Cordial and Nourishing: Early Wine History of the Finger Lakes

August 24th, 2017

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Wine is almost synonymous with the Finger Lakes nowadays.  The current business of wine here, though, is fairly recent (founded by Dr. Constantin Franck in the 1950s).  Tracing wine’s earlier history in the local papers, we find that wine was imported with other drinks.

In the Geneva Expositor (January 8, 1807) Abraham Dox told the public that he had for sale ten quarter casks of Port, Sherry, Colmanar and Malaga Wines, Cogniac [sic], Spanish Brandy, Jamaica Spirits [rum] and Holland Gin.  Samuel Colt and Company mentioned Lisbon, Port, and Teneriffe Wines.  In April 1808, Mr. Dox had added Sicily Madeira to his stock.  Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Malaga are all fortified wines (wines with extra alcohol added).  Teneriffe is one of the Canary Islands, and Canary is also a fortified wine.  Brandy is a wine distilled for higher alcohol content, and cognac is a form of brandy.  These all last much longer than regular wine after they have been opened.  .

Some twenty years later, while some people were still buying Port and Brandy, others were starting to worry about the amount of alcohol Americans drank.  In June 1826, the Geneva Gazette and General Advertiser ran an article about beverages.  The writer thought water was the best choice, but “Persons, who are unable to relish this simple beverage of nature, may drink . . . the following liquors, in preference to ardent spirits.”  The suggestions were cider and other fruit wines.  Though they contained some alcohol, there was enough sugar and water that the writer considered them relatively healthy.  The article also mentioned wine:

These fermented liquors are composed of the same ingredients as cider, and are both cordial [“tending to revive, cheer, and invigorate”] and nourishing.  The peasants of France, who drink them in large quantities, are a sober and healthy body of people.  Unlike ardent spirits, which render the temper irritable, wines generally inspire cheerfulness and good humor.  –  It is to be lamented that the grape has not as yet been sufficiently cultivated in our country, to afford wine for our citizens . . .

The concern about drinking alcohol later became very significant, even to the wine industry.

The grapes Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia, and Vitis vulpina grew naturally in North America, but they did not taste the same as the Vitis vinifera grapes of Europe.  They had a musky scent and flavor.  The settlers did not like them, and  attempts were made to grow European grapes.  The first Vitis vinifera grapes planted in the western hemisphere were in 1629, in what is now New Mexico.  Unfortunately, vinifera did not grow well here, and early efforts to establish them failed because of pests and disease.  Over time, though, the European grapes interbred with native species to form hybrids that were better suited to conditions here.

Early in the 1800s (there is debate about exactly when, where, and who) the Catawba grape was discovered.  It was probably an unintentional cross between vinifera and labrusca.  By 1819, John Adlum (1759-1836) was cultivating the Catawba near Washington DC.  He produced his first vintage in 1821 or 1822.  In 1823, he published A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America and the Best Mode of Making Wine, the first book ever published on American winemaking.  Considered a national expert, Adlum wrote to the farming journals, and lobbied for viticulture to be recognized as a scientific discipline.  However, he was not a great winemaker.  He added a lot of sugar to his grapes, mixed poor quality wild grapes in with the Catawbas to make extra juice, and thought fermentation should take place at high temperatures.

By March 1830, Genevans could buy a book titled The Grape: The Vine-Dresser’s Theoretical and Practical Manual, or the Art of Cultivating the Vine . . .  by Thiebaut de Berneand.  J. Bogert was selling it in his bookstore (Geneva Gazette and Mercantile Advertiser, March 10.)  In June, the Domestic Horticultural Society of the Western Parts of the State of New York met in Canandaigua, and the Gazette reprinted an account of their proceedings from the Ontario Repository (July 7, 1830.)  The President read a letter from a member about Adlum’s winemaking, and the Society elected Adlum an honorary member.  They further resolved that they would inform Adlum of this honor, and get a box of his American wines to drink at their meeting in the fall.  The Society gave prizes for, among other things, the best collection of native grapes – fruit, leaves, description of habitat, and so on.  They were considering the possibilities.

