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8 Eastern Viticulture Comes of Age
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The Rise of Hybrid Grapes

We have seen how it was that the beginning of American winegrowing depended not so much upon the skills of the winemaker as upon the contributions of the vine grower. The problem, in short, was not how to make wine but how to find a grape that would, first of all, survive, and second, yield a juice worth converting into wine. The answer came at first by accident, through the discovery of chance native seedlings that exhibited new and desirable characteristics. The Alexander was the first of these to be put on record; the Catawba the first to be good enough to maintain itself against the competition of later introductions. The discovery of such grapes was typically made by an amateur or professional horticulturist ranging the woods, or checking out the rumor of a promising vine growing in some domestic garden; again, the Alexander and the Catawba are examples of this pattern. Such plants then passed into the hands of commercial nurserymen, who performed the indispensable service of propagating them and making them widely and regularly available. Legaux and the Alexander, Adlum and the Catawba, and Prince and the Isabella illustrate this phase.

The thought that the accidental process of discovery might be systematized and controlled occurred to many people from time to time. Why wait upon the chances of nature when one could create and select one's own varieties? The simplest and most direct means for doing this lies in the fact that grapes are among those plants that do not breed true from seed. Every cultivated variety is already a storehouse of diverse genetic material, full of dominant and recessive traits ready


to enter into new mixtures and relations in each successive generation. Furthermore, the receptivity of the grape to cross-fertilization means that any grape flowering in the neighborhood of another may easily be interbred. New mixes of good and bad traits may thus be readily generated by planting two or more varieties in proximity and allowing casual cross-fertilization at bloom time.

If the seeds of a Catawba, or of a Cabernet, or of any other grape, are planted, each seedling will show a greater or lesser difference from the parent. This is just what the vineyardist wishes to avoid; he wants the characters of his vines to be reliably perpetuated. Luckily for him, the vine is readily and consistently propagated vegetatively—that is, by cuttings taken from the wood of the vine—and the vineyardist therefore multiplies and maintains his stock by cuttings (or by other vegetative means, such as layering). He has nothing to do with seeds, which would only produce instability and confusion in his materials. But to the plant breeder, the genetic plasticity revealed in the vine's seedlings is just what he wants: it gives him his opportunity. The principles of Mendelian genetics were of course utterly unknown to plant breeders before the end of the nineteenth century. But the tendency to variation in grape seedlings has been known in a practical way for as long as the grape has been cultivated, and it was by taking advantage of the fact that the uncounted varieties of the European vine have been produced. It is surprising, therefore, that deliberate experiment with seedlings of native varieties was so long in coming. But so it was.[1]

As a further refinement of his methods, the plant breeder may control the mixture of qualities he seeks by artificially cross-fertilizing plants that he has selected beforehand for their desirable characters. This is the method of truly scientific hybridizing, requiring delicate manipulation of the vine's flower parts so that pollen from one plant is introduced to the ovary of another. The seed produced by this deliberate cross-fertilizing is then planted and the seedlings selected as they would be in the case of random crossings. Crosses may be made between varieties of the same species, in which case the more precise term métis rather than hybrid is used to describe the offspring. Or crosses may be made between different species, in which case the result is a true hybrid. In this very untechnical discussion I shall pay no attention to the distinction and speak indifferently of crosses and hybrids.

The understanding of the larger elements involved in the phenomenon of hybridization was, both in theory and in practice, quite well developed by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hybridizing depends upon the principle of the sexuality of plants, a discovery established in the late seventeenth century and fully worked out in the eighteenth; by the middle years of the latter century, genuinely scientific experiment in plant hybridization was being carried on. But for some reason nobody bothered in those early days to work with grapes. Even in the nineteenth century, a time of unparalleled advance in the scientific understanding and improvement of agriculture generally, the work was rather slow to begin. The Europeans, perhaps, had no special reason to carry out grape hybridizing, since they were on the whole well suited with what they had.[2] But the Americans, with abun-


dant reason to look for something better than the pure native vines, were not particularly forward in the business either.

