What happened to the Ohio wine industry, and the unique challenges facing grape growers in the eastern part of North America, is the subject of this post. (Warning: some of this information may be tedious, but please bear with me. It’s important. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.) In the third post, we will explore what these challenges might mean to would-be grape growers and winemakers in the twilight years of the fossil energy glut.
Failures and Successes
When Europeans first arrived in North America, they encountered “the greatest natural grape-growing areas on earth. More species of the genus Vitis, the grapevine, grow wild here than in all the rest of the world combined” (Adams 4). Grapevines climbed the trees of the forests and lined the riverbanks. Vines were all over the place. Naturally, in view of all this abundance, the settlers thought this North American climate which supports so many wild grapes surely would be an ideal place to grow European wine grapes (all descended from the Old World vine species Vitis vinifera). So they imported cuttings and planted them, figuring that soon, they would have productive vineyards producing good wines like those of France or Italy.
All efforts to grow the European vinifera in the English colonies failed. Totally. The vines would grow, flourish for a while, but then, inexplicably, they would decline, wither, and eventually die.
The soil was blamed; so were the severe winters, which are colder than western European winters. Thomas Jefferson, who counted wine among his many interests, even imported some soil from Italy (along with Italian vineyard workers) in one of his attempts to establish wine grapes at Monticello. This attempt failed just as completely as the other attempts.
Eventually, attempts to cultivate V. vinifera were abandoned and attention was turned to the wild grapes themselves. Perhaps some of them could be cultivated and make good wine. This is where Nicholas Longworth and his Catawba cuttings come in. The Catawba was found growing beside an inn in Maryland and was named for a river in the Carolinas because it was thought to have originated there (Adams 73). It produced a lighter, fruitier wine than most of the wild grapes themselves. It’s likely that Catawba was a chance cross between the wild Vitis labrusca that grows along the eastern seaboard and a European vinifera that someone nearby was trying to cultivate. So Ohio’s early success as a wine producing state was founded on a chance hybrid.
The Catawba vines grew successfully for a time along the Ohio River and the industry prospered. The vine-draped slopes along the river must indeed have reminded the thousands of German immigrants who settled in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky during the 1840s and 1850s of the vineyards along the Rhine. But the success was short-lived. Two indigenous fungus diseases—black rot, which turns the developing berries into empty skins, along with powdery mildew, which attacks the vine’s leaves and stems, caused the decline of the vineyards. The labor shortage caused by the Civil War doomed the southwest Ohio industry, and it never recovered.
The Ohio industry was reborn after the war along the shores of Lake Erie (and on those islands in the lake’s western basin that I mentioned in the first post). Lake breezes helped keep the vines free of disease. The industry flourished again for a while, despite growing competition from California, until Prohibition killed it off once again. When Prohibition ended, the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, not a good time to re-establish an industry viewed by many as a luxury. After World War II when prosperity returned, California gained the upper hand in wine production and marketing. Ohio’s wine industry, along with those of other eastern and Midwestern states (except the Finger Lakes region in New York), became an afterthought.
California had (and continues to have) several advantages over eastern and Midwestern grape growing regions. For one thing, nobody had any particular trouble growing the European vinifera there. The fungus diseases that doomed the Cincinnati vineyards are less of a problem in California; they exist, but there they were imported. In the east they are indigenous and more virulent. Also, California’s milder winters are kinder to the vinifera than the more frigid temperatures back east. California vineyards are usually more productive, acre for acre. And California can more easily take advantage of economies of scale (think industrial-scale agriculture). The result is that California can produce quality wine more cheaply and in larger quantities than Ohio, New York, or Virginia can. And for now, because transportation costs are still relatively cheap, California can ship the wine east and still sell it for less than most of the local wines.
The Taste of the Fox
And of course the V. labrusca-based industry in the east and Midwest produced wines of a far different character than the European vinifera-based industry in California. Anyone who has ever drunk a glass of Welch’s Concord grape juice is familiar with the heady, powerful grapy flavor of V. labrusca. For most Americans, in fact, the unique flavor of V. labrusca is synonymous with “grape flavor” (Adams 8). This grapy labrusca flavor is called “foxy,” for reasons nobody is quite sure of, although one of the common names for wild V. labrusca is “fox grape.” To make wine of labrusca grapes like Catawba, Concord, and Niagara, one needs (usually) to ameliorate the must with sugar and water, similar to the way wine is made from fruits other than grapes. Unlike table wines from vinifera grapes, which are normally fermented dry (meaning that nearly all the sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide), labrusca wines are usually left with some residual sweetness, because to ferment them dry would make them bitter tasting. This is the reason Ohio and other eastern/Midwestern wines have a reputation for being sweet and cloying. (Think of the Concord-based kosher wines like Mogen David and you will get the idea what these wines were typically like.) Although many people like these kinds of wines (and I still enjoy Pink Catawba if it’s well made), those whose tastes in wine were informed by California or European table wines usually find them quite unsatisfying.
The Real Culprits
The colonists were partly right with their assessment of the failure of V. vinifera in the east: cold winters did help doom the tender vines. And the soil was also partly to blame. More precisely, a tiny insect that lives part of its lifecycle in the soil and feeds on the roots of grapevines, was one of the culprits. This insect is the phylloxera (Viteus vitifoliae), a close relative of the aphid but much, much smaller. One needs a good magnifying glass or even a microscope to see it. It’s no wonder that nobody noticed it for a long time; it was first identified during the 1850s, after cuttings of American vine species had been sent to Europe and the vines in Europe began contracting a strange new illness. Phylloxera had hitched a ride on those cuttings and began infesting European soils wherever grapevines were being grown.
