Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Presidents and the Grape

Quite early in American history, attempts were made to grow vitis vinifera, a family of common European grapevines, in the thirteen colonies, starting with Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, with his many scientific interests including botany and agriculture, tried to get the vine to grow.

Importing wine from Europe was costly. Americans had already begun to brew their own beer, distill various liquors, and make a form of apple wine. But grape wine still eluded them.

George Washington apparently did not devote much effort to establishing wine production in America, content with imported wine and domestic beer. He did distill his own liquor. Historian Leon D. Adams write:

Virginia, as we have seen, was the first of the colonies to cultivate grapes for wine. The attempts to grow Vinifera, which began in 1619 under Lord Delaware, continued in Virginia for almost two centuries. Some of the vineyards succeeded in producing quantities of wine before plant diseases and insect pests killed the European vines. About 1716, historian Robert Beverley won a wager of seven hundred guineas from his neighbors by producing seven hundred gallons in a single vintage from his three-acre vineyard at Beverley Park in King and Queen County. But Beverley apparently made the wine from native wild grapes, which he cultivated together with his few French vines. The only Virginia wines of any note in the eighteenth century were the red and white Rapidan, made by a colony of Germans who settled on the Rapidan River in Spotsylvania County after 1770. George Washington planted a garden vineyard at Mount Vernon, but there is no record of his having made any wine, although he made cider and distilled considerable quantities of applejack. In 1773, Dr. Filippo Mazzei of Tuscany brought Italian winegrowers with ten thousand European vine cuttings in a chartered ship to establish winegrowing in Virginia. Most of Mazzei’s cuttings were planted at Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson, in what is now Albemarle County. For thirty years Jefferson continued trying to grow Vinifera, even importing some of his vines directly from Chateau d’Yquem, and he is said once to have even imported some French soil. An advocate of wine as a temperate beverage, he hoped to establish grape growing as an American industry, and while minister to France from 1785 to 1789, he made his own scientific studies of viticulture and winemaking. Jefferson finally admitted his failure with Vinifera when he recommended in 1809 that native vines, such as the Alexander, be planted instead.

Eventually, successful winemaking would succeed with other types of grapes in the thirteen colonies. The vitis vinifera would find its American home in California.

In due course, vitis vinifera would form hybrids with some of the native North American breeds, and these hearty plants were able to survive outside of California. Later vintners would also graft vitis vinifera onto the roots of native breeds. In the end, forms of vitis vinifera would grow in places like Michigan and New York.