Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Early American Winemaking in the Colony of Virginia

Excerpted from "The Grapes of New York", 1908, by U. P. Hedrick. A nice concise overview of an early attempt to grow European grapes on American soil, with an interesting note on the locals preferring Maderia!

The English were the first to plant the Old World grape in the territory in which this species fails because of the attacks of native parasites. Lord Delaware seems to have been the original promoter of grape-growing in the New World. In 1616 he wrote to the London Company urging the culture of the grape as a possible source of revenue for the new colony. His letter seems to have been convincing, for it is on record that the Company in 1619 sent a number of French vine-dressers and a collection of the best varieties of the grapes of France to Virginia. The Colonial Assembly showed quite as much solicitude in encouraging the cultivation of the vine as did the Company in London. The year of the importation of vines and vine-dressers, 1619, the Assembly passed an act compelling every householder to plant ten cuttings and to protect them from injury and stated that the landowners were expected to acquire the art of dressing a vineyard, either through instruction or by observation. The Company, to increase the interest in vine-growing, showed marked favors to all who undertook it with zealousness; promises of servants, the most valuable gifts that could be made to the colonists, were frequent. Under the impulse thus given vineyards were planted containing as many as ten thousand vines.

In spite of a rich soil, congenial climate, and skilled vine-dressers, nothing of importance came from the venture, some of the historians of the time attributing the failure to the massacre of 1622; others to poor management of the vines; and still others to disagreements between the English and their French vine-dressers, who, it was claimed, concealed their knowledge because they worked as slaves. It is probable that the latter explanation was fanciful but the former must have been real for we are told that the farms and outlying settlements were abandoned after the great massacre. But the colony could hardly have recovered from the ravages of the Indians before efforts to force the colonists to grow grapes were again made; for in 1623 the Assembly passed a law that for every four men in the colony a garden should be laid off a part of which was to be planted to vines.

In 1639 the Assembly again tried to encourage vine-growing by legislative enactment, this time with an act giving a premium to successful grape-growers. Later, about 1660, a premium of ten thousand pounds of tobacco was offered in Virginia for each “two tunne of wine” from grapes raised in the colony. Shortly after, some wine was exported to England but whether made from wild plants or cultivated ones does not appear. In spite of the encouragement of legislative acts, grape-growing did not flourish in Virginia. The fact that tobacco was a paying crop and more easily grown than the grape may have had something to do with the failure to grow the latter. Or it may have been that the cheapness of Madeira, “a noble strong drink,” as one of the Colonial historians puts it, had a depressing influence on the industry. But still more likely, the foreign plants did not thrive.

Encouragement of the home production of wine did not cease in Virginia for at least one hundred and fifty years; for in 1769 an enactment of the Assembly was passed to encourage wine-making in favor of one Andrew Estave, a Frenchman. As a result of the act of this time, land was purchased, buildings erected, and slaves and workmen with a complete outfit for wine-making were furnished Estave. The act provided that if he made within six years ten hogsheads of merchantable wine—land, houses, slaves, the whole plant was to be given to him. It is stated that this unusual subsidy is made “as a reward for so useful an improvement.” Estave succeeded in making the wine but it was poor stuff and he had difficulty in getting the authorities to turn over the property which was to be his reward. This was finally done by an act of the Assembly, however, the failure to make good wine being attributed by all parties to the “unfitness of the land.”

An attempt was made to cultivate the European grape in Virginia early in the eighteenth century on an extensive scale. Soon after taking office as governor in 1710, Alexander Spotswood brought over a colony of Germans from the Rhine and settled them in Spottsylvania County on the Rapidan river. The site of their village on this river is now marked by a ford, Germania Ford, a name which is a record of the settlement. That they grew grapes and made wine is certain, for the Governor’s “red and white Rapidan, made by his Spottsylvania Germans” is several times mentioned in the published journals and letters of the time. But the venture did not make a deep nor lasting impress on the agriculture of the colony.

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