The fact that certain received varieties were actually chance-produced hybrids was first recognized in print by the Philadelphia seedsman Bernard MacMahon: there were, he wrote in 1806, a number of varieties derived from crosses between different varieties of native grapes, or from crosses between native grapes and vinifera; such crosses included the Alexander[3] and the Bland. From these grapes, called "hybrids or mules," MacMahon thought it "probable that good wine may be produced."[4] Another reference to the possibilities of hybridizing grapes occurs in Dufour's Vine-Dresser's Guide , where Dufour expresses the hope that public-spirited people who, unlike him, have the leisure needed for such lengthy affairs, will try the "raising of new species of grapes, either by seeds or grafts." Even better, he thought, would be a public garden where hothouse experiments could be carried out in the actual cross-breeding of selected species.[5] A few years after Dufour, William Prince, in his Treatise , quotes the opinion of Professor Thomas Nuttall of Harvard that "hybrids betwixt the European vine (Vitis vinifera ) and those of the United States, would better answer the variable climates of North America, than the unacclimated vine of Europe."[6] Nuttall's opinion is now the orthodox view, guiding all the work done to provide better varieties for the eastern United States.

Whether Nuttall inspired him to the experiment or whether it occurred to him independently, Prince did undertake to breed new grape varieties, being the first on record in America to do so. In his Treatise on the Vine , he states that he has 10,000 seedlings growing "from an admixture under every variety of circumstance."[7] Like Nuttall, Prince recommended that crosses be made between vinifera and the natives, and he believed that the native species ought to be the summer grape, aestivalis, rather than the labrusca, to avoid the foxy flavor of the latter.[8] It is curious that no further record of Prince's seedlings exists, though when one considers how many thousands of seedlings a modern plant breeder may have to raise before obtaining even one promising specimen it seems quite possible, even likely, that Prince's 10,000 yielded him nothing worth propagating. Another early experimenter with seedling selection was Samuel Pond of Massachusetts, who sometime before 1830 grew a seedling he thought worth introducing for general cultivation. Pond's Seedling, as it was known, has been called the first improved native American grape whose appearance was owing to deliberate experiment rather than chance discovery.[9]

In 1852 the list of approved grapes issued by the American Pomological Society, the standard guide for nineteenth-century horticulturists, named only two varieties, both of them native seedlings. These were the familiar Catawba and Isabella, both of which had been available since the first quarter of the century. There had, of course, been a good many introductions of other seedlings in the years up to 1852, but with very few exceptions they had proved to be disappointments, and they were invariably chance-found seedlings or the result of mixed plantings (as was, for example, the Diana, once a much-promoted grape, introduced in 1843).


What has been called the "novitiate stage"[10] of our grape breeding came to an end in 1852 when Dr. William W. Valk, a physician of Flushing, Long Island, exhibited before the American Pomological Society some grapes from a vine that he had produced by crossing the native Isabella, a labrusca, with the vinifera Black Ham-burgh. The variety, called Ada, is now recognized as the first deliberately produced hybrid of the native and European grapes.[11]

Valk had begun his experiments in 1845, but even before that another grape breeder had begun to create hybrids of native and vinifera species. He was John Fisk Allen, of Salem, Massachusetts, the author of a book entitled The Culture of the Grape (1847). In 1843-44 he had fertilized an Isabella vine with pollen from Chasselas de Fontainebleau. From the produce of the resulting seed, he eventually selected a seedling that was introduced in 1854, two years later than Valk's Ada, as Allen's White Hybrid or simply Allen's Hybrid.[12] This was the first such grape actually to be distributed for cultivation, and so had the important function of establishing the fact against all doubters that the native-vinifera cross could be made practical. The vine was, according to Hedrick, grown for a generation everywhere that grapes were grown in this country and in Canada.[13] Under these testing circumstances, it soon began to show the weaknesses of all primary hybrids, as they are called: a tenderness to cold and a susceptibility to the diseases that had always devastated its European parent in the eastern United States. Its cultivation was therefore given up, and Allen's Hybrid has now joined the Alexander on the list of grapes of historic memory.