illustration of grapesThrough the 1830s and 1840s, the newspapers discussed the importance of cultivating grapes and the best ways of preserving them through the winter (layered in sand, wood shavings, or cotton batting.)  They thought it would work best if vines were allowed to grow on trees like they do in the wild.  On May 15, 1846, The Gazette printed a paragraph about the vineyards in Ohio.  Some of these vineyards were undoubtedly for wine grapes.  Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati had bought cuttings of Catawba from John Adlum in 1825, and by 1842 he had 1200 acres of them.  He was making the first sparkling wine in the United States.  He exported to Europe, and the wine was appreciated there.  In September 1849, the Gazette reported the opinion of a French visitor who tried “some very delicious American Champagne, manufactured from a vineyard near Cincinnati.”  The Frenchman, “an admirable judge of wines, pronounced it to be very superior – possessing the qualities of strength, richness of flavor, color and brightness.”  Unfortunately, the Ohio vineyards succumbed to a fungus disease around 1860.

Here in the Finger Lakes, we began to produce wine successfully at about the time that the Ohio vineyards were languishing.  The Pleasant Valley Wine Company of Penn Yan began producing wine in the early 1860s, from selected strains of native grapes.  Wikipedia also lists the Urbana Wine Company, founded in 1865, and the O-Neh-Da Vineyard, begun in 1872.  The latter was on Hemlock Lake, and furnished Bishop Bernard McQuaid with wine for his churches.  Genevans continued to experiment with growing European grapes.  In September 1851, the Geneva Courier mentioned that H. L. Suydam was raising Foreign grapes, including “the Black Hamburk, White Muscatin, Black Prince and other celebrated varieties, including some dozen or so in all.”  “It is new to us,” said the writer, “that grapes of this class can be raised in this climate, without the aid of artificial heat.  Mr. SUYDAM designs to exhibit some of his grapes at the State Fair.”  Mr. Suydam’s grapes may have been for eating, but his efforts did encourage the idea that we could grow wine grapes in this area.

In June 1867, the (newspaper) Publishers and Editors of Western New York held a convention in Penn Yan.  They visited vineyards around Keuka Lake, and the Gazette reported on the excursion.  The group took a steamboat:

to Hammondsport, and the Vineyards and Wine Cellars which lie on the west bank of the lake and on the hillsides of “Pleasant Valley” above.  . . . Our first landing is made at South Pulteney, and a rush is made by the passengers for the spacious wine cellar within a few rods of the landing.  We all pass through the high-arched, semi-subterraneous “cavern,” up one aisle and down another, the centre [sic] and sides being occupied by mammoth casks of the celebrated “Still Catawba” and “Native Brandy” of the “Crooked Lake Wine Company.”   . . . we steam away again . . . to Urbana; the seat of operations of the “Urbana Wine Company.” – This Company has the largest of the three Wine Cellars in this region; and here we first taste the celebrated American Champagne.  . . . These wines, as well as those of Pleasant Valley, are made after the French method . . . The operatives are experienced wine-makers, selected from the best cellars of France.  The vineyards of this Company, it is estimated, will produce six hundred tons of grapes per year!  . . .  We . . . steam onward to Hammondsport . . .  made famous of late throughout the enlightened world as the place of manufacture of the superior brand of Champagne labeled “Paris Exposition.”   . . . the officers of the “Pleasant Valley Wine Company,” are all courtesy and attention . . .  We were shown through the cellars of this, the pioneer wine company of this region.  . . . Their Sparkling Champagnes of the vintage of ’64 and ’65, were dealt out as freely as water.  The brand most admired was the “Paris Exposition,” which received such high encomiums from connoisseurs lately gathered at Paris . . . Here, as well as at Urbana, the latest improved machinery is in use for preparing and bottling the wines, of which we were shown the process.  The bottles are imported from France, and the two Companies have ordered 180,000 for the coming season.  . . . Besides the immense quantity converted into wines, it is estimated that over 150 tons of grapes will be shipped to market the ensuing fall, from the Crooked Lake and Pleasant Valley Vineyards.  The Catawba takes the lead, although other varieties, such as the Isabella, Delaware, Diana, &c., are more or less cultivated.   . . .

The grapes mentioned are now mostly known to be hybrids of native grapes with Vitis viniferas.

This once flourishing industry was derailed by Prohibition, although a few wineries (such as O-Neh-Da) continued to make sacramental wine.  O-Neh-Da still operates. The vineyards in the Finger Lakes today grow Vitis vinifera.  Dr. Frank demonstrated that carefully selected strains of the old world grapes could do well in our climate.

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