’t been for the Eighteenth Amendment we might have become a wine-drinking country before this.
Prohibition killed the wine industry: it made the grape industry temporarily thrive. For since wine making in the home was still legal, amateur wine makers bought quantities of California grapes and fermented their own wine. As all wine men know, the best-looking grapes do not make the best wine. With prohibition, the good-looking, indifferent grapes, which had formerly sold for $12 to $18 a ton, jumped to $120; the Pinots and the Rieslings couldn’t be sold at all. Vineyardists discovered that the East offered a market for grapes — not fine wine grapes, but the pretty, big, round things that look as if they should yield good wine. So they grafted Muscats and Tokays and Missions to their Pedro Jimenes and Riesling roots and the grape business flourished for a while. In 1921 wine grapes (so-called) sold in the New York market for more than $200 a ton. Between 1920 and 1925 California doubled her grape acreage. Private wine production–from California grapes only–went to 90,000,000 gallons in 1922, 137,000,000 in 1925, 154,000,000 in 1925. But overproduction had broken the market.
In 1929 private wine production was 118,000,000 gallons, a 25 percent drop from 1928. Grapes glutted the eastern market and the Californians, who had sacrificed their good vines to the grapes the market demanded, were frantic. They looked around for some means of reviving their ill industry.
Now all the wine that was made in homes was not made by housewives. There were several tricks to the business. There was the grape-juice trick. The company sold you a barrel of grape juice, then a man from the company came around and put a funny looking tube in it and it bubbled and stank and after a while he came back and bottled the stuff and put labels on it and when you drank it it was wine. That worked fine for a few years after prohibition but it was limited to a few small companies. Next came the concentrate trick, which was an improvement. The concentrate was grape juice which had been reduced to syrup by the removal of the excess water. It was easy to ship and less likely to spoil. Then for a while there was the wine brick, which was pressed grapes that would ferment and make wine if you added water to it. By the time of the wine brick these tricks had spread to the racketeers, but long before that California had seen the rich opportunity they offered and had thought up a trick of its own.
In 1929 was formed Fruit Industries, Inc. (later Ltd.), a merger of eight leading wine interests in the West. Chief unit was the Italian Vineyard Co., largest (5,000 acres) vineyard in the world. It was founded by an Italian immigrant named Secunda Guasti and before prohibition did a thriving business in the fortified sweet wines of the port, sherry, muscatel types. After Secunda Guasti died in 1927 the business was run by his regal widow and her son, Secunda II. Secundo Guasti II became President of Fruit Industries, Ltd. Board Chairman was Paul Garrett, who had bought a lot of California vineyards as demand for his Virginia Dare outstripped the capacity of his North Carolina and New York grapes. The largest other unit was the California Wine Association, an organization that before prohibition operated fifty wineries throughout the state and crushed 200,000 tons of grapes annually, onetime operator of the famed Italian Swiss Colony in Sonoma County, whence comes the best dry wine in California. There were several smaller units. Altogether Fruit Industries represented 80 percent of the California wine business.
Fruit Industries people had been in Washington and talked to Mrs. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who was the Assistant Attorney General in charge of prohibition enforcement and a mighty fine enforcer too. Mrs. Willebrandt gave their trick her legal blessing and became their counsel.
Fruit Industries was set up under the control of the Grape Control Board, a national cooperative to which the Federal Farm Board was empowered to lend money. The Farm Board lent Fruit Industries money — $3,500,000. Whereupon Fruit Industries put on the market a thing called Vine-Glo. Vine-Glo was a concentrate. Prohibition Director Amos W. W. Woodcock emphasized that Vine-Glo was legal if there was no “intent” to advertise or sell the concentrate as something that would be potentially illegal. Everything went along nicely until Federal Judge Otis in 1931 ruled that concentrate companies incriminated themselves when their agents “serviced” and bottled the concentrates as wines. The case in question was not against Fruit Industries, but Vine-Glo disappeared. The grape growers raised a monstrous cry against the smart Mme Willebrandt and even went to the extent of blaming California’s own Herbert Hoover, who had been Secretary of Commerce when the scheme was first hatched.