By a curious coincidence, a second, even more important, hybridizer was also at work in Salem, a small town in a region where there is no commercial viticulture. This was Edward Staniford Rogers, the son of a Salem merchant, a shy recluse who worked in an old, choked garden adjoining the family home (inevitably one thinks of Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables and its old New England inmates, also denizens of Salem).[14] Inspired by an article summarizing what was then known of the principles of plant hybridization, Rogers made his first and most successful crosses in 1851. For the pistillate (female) parent, he chose the wild Mammoth or Sage grape of New England, vigorously described by a contemporary as "a fox of the strongest odor, and of the most execrable and uneatable quality," but having the desirable characters of vigorous growth, earliness, hardiness, and large size of bunch.[15] Rogers fertilized flowers of this variety with pollen from both Black Hamburgh and White Chasselas vines, and from these crosses he ultimately obtained forty-five seedlings. By the end of the decade he was sending out cuttings of his hybrids, all of them identified by numbers only, to the later confusion of things. Some did acquire names as they entered cultivation: Rogers' No. 1, for example, was christened Goethe; No. 3 became Massasoit; No. 4, Wilder; and so on through ten more names, the best known of which is Agawam (originally Rogers' No. 15). None of these grapes has ever established itself as a leading variety (though one may note that Salem, Rogers' No. 22, was until recent years sold as a varietal wine by Widmer's Winery in New York State). Yet their quality


as a group was astonishingly high, considering the wretched character of the labrusca mother. This demonstration of what hybridizing could do towards quality was not lost. The eminent horticulturist Marshall P. Wilder, president of the American Pomological Society and the namesake of one of Rogers' grapes, proclaimed in a letter to Rogers: "You have achieved a conquest over nature, and your efforts will constitute a new era in American grape culture."[16]

The stir created by Rogers' new grapes excited an unparalleled interest in viticulture generally: "Never before or since," asserts one writer, "has grape growing in the United States received the attention given to it during the decade following the introduction of the Rogers Hybrids."[17] Everywhere in the country, amateurs and professionals took up the challenging sport of grape breeding—a sport in which, at least, some six or seven years might elapse before any fruit could be produced for judgment, and in which the effort of years might well produce nothing at all of any distinct value. Among the notable names—the list might be prolonged through scores and hundreds—a few may be specified. George W. Campbell, a merchant of Delaware, Ohio, was led by his interest to become a professional nurseryman specializing in grapes, of which he produced thousands of seedlings; James H. Ricketts, a bookbinder of Newburgh, New York, introduced flashy new varieties with names like Bacchus, Don Juan, and Lady Washington. George Haskell, a lawyer of Ipswich, Massachusetts, specialized in labrusca-vinifera crosses like his compatriot Rogers.[18] In Missouri we have already noticed Jacob Rommel, whose emphasis was not on hybrids of the natives with vinifera but on crosses between the native species of labrusca and riparia, selected with an eye to the requirements of the Middle West. In Kansas, as early as the 1860s, when the territory had barely been converted into a state, John Burr, a transplanted Connecticut Yankee, began to produce a series of hybrids at his vineyard in Leavenworth, where his neighbor and friend, Joseph Stayman, also produced new varieties of grapes as part of his more extensive work in plant breeding (the Stayman apple has survived better than any of Stayman's grape varieties).[19]

With such widespread activity and interest surging through the country, the press inevitably began to talk of a "new era," as Wilder had said it would be. It was, and it was not. It was, in virtue of the possibilities of scientific breeding that had been vindicated by Allen and Rogers at midcentury. It was not, in virtue of the fact that despite the flood of new varieties poured out in the latter half of the century, eastern viticulture remained based for the next one hundred years almost entirely upon exactly the native varieties already available by 1860.

The defects of such primary hybrids as those we have just been describing were quickly recognized: too much vinifera meant susceptibility to all its weaknesses; too much native vine meant a dominance of all those undesirable fruit qualities, the elimination of which was the very object of the hybridizing in the first place. The next step was to undertake secondary hybrids—crosses of hybrids with natives, or of hybrids with hybrids. The two pioneers of this phase were Jacob Moore, of Brighton, New York, and Andrew Jackson Caywood, of Marlboro, New


York, both commercial nurserymen. Moore, described by Hedrick as a man of "a high degree of intelligence and an unusually keen sense of the latent possibilities in plants,"[20] spent half a century in the unwearied pursuit of a grape that would combine the best of old and new. Moore's most successful introduction, the Diamond (or more often Moore's Diamond) is a cross in which the vinifera strain is dilute, yet strong enough to have its effect upon the fruit quality; it is still used in the sparkling blends of the Finger Lakes, and occasionally in still, dry wines. Caywood's contribution to the permanent varietal stock of eastern viticulture is the grape called Dutchess; it is really a tertiary hybrid, or more, for its parentage of White Concord, Delaware, and Walter combines vinifera, labrusca, Bourquiniana, and aestivalis. Caywood's vineyard at Marlboro is still growing as part of Benmarl Vineyards;[21] and the Dutchess grape still commands the highest prices for native grapes in New York.

