Through the Grapevine

In this multimedia series, we give you the insider's eye on Indiana wines. Tune in each Tuesday for a snobbery-free exploration of a host of viticulture and enology topics.

​​​​​Week 4: Serving the Nation—
the History of Indiana Winemaking

By Natalie van Hoose

If asked to name the birthplace of commercial American winemaking, you might guess Virginia, New England or perhaps Spanish-occupied Florida. You probably wouldn't pick Indiana.

But it was in the southeastern corner of our state along the banks of the Ohio River that a colony of Swiss émigrés cleared woodlands and planted grapevines in what would become the young nation's first successful winemaking venture.

The year was 1802. The Swiss vinedressers had fled war-torn Europe, joining their countryman John James Dufour, who arrived in the States six years earlier to pursue his life's goal—to become the first person to produce consistently good wines from American-grown grapes.

Making History: the Swiss Vine-Dressers of Vevay, Indiana

Dufour was preceded by two centuries of failure. Though wild grapevines were abundant in the New World, their fruit made tart, unpalatable wines, and efforts to raise transplanted European varieties proved futile. The European vines had no resistance to American pests and disease and were too tender to survive the harsh winters of the eastern states and midwestern frontier. There was not yet any understanding of hybridization or genetics; growers could not fathom why the vines on which they lavished so much care did not flourish. Wine drinkers, meanwhile, resorted to importing wines from Europe, which were fortified with spirits as a means of preservation on the transatlantic voyage.

Dufour, however, was determined to buck the trend. He spent 20 years studying viticulture and tending his families' vines in Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, before immigrating to America at the age of 33.

"He was very persistent and single-minded," says Jim Butler, co-author of Indiana Wine and owner of Butler Winery. "He knew that growing grapes in America would require new techniques."

Dufour visited every American vineyard of which he heard, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, trying to determine why they were unsuccessful. He then planted 35 varieties of grapes in Kentucky, about 25 miles south of Lexington. When the initial results looked promising, he encouraged his Swiss friends and relatives to join him in the States, but a few years after they arrived, the bulk of the vineyards—planted almost exclusively with European grape varieties—succumbed to disease. Eventually, the Kentucky vineyards were abandoned.

Having purchased land in southern Indiana, an area that would become known as "New Switzerland," the Swiss grape growers relocated their efforts, planting only the varieties that had best survived in Kentucky: Cape and Madeira.

Though Dufour believed the Cape and Madeira grapes were European, they were actually European-American hybrids, a feature that improved their ability to weather the cold and ward off disease. In New Switzerland, the vineyards fared better, though it was a hardscrabble existence for the Swiss in the early years. But their tenacity paid off: by 1810, the grapes had produced 2,400 gallons of wine, described by Dufour's brother in a newspaper article as "superior to the claret of Bordeaux." This claim may have been exaggeration, says Butler.

"There were a lot of mixed reports about how good the wine was," he says. "Generally, the longer it had been since that individual drank European wine, the better the Cape wine tasted."

Toasts and Sentiments
Raise Your Glass Like It's 1813

In the collection of Dufour family papers housed at the Indiana State Library is an extensive list of toasts. Here are a few favorites to propose at your next gathering:

  • Love to one, friendship to a few, goodwill to all.
  • May we always be happy and our enemies know it.
  • The American triumvirate—love, wine, and liberty.
  • May the evening's diversion bear the morning's reflection.
  • May we have in our arms what we love in our hearts.
  • Short shoes and long corns to the enemies of freedom.
  • May we never know sorrow but by name.

Nevertheless, the wine from New Switzerland grew in popularity, and the vinedressers found a growing market in major frontier cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and Lexington. In 1813, the town of Vevay was built in New Switzerland, and it grew to a small city of 190 houses in two years. At its peak, the Vevay wine industry produced 20,000 gallons of wine a year. In a span of 10 years, the Swiss colony on the Ohio River had managed to generate the first successful winemaking industry in America, and their wine had acquired national renown.

But success was short-lived. The community was hard hit by an economic depression in the 1820s, and the sudden increase in whiskey production—distilled by farmers who could not find buyers for their corn—drove down the price of wine. The Swiss of Vevay began to turn to more profitable agricultural pursuits.

It was during this period, however, that John James Dufour made one of his most significant contributions to American viticulture. He compiled his extensive knowledge into The American Vine-Dresser's Guide, a textbook astonishing in its breadth and modernity.

Purdue University viticulture specialist Bruce Bordelon says Dufour's keen sense of observation was responsible for his insights and ultimate success as a vineyard manager and winemaker.

"He had a deep understanding of grape-growing, one that could equal that of many experts today," says Bordelon. "Even though he didn't have the benefit of modern science, many of the management practices that he recommends are still applicable in the modern vineyard."

Dufour died in 1827, a year after his guide to American viticulture was published. The Vevay wine industry was slowing, and his book had not been widely distributed. But his dream of finding reliable ways of making wine from American-grown grapevines had been realized, says Bordelon.

"If he could see the American wine industry today, he would be proud."

Credits: Web version by Andrew Banta. Through the Grapevine graphic by Russ Merzdorf.

Next Tuesday: Short summers and bitter winters have long dictated which grape varieties we cultivate in the Midwest. Join us next week for a discussion of how steadily rising temperatures have changed the kinds of grapes we grow in Indiana and the wines we produce.

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