As mentioned, phylloxera feeds on the vine’s roots, sucking the plant’s juices (just like aphids do). Susceptible vines experience root death and eventual decline and death of the vine. Over the next two decades or so, phylloxera spread throughout the European vineyards, with devastating results. The European wine industry might have been lost completely if not for some American viticulturalists, notably the Texan Thomas V. Munson and the Missourian Hermann Jaeger, who hit on a solution. They recognized that European V. vinifera roots are highly susceptible to the phylloxera’s root feedings. However, the native North American species’ roots were able to tolerate the insect. So the solution was to graft the European wine varieties to native American vine stocks that were highly resistant to phylloxera. Munson in particular devoted much time to breeding highly phylloxera-resistant rootstocks that were also tolerant of the various soil and climate conditions of Europe by crossing and backcrossing various American grape species. The French hailed Munson and Jaeger, as heroes for “saving the French vineyards.” Munson and Jaeger even received an award from the French government in 1888 (Adams 207).
Black rot and powdery mildew, along with a third fungus disease called downy mildew, like phylloxera, are also indigenous to eastern North America and, like phylloxera, also found their way to Europe. Vinifera are highly susceptible to them. The solution found was to spray the vines with sulfur and/or a mixture of copper sulfate and lime called Bordeaux mixture. These chemicals counteract the fungi, although buildup of toxic copper salts in vineyard soils has become a concern.
(Phylloxera, along with the three fungus diseases, has also invaded California; most California vines are grafted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. A few vineyard regions in the world, notably Oregon, Chile, and parts of Australia, are phylloxera free, and vinifera grapes in those regions don’t require grafting.)
The French Hybrids
The French were not completely satisfied with having to graft their vines, however. Many wanted vines that could be grown on their own roots, like during the good old days before the phylloxera invasion. So some of them began crossing their favorite wine grapes with the native American vines brought over as rootstocks. These rootstocks didn’t include V. labrusca, by the way: since Jaeger and Munson were working in the midsection of the continent, where V. labrusca does not grow, they used other species: Vitis rupestris, V. aestivalis, and V. riparia, among others. These species do not have the “foxy” flavor of labrusca. By the 1920s and ‘30s, and after a series of crossings and backcrossings, these French grape breeders developed various hybrid varieties that tolerated phylloxera and also produced decent, vinifera-style table wine. These varieties are known in France as direct producers; here in North America, they’re normally called French hybrids (or French-American hybrids).
During the 1950s and 1960s, a few individuals, most notably Philip Wagner, a newspaper editor from Baltimore, imported some of these French hybrid varieties to see how well they might grow in the humid, disease-ridden climate of the eastern seaboard. They found significant success: the vines not only possessed the phylloxera resistance they were bred for, but also had inherited from their American ancestry some disease resistance and winter hardiness as well. Wagner began a nursery, Boordy Vineyards, to propagate and sell hybrid vines to anyone interested in trying them out, and he also built a winery to demonstrate that dry, European-style table wines could be made in the humid eastern states. (I bought the vines I grew in Bowling Green from Wagner’s nursery.) Some of these French hybrid varieties have since become standard wine “varietals” in vineyards from New England to Ontario to Missouri and beyond: Seyval, Chambourcin, Vidal, Foch.
Breeding work continues, though not in France. This work is now being carried on primarily here in North America (but also in Germany). Institutional breeders include Cornell University’s Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, New York; the University of Guelph’s Vineland, Ontario, campus in Canada, not far from Niagara Falls; and the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding program. Another program at the University of Arkansas has focused on breeding seedless table grapes. Private breeders, most notably Elmer Swenson of Wisconsin and Byron T. Johnson of Cincinnati, have also carried on the quest of seeking of better wine quality along with better disease and winter cold resistance. We will discuss grape breeding in a bit more detail in the nest post.
Vinifera in the East
Finally, to round out the story of wines in eastern North America, we need briefly to discuss the modern successes in growing V. vinifera. Now that viticulturists know what caused the colonists’ failures, they have been able to counter the disease and winter tenderness problems and produce true European-style table wines like California does. The pioneer was Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Russia who had grown grapes in the Ukraine, and who, in the 1950s, arrived at the Geneva, New York, Agriculture Experiment Station, where he scoffed every time he was told, “It’s too cold to grow vinifera around here.” His reply: “The winters in Russia are even colder and we did it there!” He was convinced that keeping the vines disease-free, which can now be done with modern chemicals, will help them survive winter cold spells better (Adams 132-33). He was allowed to demonstrate that it could be done, which he did. He eventually opened up his own wine cellar on Keuka Lake. Liz and I visited him in 1980 and had a fascinating time. He died in 1985.
In 1968, one of Dr. Frank’s students, an engineer named Arnie Esterer, moved to Conneaut, Ohio, along Lake Erie, and established Markko Vineyard. He grew Riesling and Chardonnay; thus, he was the first to grow vinifera successfully in Ohio. Others have followed suit throughout the eastern and Midwestern states: besides Esterer, most notable here in Ohio is Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley, Oregon grape growers who in 1999 founded Kinkead Ridge Vineyard in Ripley, pioneering vinifera winegrowing along the Ohio River valley and sparking a revival of wine production in the very region where Ohio wine began with Nicholas Longworth 185 years ago. Vinifera table wines grown in the eastern and Midwestern states, including Ohio, are as fine as those grown in any other region of the world.
Next post: what all these facts might mean for winegrowing and winemaking at the end of the age of cheap energy.
Work CitedAdams, Leon. The Wines of America. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.