Dutchess, Diamond, Elvira, and other varieties that came out of the active ferment of plant breeding following Rogers' hybrids still survive in a modest way in eastern vineyards; they never achieved any moment of dominance. Yet it would be wrong to overlook their share in contributing to the development of American winemaking. The marked improvement in vine and fruit quality that they provided encouraged later experimenters to continue. Furthermore, scientific hybridizing required exact study of the native varieties to establish their characters for vigor, resistance to insects and diseases, hardiness, and fruit quality. Only when such things were determined could intelligent combination of characters be possible, and so the interest in hybridizing had as a necessary consequence the effect of stimulating the essential work of analyzing the material available.

The logic of plant breeding also required that the climate and soils of vineyard sites be studied in new detail and with exactitude, for specific characters implied specific circumstances in which they might best develop. One can see just such knowledge being accumulated in the literature of the latter half of the century; it is fair to say that the emergence of the controlled hybrid had something to do with that accumulation, for it was now, prospectively at least, worth determining such matters so that improved grapes could be grown in proper conditions. In the perspective of European winegrowing, all winegrowing in the rest of the world is still in its infancy. But in the brief chronicle of American winegrowing, the innocent age of viticulture ended with the appearance of the controlled hybrid.

Controlled hybridizing was by no means the only source of new varieties. The chance seedling found in the wild, or the botanical sport growing in a small town garden were still very much part of the picture, and, indeed, have provided the varieties that dominate it still. Of the uncounted number of such grapes, three may be singled out for remark, not just for themselves but because their histories are representative of so much in the story of American winegrowing.

The first of these three, the Delaware, is the fruit of a wild seedling, like the Alexander, the Catawba, and the Isabella. No one knows where it came from, or even who it was, for certain, who had the merit of first cultivating it. Yet it is as


good a native grape—pure-bred or hybrid—as has ever grown in eastern America. It is derived from labrusca, but is so ameliorated by crossing that it is without any foxiness. A well-made Delaware is among the very best white wines, and therefore among the very best wines, that the East produces today from native vines. Hedrick's claim that "there is no variety of Vitis vinifera more richly or more delicately flavored or with a more agreeable aroma"[22] is extravagant, but at least indicates Delaware's standing at the head of the old native varieties.

Delaware came into public knowledge in 1849, when the editor of the local newspaper in Delaware, Ohio (north of Columbus), saw some grapes of this variety brought in from a farm in the neighborhood. On inquiry, he learned that the farmer had brought the vine from New Jersey more than twenty years earlier. Its source in New Jersey appeared to be the garden of a Swiss named Provost, of Frenchtown, Hunterdon County, on the banks of the Delaware River—though that is only a coincidence of names: the grape is named for the town in Ohio, not the river. By this time, Provost was dead, and where he got his vines remains a mystery: some said they came from Italy; some said from a German newly arrived in this country; some said from Virginia by way of Philadelphia.[23] Others disagreed with all such stories of exotic origin and maintained that the vine was a seedling from Provost's own garden. These stories and counter-stories, assertions and contradictions, flowed through the columns of the horticultural press pretty freely in the generation after the Delaware was brought forward, and they have left the question of the variety's origin just where it was before the controversy started. The experts also disagree over the hybrid constitution of the Delaware. As Bailey has said, "It is one of those fortuitous riddles which nature now and then produces, the genesis of which, if known and well considered, might afford new light to the intending breeder of plants."[24] The excellence and the inexplicability of the Delaware are a reminder to the grape breeder not to claim too much for his art. In any case, the qualities of the Delaware as a wine grape were quickly recognized, so that it was established in general cultivation before the end of the 1850s.

