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Stars of Early American Winemaking: Where Are They Now?

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Norton vines on the hang in Missouri. [Source: wine industry]
Norton vines on the hang in Missouri. [Source: wine industry]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

The story of American winegrowing began just one century after Columbus, when French Huguenot settlers arrived in present day Florida. As myth would have it, when Captain John Hawkins arrived in Florida in 1565 — just a year after the settlers — he found them near starvation, unable to grow food, but relatively successful cultivating wine from abundant wild grapes.

This abundance of vine growth is noted by settlers and early pioneers as a symbol of the promise of America as a sort of Eden, where wine and other products would bring those who settled there everlasting prosperity.

But as the story unfolds, America's wild vine, like Eden's forbidden fruit, wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The native varieties — which hugged trees and grew rampant along the coastline, threatening the sea like a verdant tsunami — would prove largely unsuitable for quality wine.

But America's early settlers persisted.

Scuppernong — a grape of the muscadine family (or Vitis rotundifolia) native to the Southern United States and likely responsible for the wine the Huguenots first cultivated—eventually gained notoriety and favor in the states.

But America's fighting chance at serious viticulture came courtesy of its native American hybrids. Most were crossbreeds of failed vinifera plantings and native labrusca vines. The first, Alexander, which was discovered in 1740 just outside Philadelphia, was — as almost all the early American hybrids were — a chance breeding. These early discoveries predated any knowledge of plant hybridization and many of the men and women to stumble across these floral love children were convinced they'd simply found a vinifera variety that had managed to adapt.

Catawba--another accidental hybrid which was originally thought to be Hungarian Tokay--went on to become one of the most important western varieties and the base for some of America's most renowned early wines, not least among them: Nicholas Longworth's Ohio sparkling wines.

Stories of America's accidental hybrids and the rare success of native grapes like Scuppernong built the foundation of modern American winemaking before anyone knew about plant breeding or grafting. Most of them faded into obscurity with Prohibition, some resurfaced after as unlikely foundations for modern winemaking out West, and others continue to be relevant in America's lesser-known winegrowing regions. Below is an abbreviated field guide to some of America's most important early grapes and a look at where they are now.

The Natives

Species: Muscadine family, native to Southern U.S.
First cultivated: 1560s, Florida
Who: French Huguenot settlers
Scuppernong first gained widespread success about 150 years after the Huguenots experimented with it when, in the 1820s, Sidney Weller cultivated the grape in his 12-acre site in Halifax Country, North Carolina and sold it in 5 gallon jugs under the name "champagne" and "hock" for around $5 each. His success set off a Scuppernong boom in North Carolina that lasted through the Civil War and eventually helped dub the state the capital of Eastern winemaking.

But it wasn't until the late 19th century, when Paul Garrett introduced his famous "Virginia Dare" that the grape would reach the height of its popularity. Its reign lasted through Prohibition, but declined in popularity when, after repeal, there weren't enough Scuppernong plantings to reclaim the signature flavor of the wine.

Though several wineries, notably Duplin Winery in North Carolina, make sweet Scuppernong, the grape's heyday is far from a revival. Today the greatest reminder of the grape—which was named the official state fruit of North Carolina in 2001—is the 400-year-old mother vine that's still rooted on Roanoke Island.

Species: vitis labrusca
First cultivated: 1849 in Concord, Massachussetts
Who: Ephraim Bull
Though it would never gain widespread success as a wine grape, Ephraim Bull was convinced that he had stumbled upon the grape that would finally put New England on the winemaking map. It is, as advertised, a hardy grape that's capable of thriving in concrete, but it makes wines that require a high sugar content to counteract its harsh tannin and foxy aroma.

The grape only found commercial success after a New Jersey dentist named Thomas Welch created unfermented, pasteurized grape juice. The first Welch's Concord grape juice was released in 1869, but it would take decades before it was met with any enthusiasm. Eventually, Charles Welch's son took over and with the help of America's growing Prohibitionist movement, brought the brand to fruition. By 1910 Welch's was pressing more than a million gallons per year.

Concord is still favored among home winemakers in the Northeast, but its only notable (sort of) alcoholic success is as the base of Manischewitz.

The Hybrids

Species: hybrid of labrusca and vinifera
First cultivated: 1740
Who: James Alexander, and later Colonel Benjamin Tasker Jr.
Alexander, America's first hybrid grape, was discovered in 1740 by Thomas Penn's (the son of William Penn) gardener, James Alexander, just outside Philadelphia. The grape originated in the same garden where his father's gardener had experimented with vinifera some 60 years before. The hybrid was likely a cross between those experimental vines and the labrusca varieties that grew wild in the garden.

The grape was first bottled by Colonel Benajmin Tasker Jr. in 1756, and would go on to become the grape from which the first commercial wines in America were made--at John James Dufour's First Vineyard, on the banks of the Kentucky River--in 1798.

The grape enjoyed moderate success throughout the 1800s, but disappeared after Prohibition and has been extinct ever since.

Species: hybrid of vitis aestivalis and vinifera
First cultivated: 1850s
Who: D.N. Norton
D.N. Norton's Virginia Seedling quickly gained a positive reputation in Charlottesville, where it was responsible for post-Civil War boom that eventually helped deem the state the capital of Eastern winemaking.

The grape went on to find its spiritual home in Missouri where, in the 1860s, after many disappointing experiments with growing Catawba and Concord, German immigrant winemakers gained attention for their pink Norton wines.

Though the grape found widespread success before Prohibition, its resistance to rooting from cuttings made it a difficult variety to replant on a large commercial scale after repeal. Thus, it faded into obscurity.

Over the past few decades, however, the grape has seen a sort of renaissance thanks to producers like Horton Vineyards in Virginia and variety of other wineries in Missouri—notably Stone Hill and Hermannof—taking great care to restore the grape to its former glory.

Species: hybrid of vitis labrusca and vinifera
First cultivated: 1820s
Who: John Adlum
As the story goes, Catawba was first discovered by John Adlum in the Maryland garden of a Mrs. Scholl, He eventually planted the grape in his Georgetown vineyards, but gained notoriety not for his wines, but through his expert salesmanship of the grape.

Catawba went on to become the staple of early winemaking in both the Finger Lakes and Ohio, where Nicholas Longworth produced the country's most popular wine: a sparkling Catawba.

The winter-hardy grape is still cultivated throughout Ohio, Missouri, Kansas and the Finger Lakes where it used to make mostly off-dry wines.

Species: hybrid of vitis labrusca and vinifera
First cultivated: 1816
Who: William Prince
This chance hybrid was embraced by viticulturalist William Prince and was pimped as an earlier ripening alternative to Catawba.

The grape eventually became a popular variety in New York and Pennsylvania—where plantings can still be found—but eventually made its way West to become a major player in the production of sweet wine during Washington State's formative post-Prohibition years.

Aside from the small plantings in the Eastern U.S., Isabella has traded its American roots for Eastern European stardom. The grape has become a big producer in the former Soviet countries and has also found a moderate fame in both the South Pacific and parts of South America.

Further reading:
· The Wild Vine by Todd Kilman
· A History of Wine In America, Volume 1 by Thomas Pinney
· American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine by Paul Lukacs

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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