Preferred Citation: Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.


Appendix 1
Fox Grapes and Foxiness

There are two main questions connected with these terms: why fox? and what quality in the grape, exactly, is meant by foxiness? One must note first that more than one species of native American grape has been called "fox grape": at various times the name has been given to labrusca, rotundifolia, riparia, and cordifolia varieties. There is, furthermore, a difference in regional practice; in the North, labrusca is usually meant by "fox grape"; but in the South it usually means the muscadine or rotundifolia grape. If all of these possibilities have to be juggled, the task of explanation, bad enough to start with, grows hopeless. Fortunately, there seems to be something like agreement now that "fox grape" without further modification means some variety of the species labrusca. I shall take that as a starting place.

A second point to be noted is that "fox grape" occurs very early in American history. John Bonoeil, describing the grapes of Virginia in 1622, writes that "another sort of Grapes there is, that runne upon the ground, almost as big as a Damson, very sweet, and maketh deepe red Wine, which they call a Fox-Grape."[1] A report dated 1638 says: "I have not seene as yett any white grape excepting the foxgrape which hath some stayne of white"; John Parkinson writes in 1640 of "The Foxe Grape" that "hath more rugged barke"; and another writer in 1687 speaks of "The Fox-grape . . . in itself an extraordinary grape."[2] William Penn in 1683 writes of "fox grape" as an established name in American speech.[3] The usage thus established at least by the seventeenth century has continued to remain standard: Americans can still talk about fox grapes. Why they did so, and do so, remains a question.

After the historical evidence has been collected and compared, it appears that there are a number of rival theories, no one of them clearly preferable. The best thing to do in the circumstances is to present the details and let the reader judge.


One theory may, I think, be dismissed as purely fanciful: this is the notion that "fox grape" alludes to Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes; on this account, the grape is named after the grapes that the fox in the fable could not reach and therefore called sour.[4] It is true that many native American grapes are sour, but they are all easily accessible, and there is simply no point in resorting to Aesop in order to account for the name of "fox." No early writer even suggests this explanation, and I conclude that it is a late, desperate effort at a solution.

For convenience of comparison I have put together under different headings the explanations that seem to me to be based on comparable principles.

1. Theories that fox means something other than fox

a. Fox grape = wild grape: Waverley Root, Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World (New York, 1980), asserts that fox in the seventeenth century was generally understood to mean "wild" but gives no evidence. The Oxford English Dictionary contains no support for this assertion, and though it seems on the face of it quite plausible, it has not been documented.

b. "Fox grape" employs fox in the sense of "to intoxicate." This meaning is proposed by so eminent an authority as Liberty Hyde Bailey, but again without any evidence.[5] It is true that one of the well-established meanings of fox as a verb is to intoxicate, befuddle, or confuse (the last two senses obviously the result of being treated "foxily"); but there is no evidence that the American colonists meant such a thing at all in reference to the labrusca or other native grapes. They are almost all low in sugar and hence low in alcohol following fermentation. How, then, could such grapes have been regarded as filled with the power to "fox" in the sense suggested? Seventeenth-century Englishmen were not so weak-headed as that.

c. Fox is a distortion of the French faux —that is, it signifies "false" grape. Robert Bolling, an eighteenth-century vineyardist in Virginia, calls the native grape the "faux" grape, and thus suggests this etymology for "fox" grape.[6] So far as I know Bolling is alone in doing so, and, given his fanciful notions, and his liking for French, one may doubt that he had anything but his own notions for evidence. It would have been just like Bolling to have converted the whole question to a matter of misunderstood French. Who were the French who gave the name?

2. Theories of appearance

a. The grape is called "fox grape" because its leaf resembles the print of a fox's paw. Bailey reports this explanation, but without reference to his sources.[7] I have not found it before Bailey, and so I cannot criticize the grounds of its origin.


b. T. V. Munson affirmed that the name comes from the fox-colored wool or pubescence of the underleaf of the labrusca.[8] The unpersuasiveness of this explanation he later implicitly acknowledged by abandoning it in favor of a function theory (see 3b below). The suggestion was repeated by Eunice Fried as late as 1973;[9] thus the most arbitrary notion may be perpetuated long after its natural term of life is over.

3. Theories of animal attraction

a. Fox grapes are so called because foxes delight to eat them.[10] This seems to be one of those pieces of popular animal lore that no one has troubled to track to its source but that many have delighted to repeat. No doubt there is a biblical influence in the idea, from the "little foxes that spoil the vines" in the Song of Songs. I have found no early reference to the phenomenon of American foxes eating American grapes. The evidence seems to be that foxes take no particular interest in wild grapes.

b. Fox grapes are so called because their odor attracts small animals, including skunks, possums, and foxes. This theory was proposed by Munson in Foundations of American Grape Culture (1909) after he gave up his appearance theory (2b above). As a piece of animal lore, it seems as unsupported as that of 3a above; and even if there were evidence for it, why single out the fox, when skunks and possums are much more abundant?

4. Theories that fox refers to odor

These are the most common, and on the whole, most persuasive; but so far as I can show they are not conclusively supported by the evidence. Some representative statements follow:

a. "The Foxe Grape . . . smelleth and tasteth like unto a Foxe": John Parkinson, Theatricum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants (London, 1640).

b. The "fox" grape of Virginia is of "a rank Taste when ripe, resembling the Smell of a Fox, from whence they are called Fox-Grapes": Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (1705).

c. "A strong scent, a little approaching to that of a Fox, whence the name of Fox-grape": Humphry Marshall, Arbustrum Americanum: The American Grove, or an Alphabetical Catalogue of Forest Trees and Shrubs, Natives of the United States, Arranged According to the Linnœan System (Philadelphia, 1785).

d. "There is another property of this grape which alone is sufficient to prove it to be the Vit. vulpina , that is, the strong rancid smell of its ripe fruit, very like the effluvia arising from the body of the fox, which gave


rise to the specific name of this vine, and not, as many have imagined, from its being the favourite food of the animal; for the fox (at least the American species) seldom eats grapes or other fruit if he can get animal food": William Bartram, in James Mease, ed., Domestic Encyclopaedia (1803-4).