The proprietary claim to the second of our exemplary new varieties is quite clear. The grape called Iona was introduced by Dr. C. W. Grant, a dentist originally of Newburgh, New York.[25] Newburgh was a notable spot in these years as the home of the grape breeder A. J. Caywood and of the distinguished horticulturists and journalists Andrew Jackson Downing and his brother Charles. Perhaps Grant acquired some of his enthusiasm for viticulture from them. In 1849 Grant bought Iona Island, an island of 119 acres in the Hudson River near Peekskill; after 1856 he made his home there and devoted himself to the cultivation of his vineyard and to the sale of vines from it. Grant's main stock in trade was his Iona grape, which he identified as a seedling of Diana (itself a seedling of Catawba), and introduced in 1863. Coming into the market as it did towards the close of the Civil War, it coincided with the height of the grape mania sweeping the eastern states, and Grant was astute enough to see that the moment favored him. "Next to oil," as the Gardener's Monthly remarked in 1865 (it was the era of the Pennsylvania oil boom


too), "nothing is so much spoken of in the cars, on the street, by the roadside, everywhere, as the grape, and grape native wine."[26] This was the time when, as one old nurseryman remembered, he had carried over a thousand dollars worth of grape cuttings on his back from his nursery to the shipping office in one trip.[27] Itinerant plant salesmen travelled the country peddling "guaranteed" varieties of vines to eager customers. There was a good deal of honest, but premature, promotion of newly introduced varieties that had not been proven and that, after a few years of trial, belied all the imaginary qualities claimed for them. Worse than that were the inevitable frauds generated by an inflated and heated demand for vines.

Grant well understood how to work in such an atmosphere. He advertised extensively and aggressively in the press, using all the machinery of testimonials, premiums, and self-assertion. A typical advertisement modestly declares that the Iona "equals the best European kinds in richness, purity and refinement ... it is unequalled for fine, rich, enduring wine .... It is only with such grapes as this that we can equal the fine wines of Europe."[28] Grant secured the kind of frequent and respectful mention in magazines and books that comes from applying what we now call public relations, but for which there was not yet, in those days, any name other than "puffing." An extreme, yet characteristic, piece of promotion occurred in 1864 when Grant and his agents proclaimed a grand "Fruit-Growers' Convention" to be held for the encouragement of national horticulture at Grant's Iona Island.[29] By disingenuous means, Grant got a whole raft of New York public men to patronize the "Convention"—William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, and Henry Ward Beecher among them. An ambitious program of papers and demonstrations was outlined, and a special steamer was laid on to bring the crowds upriver from the city to Iona Island. Grant, his island vineyards, and his Iona grape were all prominent in the print promoting this exciting affair.

The whole thing was a bold sham. No steamer appeared on the day appointed. Still, many people made their way to Peekskill by train, to find that no adequate preparations had been made to receive them and that most of the advertised talks and entertainments had not been arranged. What they did find was an unannounced auction of 10,000 cuttings of Dr. Grant's Iona grape at which they were encouraged to bid. No other activities would begin until the auction had been carried out. The notabilities—Bryant, Greeley et al.—had prudently been taken off to lunch and kept in good humor by Grant while the general public was taken for what it would give. When, towards the end of the day, a horticultural meeting was at last held in a huddled up sort of way, only some random and unconcerted speeches were given. Whether Grant was wholly responsible for the details of this dubious enterprise, and whether it did him more good than harm in the long run, we do not know. The episode tells us at any rate that somebody judged that the public interest in grapes at this time would stand a good deal of abusing, and that any publicity was good publicity.

The price of the Iona was kept high, and Grant's exclusive interest in its propagation and sale jealously guarded (the right of securing a patent in new plants was


not obtained in this country until the next century). But Grant did not have a wholly smooth success with his new grape. There were skeptics who doubted out loud that it had anything like the virtues that Grant attributed to it; he had rivals in whose interest it was to denigrate it noisily; and the very intensity of the promotion it received inevitably provoked reaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that, as Hedrick says, "probably no American variety has been the subject of more caustic discussions than this one and it is only within the last few years that its merits could be impartially estimated."[30] And what are the merits? The truth is that the variety has great good qualities and equally great defects. The fruit is sweet, delicate, and juicy, yielding a wine that Wagner describes as "one of the best of those produced by the American hybrids—pale, very clean and dry, with a racy aroma that shows up particularly well under champagnization."[31] The vine itself, however, is condemned as "the poorest in the vineyard"[32] —troublesome to grow, lacking hardiness and vigor, vulnerable to all diseases, demanding special soils. It has for these reasons almost disappeared from commercial cultivation. As for Iona Island, that passed into the hands of the U.S. Navy and served as an ammunition depot until, in 1965, it became a state park. Parking lots and picnic grounds now occupy the land where Iona grapes once grew. So much for the second of our representative hybrids.