With its one big market gone, with thousands of gallons of Vine-Glo on its hands, Fruit Industries found itself split between the big units, which managed it, and the small ones, which were becoming mightily mistrustful of that management. The small growers began to drop out. And finally, last August, with repeal in sight, Paul Garrett’s company picked up its skirts and returned to the East.
When repeal appeared in the offing California began to make real wine again. And Fruit Industries disposed of all its surplus Vine-Glo by making it into brandy. Mr. Garret realized that his trade name, perhaps the most valuable in the industry, was the property of the combine. Mr. Garrett decided he wanted to go back on his own, was soon made aware of the fact that in entering Fruit Industries he had pooled his properties with the rest and that the only way he could get out was to buy himself out, the price being his wine stocks in California. He forfeited stocks worth millions of dollars; he has the trade name Virginia Dare, but not Virginia Dare Wine Tonic as long as there is any of the tonic left.
Fruit Industries, which at the time of its founding represented 80 percent of the California wine industry, now represents about 30 percent. In it are only the Guastis, the California Wine Association, and two or three small wineries. The Guasti company (which since the death of Secundo II last summer has been headed by James A. Barlotti) has a capacity of some 4,000,000 gallons of wine a year.
Fruit Industries is the only large company in the business and people who ought to know say that it may soon break up. The wine industry, unlike the whiskey industry (FORTUNE, November, 1933), has not been able to organize itself into a big business. Before prohibition there were 750 wineries in California; now there are 240. Here are a few of the companies:
Colonial Grape Products Co., itself a merger (in 1920) of the Colonial Vineyards Co. and the Federspiel Wine Co. It can produce 2,500,000 gallons of wine a year. Colonial’s vineyards are in Napa and Sonoma counties, the heart of the dry-wine district, but Colonial’s officials have no illusions about the quality of even the best California wines, would much rather sell in bulk than bottle their wine and put a fancy label upon it … Padre Vineyard Co. (Vai Brothers): capacity, 2,500,000 gallons a year; distinction: third largest winery in California … California Mission Vintage Co., which has no vineyard, nevertheless rates as one of the state’s important wineries. It was bought in 1914 by one G. Guerrieri, who went to California to join the Italian Swiss Colony, was later employed by the elder Guasti. Proudest boast of the wine maker Guerrieri is that he used to make the private wine stock for Secundo Guasti Sr … Beaulieu Vineyard Co., which, unlike most California wineries, is French-descended. Georges de Latour founded it in 1899, bought 500 acres in Napa Valley. Beaulieu claims to have been the largest purveyor of sacramental wines throughout prohibition. M. de Latour still goes to France to get cuttings of vines. Stocks on hand this year: 1,600,000 gallons … Italian Swiss Colony, formed in 1881 as a cooperative to aid needy immigrants, now a corporation headed by the Rossi brothers, sons of one of its founders. Capacity: 4,000,000 gallons.
They are the companies, with many smaller ones, that will produce the wine that California will furnish to the U.S. this year. That will be some 90 percent of the total. It will be wine of the middle class because (a) California cannot yet produce fine wine (b), state laws will not permit the selling of wine to the public in bulk, and (c) mediocre wine is what the public wants. California wine authorities seem to agree that what the U.S. most wants just now are strong, fortified wines of the sherry, port, muscatel types. They are no more like the real sherries and ports than crème de menthe is like a mint julep. Nor are the table wines like the wines they pretend to imitate. Most California Riesling, best of the white wines, is watery and just something to drink with your fish. Sauternes, so-called, are sweet enough to wash down an éclair. The red wines, the clarets and the Burgundies and the Chiantis, have neither the authentic flavors of the originals nor the strong, honest quality of the wines we bought last year. Most California wine, in short, is belly wash.
But the imported wines, judging by the quality of what has been sold so far, will have their faults. It takes a good wine to stand a sea trip and the wines that France and Germany have sent to the U.S. since December 5 have had very weak stomachs. California wine can undersell even the most indifferent French and German wines because of its tariff advantage. At its present price of $1.25 a bottle it is selling at 50 percent less than the cheapest Médoc and is just about as good.