There is no need to multiply examples of this view of the question. One may note that the official statement of the U.S. Tariff Commission in 1939 declared succinctly that American fox grapes were so called for "the foxlike odor of their skins."[11] Where, one wonders, did they find their authority? The observation about the source of the odor being in the skins is correct. A very recent writer, Clarence Gohdes, adds the complicating detail that foxy was sometimes altered to catty : but this in reference to the southern muscadine, and then out of regional prejudice rather than in a sober effort to describe.[12] Another complication is added by William Penn, who wrote in 1683 that the fox grape is so-called by "Ignorance . . . because of the Relish it hath with unskilful Palates."[13] What does "unskillfulness" have to do with it?

A final theory may be mentioned. Liberty Hyde Bailey, in Sketch of the Evolution of Our Native Fruits (1898), holds that the term foxiness refers to the odor of the labrusca, as do many other writers, but that the meaning is a late development and was "suggested by the name of the grape" (labrusca means "wild vine"). In Bailey's view, fox originally referred to the intoxicating qualities of the wine made from such grapes; that meaning then passed out of currency, allowing the new one to arise. Bailey and Root (1a above) thus appear to agree on the general sense of "wild" as the meaning of fox .

Whatever the original intention of the name, the preponderant current usage holds that an aroma or taste peculiar to the labrusca grape is what foxiness refers to. Furthermore, that aroma is preponderantly defined as "musky," that is, "having a musky taste or smell, like a fox-grape" (Funk and Wagnalls, Standard Dictionary of the English Language , 1895); "the musk-like flavor of the wild Vitis Labrusca " (Bailey, Evolution of Our Native Fruits ); "the strong, musky, odor and flavor is peculiar to this species" (Munson, Foundations of American Grape Culture , 1909); "the musky wine the native grapes yielded" (Peter Quimme, Signet Book of American Wine [New York, 1975]). Like most of our descriptive terms for tastes and smells, musk and musky do not take us very far towards a perception of what foxiness means. Musk is "an odoriferous reddish-brown substance secreted in a gland or sac by the male musk-deer" (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary ). It is an element in many perfumes, it suggests wildness, and it provokes mixed responses, like anything strong: some people like it, some do not. I do not know what the informing substance is in the odor of musk or whether it has been discovered by chemical analysis. The flavor of the Concord grape, a pure labrusca, has been analyzed, and then synthesized so


that the flavor can be used in soft drinks and other products. One of the main ingredients in that flavor is an ester called methyl anthranilate. But, to complicate things, the ester is not an important constituent of other labrusca grapes (e.g., Niagara).

Many American writers, in an effort to avoid the unflattering foxy , speak of the "grapey" character of labrusca grapes. As a description, this is logically hopeless, since it defines the thing to be defined by the thing to be defined. But, presumably, most Americans will know what is meant, since even if they are Californians and unused to eastern American wines, they will probably know the flavor of Concord grape juice or the taste of Concord grape candy.

It is interesting to look at other attempts to find flavor equivalents to express the aroma and taste of labrusca; some are rather attractive, some quite the reverse. The French scientist Planchon, an expert on American vines, regularly translates foxy as gout de cassis[14] —the taste of black currants; to me, this is a most attractive identification. At other times he compares the taste to that of raspberries; at others, to the fox, or perhaps even worse, to a fishy or gamey sea bird—sauvagine . Here is a passage combining all of these ideas: "Le gout de cassis ou de framboise (foxy taste , gout de renard ou de sauvagine, comme disent les Américains), que rend ces deux raisins peu agréables."[15] The comparison to black currants was also used by the New Zealand plant scientist S. F. Anderson in 1917. Anderson had much experience with American grapes, which are widely planted in New Zealand: he speaks of them as "inferior for winemaking, owing to a peculiar black currant, or, as it is generally termed, 'foxy' flavour that pervades the whole family."[16]

Unattractive descriptions of the foxy taste abound: I shall confine myself to two of them. The Englishman Michael Allen, long expatriated as a winegrower in France, writes: "The grapes of the American vine, when grown in Europe, have a totally unacceptable flavour which the French call gout de fox or even gout de pipi de chat . Once tasted never forgotten."[17] The Russian-born American winemaker, Alexander Brailow, recalled this even more surprising description: "People have tried to compare the smell and taste to things that they know. In Russia, for instance, they say that the grape Isabella, which is grown extensively in Crimea for red wine, smells like bedbugs. It all depends on the association and personal taste."[18]

Fox and foxy applied to grapes have passed into the French language since the phylloxera days. Larousse records the adjective foxé , and the Larousse Dictionnaire des vins the intransitive verb renarder —defined as what wines from American grapes do in the way of smell and taste. Frank Schoonmaker, in his Encyclopedia of Wine (1964), adds that the French speak of the queue de renard to describe the foxy taste. So, if we still do not know for sure why the labrusca is called the fox grape, or why its wines are called foxy, at least two languages agree to use those terms.



Preferred Citation: Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.