Hedrick estimates that in the fifty years following the introduction of Rogers' hybrids, some 2,000 new American hybrids were named and in some way made public.[33] The list of varietal names in The Grapes of New York runs from Abby Clingotten, Ada, Adelaide, Adelia, through Leon, Letovey, Lewis, Lexington, to Zane, Zelia, Zinnia, Zita, and Zoe. In such a spate of new varieties, relatively few might be expected to survive; one would suppose, however, that no one grape would emerge to dominate all others. Yet that, or something very like that, is what happened from the fateful moment when Ephraim Bull noticed a chance seedling growing just outside his garden in Concord, Massachusetts.[34] Bull was a goldbeater by trade, making and selling gold leaf for a living. His passion, however, was horticulture, and especially grape growing, with which he had experimented since childhood. He had left Boston for Concord partly in order to indulge his taste for gardening, and now lived in a house called Grapevine Cottage (where, later, his neighbor to the west was Nathaniel Hawthorne).

The sight of the seedling near his garden suggested to Bull that he might test the theory of the Belgian horticulturist Jean-Baptiste Van Mons that successive generations of seedlings would produce a greatly ameliorated plant. Accounts of the circumstances conflict, and some points remain obscure, but in one tradition (I follow Bailey) the seedling is explained as the result of wild grapes scattered by some grape-eating boys the summer before. This was in 1840. Three years later, Bull obtained fruit from the wild vine and planted whole berries from it in his garden. One of the resultant seedlings fruited in 1849 and seemed so superior that Bull destroyed the other seedlings in order to concentrate on the survivor, a blue-black grape he named Concord, which, he prophesied, would be the basis of a new in-


Ephraim Bull (1806-95), of Concord, Massachusetts, shown here with the original vine of 
the Concord grape that he propagated and named. By far the most popular and widely 
planted grape ever introduced in this country, the Concord still defines "grape" for most 
Americans. (From Kansas State Horticultural Society,  How to Grow and Use the
 Grape in Kansas

dustry: "I venture to predict," Bull wrote, "that the man is now born who will see New England supplying herself with native wines, and even exporting them."[35]

Bull exhibited his new grape before the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1853, and in 1854 it was offered for sale by Hovey and Company, the leading Boston nursery. From that moment it spread throughout the country with astonishing rapidity. So astute was the promotion and so eager the demand that in March 1854 Concord was selling for $5 a plant![36] It reached western New York, the newest region of viticulture, in the year of its release, and it was established as a major variety in Missouri, the western edge of settlement, before the Civil War. No one can calculate the number of fences and back-yard arbors that Concord has adorned throughout America (even on the West Coast), where it has provided the archetypal idea of "grape" for generations of Americans. Its fruit and its foliage and its color are the model for most pictures of the grape in this country, so that the Concord image as well as the Concord flavor is standard for us. The reason for its success is concisely put by Bailey: "It was the first variety of sufficient hardiness,


The first offering of the Concord grape, which was to sweep the country and dominate eastern 
winegrowing for the next century. Note that no claim is made in this notice for the Concord 
as a wine grape. (The Cultivator , April 1854)


productiveness and immunity from diseases to carry the culture of the vine into every garden of the land."[37] Its tough and fruitful nature, and its adaptability to a wide variety of conditions, have made Concord almost irresistible to commercial growers.

Yet one may regret that our American standard of the grape was set by such a variety as the Concord. It is a pure-bred labrusca, with all the foxiness of its kind; the skin is tough and astringent, the seeds large; the sugar content is not high, and the juice will not make even a barely tolerable wine without considerable artificial sweetening. In consequence the wine of Concord is typically sweet, and so has reinforced the American tendency to prefer a sweet to a dry wine. Nor has its wine any delicacy or complexity of flavor: the strong labrusca aroma and the taste of sugar pretty much exhaust its appeal. Like nearly all tastes, the taste for Concord wine can be acquired, but acquiring it entails a considerable lowering of the powers of discrimination. It would be impossible to estimate how much the taste for Concord and for the vinous confections made from it have retarded the development of a civilized tradition in which dry table wines for everyday use are taken as the standard. It is equally impossible to doubt that the Concord has had much to do with the fact that such a development has been greatly retarded. There is, perhaps, a form of Gresham's Law operating on wine as well as on currency, so that the bad drives out the good. But currencies can be reformed, and we can hope from the many signs in America today that a national taste in wine can be reformed too. The withering away of the taste for Concord is a necessary first step.[38]