Nobody can say accurately what it costs to produce a gallon of American wine, but a few quotations from a Macy advertisement of 1902 will give some hint. Cheapest wine was a claret, retailing at twenty-three cents a quart, sixty-nine cents a gallon. Most expensive was a “Red Star Zinfandel,” thirty-three cents a bottle, $1.19 a gallon. Port and sherry sold for eighty-four cents a gallon. These are about one-fifth the present prices for the same wines. If production costs have doubled it is mighty, mighty strange.
And so, no matter how cheaply foreign wine is dumped in this country, California should be able to undersell it. And by underselling it, to get a market for its product during the next five years when demand will far outweigh supply. Perhaps before five years are up the gentlemen from California will have set a more realistic value upon their product. But California has had three or four bad years and nobody should begrudge it its killing. It is the privilege of industry to make a killing once in a while.
If California had been any state but California it might have produced something fine in wines. But California has always done things on a grand scale; it would rather produce the most than the best. The psychology of California, from its Haraszthy on down, has not been the psychology of fine wine makers. For the possibilities of wine as an art, or as a habit, in the U.S. we must go eastward.
Foxes and Lice
Mr. Garrett’s dictaphone was not geared to a dream; Mr. Garrett took his text from 300 years of failure. When English colonists went bushwhacking in America they found that nothing grew so abundantly as the wild grape. “Oh, ho,” thought they. “If the wild one grows so well, what will the tame one do?” The tame one got sick. The wild ones, after centuries, were immune to a certain little pest called Phylloxera vitifoliae, which was neither more nor less than a grape louse. The tame ones got bitten and died. And so the first century of grape culture in America was a series of attempts to transplant the European varieties, all ending in failure, and a persistent neglect of the native grapes, which, being foxy in taste, were considered fit food for the foxes (see Æsop).
Along about the end of the 1700s a man from Switzerland named John Dufour organized the Kentucky Vineyard Society and tried to grow European grapes in Kentucky. He failed, too, but one grape survived the louse, a bastard grape called the Cape. It was because Mr. Dufour didn’t know the Cape was an American bastard that he took so much trouble with it. The chief and very important effect of his experiment was to suggest to the American mind that native grapes might be just a little bit better for wine making than the European varieties.
Mr. Nicholas Longworth took the suggestion — not the late Speaker of the House, but his grandfather, who was even more famed in his day. He got rich at the Cincinnati bar and, by speculating in real estate, paid more real-estate taxes than anybody in the U.S., excepting William Backhouse Astor. The wine business was a hobby with Mr. Longworth, but one he rode steadily from 1825 until his death in 1863. He began cultivating the native Catawba in Ohio, near the confluence of the Little Miami and Ohio rivers. He was able to produce a champagne that could hold its head up in Rheims. He had standing an offer of $500 for a better native grape than the Catawba and nobody ever took it. Along about 1855 he had nearly 300 vineyardists working for him on 1,200 acres of vineyards and was producing 100,000 bottles of his sparkling Catawba a year. It sold for $12 a case. He died two years after the Civil War began, was mourned as “the founder of grape husbandry.” His estate was split among several heirs and sparkling Catawba disappeared. Last month the John C. Meier Grape Juice Co. was thinking about reviving it.
In 1852 one E. W. Bull produced the Concord, which was the most prolific and hardiest of all American grapes. Connoisseurs complain that wine made from Concords is unfit to drink. There is room for argument on that point, and at least the Concord made the grape-juice industry. Afterward came various other native varieties, the Delaware, and the Diamond. In the 1850s, too, the New York Finger Lakes region began to develop into the only U.S. wine district that can begin to compete with California in quantity. In quality it is far ahead.
The Finger Lakes district is thirty miles long, five miles wide. Its grape, like Longworth’s, was the Catawba. But the farmers of the region had been raising grapes for two decades before they thought of using them for wine. It took a German to tell them why they had the best wine-producing region in the U.S.
The German was named John F. Weber and he was working for the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office, preparing data on grape culture. The Finger Lakes district struck him as almost a duplication of the rolling, sometimes precipitous, hills of the Rhine and the Marne. Intrigued, he studied the climate, analyzed samples of the soil, investigated drainage, found the resemblance to the French champagne region borne out in all. So Mr. Weber wrote up his report and resigned.
