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"In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it." 

Napoleon Bonaparte, famous Frenchman


Old Wineries and America

Winery Insight Featured Article - June 2003 by Timothy O. Rice


America is a young country, and most of her wineries are the same.


When I was just attaining adulthood and beginning to taste wine, there was a clear and well-established belief that European wines were better than American wines.  French wine was serious; German wine was right up there; Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese wines not quite that high; American wines somewhere to the rear.  So I heard, and so I thought.  The hierarchy might even have had some truth to it at the time.


One of the reasons given was always the great age of the European wine industry, the wisdom passed on through generations of winemakers.  There was an esoteric knowledge of the grape, the land, the terroir, that Americans simply didn’t have, it seemed.  How could America ever compete when Europe had a head start of a few centuries?


Times changed, of course.  America now shows well in comparison to any wine country in the world, and Chile, Australia, and New Zealand have charged into the fray.  More than that, I’ve learned a bit over the last twenty years or so, and perhaps the situation I thought was so clear then was never that simple.

When I began to visit wineries, one of the first was Brotherhood in upstate New York, along the Hudson River.  A great many people did – it was known for wine-tasting parties that brought them in by the busload from New York City and New Jersey.  The wine wasn’t very special at the time, but they had these marvelous underground cellars that made for a great tour.  Brotherhood produced their first commercial vintage in 1839, has been in continuous operation ever since, and is today America’s oldest winery.


As time went by and I learned more, I started to wonder how much of an edge the Europeans really had.  Up in the Finger Lakes I met a winemaker at Chateau Renaissance whose family had been making wine for 400 years.  He has a fine touch with sparkling wines.


Down in New Jersey, the oldest is Renault Winery.  Renault was founded in 1864 by Louis Nicholas Renault, in Egg Harbor outside Atlantic City.  Renault, a master vintner, had come to America to represent the champagne house of the Duke of Montebello in Rheims, France.  Phylloxera had begun to ravage the European vineyards, and the French were desperately looking for a way out; an American had not come along to save their vineyards by grafting to American rootstock yet.  Renault first tried California, but when that didn’t work out he came back East during the American Civil War and started his own winery.

Why did he pick New Jersey?  Because in the 1860’s the area between Atlantic City and Philadelphia was booming wine country.  Dozens of wineries sprouted there, while celebrities like Ulysses Grant visited the New Jersey shore.  By 1870, Renault had introduced his New Jersey Champagne and soon Egg Harbor was known as “wine city”.


Kentucky will tell you that first commercial wine grape vineyard was established in 1798 in Jessamine County under the guidance of Jean Jacques DuFour of Switzerland.  Virginia will trace all things wine to Thomas Jefferson, one of the most famous wine connoisseurs of his day.  Ohio and Missouri, heavily settled by Germans, both had many wineries and vineyards before the Civil War.


The more I learned, the more puzzled I became.  As the decades went by, American wines had improved.  The America of the Gay Nineties and the early Twentieth Century started to develop a culture where wine was part of the food experience.  American wines competed in all the markets of the world.


So what happened?  Prohibition.  When it was over, the American winery and vineyard business was a wreck.  Between 1920 and 1933, 80% of the wineries in California went out of business.  In Southern states, the devastation was complete or nearly so; only a tiny number survived and they faded away soon after.  Those wineries that did survive got by with gimmicks (like selling altar wine, grapes for home-winemaking and medicinal “wine tonics”).  Vineyards ripped out vines to replant with different varieties for the table grape and grape juice markets.


When Prohibition was over, the American quality wine maker was ruined.  People now thought of American wine as a low-quality product, equivalent to the “bathtub gin” of the Roaring Twenties.  Under Prohibition, all Americans were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of “fruit juice” for personal consumption.  This led to a boom in “fruit grapes” during Prohibition, which needed to have thick skins for shipping – not right for making fine wine.  Then, when Prohibition ended, there was a rush to get wine to market.  Inferior grapes were used, bad techniques, shoddy equipment.  The reputation of American wines suffered.  For thirty years the American wine industry shambled along with only occasional bright spots.  Over time, winemakers persevered and men like Robert Mondavi resurrected the American winery from the scrap heap of history.


Today, very few wineries can boast of having been in existence before Prohibition.  Out in California there is Buena Vista, founded in 1857, although it had been abandoned during Prohibition.  There are a handful of others.  Brotherhood and Renault are the two oldest continually operating wineries I know of in the United States.


I puzzled over that.  If great age and tradition were what made a wine or a winery great, these should have been the ones everyone knew and treasured.  Yet they were not all that well-known or critically acclaimed.  Moreover, I noticed that there were hot new wine areas and wineries springing up all the time if you looked.  Twenty-five years back there was only one winery of note in Spain’s Duoro region; then suddenly a man came along, made good wine, and changed everything, as Mondavi and a few others did in California.


Could it be that age and tradition were not really what produced great wine?  Was that attitude from the dim post-Prohibition era finally proven wrong?


There is the truth of it.  It is what the winemaker does that matters, and in the end it is the fruit of the vine that determines what the winemaker can do.  Give him ideal weather, great soil, excellent vines – then let us see the results.  Long histories and encrusted traditions are all well and good when they arise from the triumphs of winemaking and combine to assist him in his art, and merely an excuse to raise prices if they do not.  You will find young and vibrant winemakers bringing forth excitement in small tasting rooms far from the famous vineyards, and sages of the vintner’s art revealing the magical tastes of a lifetime of experience in the old and established wineries.  The opportunity to discover their wonders awaits us all.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007