In 1864 Horace Greeley, who liked to appear as, among other things, a patron of agriculture, offered a prize of $100 to be awarded to the man who should produce the best grape for general culture in America (the "best" being understood to mean the highest possible vinifera character in the fruit and the highest possible native character in the vine). Later that year, obviously impressed by the fanfare that accompanied Dr. Grant's introduction of the Iona, the committee awarded the prize to that grape. This hasty decision at once caused a flap—including charges of fraud—and the prize was withdrawn so that more experience might be gained before a decision was given. Two years later the prize was bestowed on Bull for the Concord, and this time the committee's decision stood firm. Concord—a pure native of the natives, without a suspicion of vinifera genes—was crowned, in Greeley's words, as "the grape for the millions."[39]

Ephraim Bull lived to be ninety before his death in 1895 at the house in Concord where he had developed his celebrated grape. He had grown thousands of seedlings since his discovery of the Concord, but that lightning was to strike only once in his plant-breeding career. He made little or nothing from the fabulous success of the Concord, other growers having quickly propagated and advertised the vine without restraint. His last days were impoverished and embittered. The legend on his tombstone in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Concord reads: "He sowed, others reaped." A modest memorial stone commemorating Bull and his grape was erected by the town of Concord and is now set into the fence running around the old garden where the original vine grew. It reads thus:


Ephraim Wales Bull planted seeds of a wild Labrusca grape found growing on this hillside which after three generations[40] through his work and wisdom became in this garden in September 1849 the Concord grape.

One has no wish to denigrate Bull, who was, by all accounts, a man of simple virtue and homely eccentricity. Still, as Philip Wagner has well said, the winemaker who approaches the shrine erected to the Concord grape does so with "mingled emotions."[41] That mingling is complicated even more by the knowledge that Bull himself was a teetotaller. Though he made wine, he did not drink it.[42]

The abundance of new varieties of American grapes and the rapidly spreading cultivation of the vine throughout the country began to form a curious new taste: people began eating grapes, as they might do with apples or peaches or cherries, instead of making them into wine. Of course, the fact that grapes were good to eat was no mystery: ancient laws prohibit the casual picking of grapes from vineyards, sufficient testimony that people would do so unless prevented. The French language recognizes both raisins de table and raisins de cure , and of the former there are enough varieties to show that the taste is one going far back into botanic history. But table grapes, in the countries of vinifera, were strictly secondary; the destiny of the grape as a source of wine was so obvious that it was not thought of as a crop for any other purpose (one has to except the raisin grape, while noting that the raisin is, like wine, another form of preserved, not fresh, grape). In America the case was different. On the whole, the native varieties, even improved, were not up to wine-making standards, nor would they make raisins, the ratio of sugar to water being too low. But they had strong flavors (much more marked than those of the relatively bland vinifera), and enough sugar to make them palatable, if not enough for sound, stable wine. Gradually, the native grapes became a staple of the fresh fruit market instead of the winery.

Underhill's vineyards at Croton, for example, were first developed to supply fresh fruit to New York. But grapes for the table were still a new idea: one story says that when the first fresh grapes were sent to Buffalo for sale from the Chautauqua district, no one at first knew what they were meant for.[43] By the end of the century, for some parts of the community at any rate, the grape was almost divorced from its immemorial role as the mother of wine and was thought of rather as a fruit for eating or as a source of pasteurized, unfermented grape juice—a strange transformation! The force of the prohibition movement no doubt had much to do with this development. But the nature of the native grape in itself made it possible. The change is clearly described by Liberty Hyde Bailey (no prohibitionist). North America, he writes, "has given the world a new fruit in its grapes. This American grape is much unlike the European fruit. It is essentially a table fruit, whereas the other is a wine fruit." And, he adds, "it was not until the middle of the present century that the modern table use of the native grape began to be appreciated and understood."[44] In contemplating the phenomenon of the grape boom of midcentury and after, then, one must keep in mind this new American taste for grapes as table fruit as an element in it.


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8 Eastern Viticulture Comes of Age
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