Then he got in touch with a farmer of the region, one Charles D. Champlin. Mr. Champlin was impressed, formed a company, made Mr. Weber his wine maker. That was the Pleasant Valley Wine Co. By 1865 it was making 20,000 gallons of wine a year, most of it still, some of it sparkling. The sparkling wine was not very good, so Wine Maker Weber imported an expert named Joseph Masson. Two years later Pleasant Valley Champagne won a gold medal in the Paris Exposition, By 1870 the company was making 150,000 bottles of champagne a year, had acquired another Masson brother, Jules, who had once worked for Mr. Longworth . And it had a new champagne, Great Western. Great Western won a gold medal in Vienna in 1873 and became the most famous pre-prohibition champagne in the U.S.
Prohibition did not treat all grape regions alike. California prospered for a while, but New York had a hard time. That was because the best of the New Yorkers’ business (90 percent of the sparkling wines of the U.S.) was in champagne and champagne, being a carefully matured and tended wine, cannot be made by anybody who buys the grapes.
There was another difficulty. The government’s list of sacramental wines did not include champagne. “Why not?” asked the champagne makers. The U.S. Government shrugged. “It isn’t wine.” So the gentlemen of the Urbana Wine Co. (founded in 1865) filed suit against the government to prove that champagne was wine.
In 1927 the suit was called. The government, knowing it was beaten, offered the gentlemen of Urbana a compromise in the form of a special dispensation to sell champagne to the servants of the Lord. The Urbana gentlemen were delighted. For two years they had a rich monopoly. Then Pleasant Valley and other vintners made such a fuss that the government put all champagne on the sacramental wine list.
With repeal, Pleasant Valley, Urbana, and other New York wineries had about 2,000,000 gallons of still wine in storage and about 500,000 quarts of champagne, bottled. But much of it could not be sold because it was not finished: after fermentation, champagne bottles must be twisted, disgorged, recorked, and there was not enough skilled labor to do the work.
But for all the people who have taken up the fad of wine drinking New York offers the hope of a decent wine to drink. Champagne making requires less of a grower’s than a blender’s skill, and the vintners of the Finger Lakes district have proved that they can practice it.
If California furnishes the industry of wine, and New York the art, what about Mr. Garrett’s fine dream of wine as a national habit? That utopia is far distant, but if it is to be found at all it will probably be found in those other states where wine making is practiced on a small scale, for home consumption. Along the Atlantic coastline grow the native grapes, the Delaware and the Concord and the Muscadine, the strong foxy grapes at which European palates twitch. Mr. Garrett himself had a vineyard at Charlottesville, Virginia, and a Mr. Bernard P. Chamberlain has found the making of wine there so interesting that he has written a book about it. In the Lake Erie district there are three or four small companies that have survived prohibition and will again produce wine. In St. Louis the American Wine Co. made Cook’s Imperial champagne in 1859, is now making it again. At Highland, New York, on the Hudson, there is the Hudson Valley Wine Co. run by the family Bolognesi, which makes good dry red and white wines from native varieties of grapes. Grapes will grow anywhere in the U.S.; it is the best grape-growing country in the world.
And American grapes are the strongest, the only ones that resist the grape louse. France imported some American vines back in the 1860s and they gave Phylloxera to all the French grapes, so the French had to import more U.S. Phylloxera-resistant root stocks and graft their own vines upon them. That is why gouty old connoisseurs insist that French wine has never been any good since 1876.
If the U.S. is to become a wine-drinking country it must become a wine-producing country on a large scale. Otherwise the wine would cost too much. And to become a wine-producing country it must first become a wine-drinking country on a small scale. Which looks like a paradox but isn’t. For the germ has been distributed by the propagandists and the country has caught it. The country must now learn to discriminate. Some sections of the U.S. can produce wines with a distinctive American taste; they are pretty good now and they can be better.
It is probably just an affectation to say that good wine must taste like the wine of the Médoc and Burgundy and the Rhine. They are the best wines because of the care and pride of their producers and if they are not produced with care and pride they can be just as bad as anything out of California. If somebody over here would spend a lifetime producing the finest wine he could, he might have something that could hold its head up in the proud company of a Chateau Lafite or a Romanée-Conti.