Reichl: HISTORY IN A GLASS
Celebrating the Repeal
The Vine Dies Hard
It could hardly be expected that a part of the United States which has had as fantastic and extraordinary a history as California, would be anything but extraordinary as far as the history of its viticulture is concerned. A state in which a Mexican general, born a Spaniard, received as his guest a Russian princess who had arrived in America by way of Siberia and Alaska, and protected this Russian princess from the amorous advances of an Indian chief, is no ordinary state. The treatment which the vine has received in California has been exactly as fantastic and as extraordinary as that story, and involves an even greater array of nationalities and events tragic and comic.
In California was planted the largest vineyard in the world, 3,060,000 vines that never produced anything worth drinking. California also boasted the largest small vineyard, a single vine planted in 1783 by a Mexican woman named Maria Marcelina Feliz, and known to have yielded upward of five tons of grapes. The European vine was introduced into California in 1770 by Franciscan missionaries, who brought over with them what were supposed to be Malaga cuttings and planted them around their missions from San Diego up the old Camino Real as far as Monterey and Sonoma. But the grapes they planted were not of any very good variety, and the wine they made was nothing to boast about.
We can safely say that when the Forty-niners arrived on the coast, they found no very good wine awaiting them. People of almost every nationality made a contribution of some sort to early California wine-making. A Hungarian nobleman and a Finn were leading pioneers; Chinese labor was used almost exclusively in the vineyards until 1890; a member of the Japanese royal house was, for several decades, the owner of one of the state’s best vineyards; German emigrants became winemakers; a score of leading Frenchmen planted vines and gave their vineyards French names; and a large part of California’s present wine production is in the hands of Italians. Thus a sort of viticultural League of Nations has existed in the state, with almost every race that played a part in the building of America contributing its penny’s worth to the creation of California’s vineyards and wines.
Among these strangers who appeared on the scene was a remarkable individual who came as Count Agoston Haraszthy, but presently had Americanized himself into plain Colonel Haraszthy. He introduced, it is said, the Zinfandel grape; and the cuttings of this variety, carried off and planted all over the state, undoubtedly changed the whole trend of California viticulture. It became an industry and began to grow like the prairie towns of the same period. California made up its collective mind to “go places,” and the familiar American cycle of boom-and-bust was under way.
The “bust” was due to perfectly evident causes. The first boom lasted a little more than ten years. Most of the get-rich-quick planters knew very little about grape varieties, and still less about wine. Huge crops were harvested, but the wine was poorly made, and found no ready market. Then, to cap the evil days, the phylloxera arrived, that parasite which devours the roots of grapevines. The disastrous effects it had on the vineyards of California were hardly less than those it wrought a few years later on the vineyards of France. Whole vine- yards were wiped out and abandoned; all conceivable remedies, from those of science to those of witchcraft, were tried, with little or no success.
But the vine dies hard. By 1876 in California it was on its way back. The resurrection was due largely to the efforts of two individuals, Professor George Husmann and Charles A. Wetmore. Professor Husmann was America’s first wine technician of real consequence, and did more than any other person in this country to develop the phylloxera-resistant roots on which not only all California wine grapes, but virtually all European wine grapes as well, are now grafted.
Mr. Wetmore’s contribution to the second boom now about to begin was that of a vast enthusiasm and a better knowledge of grape varieties which he had acquired on his pilgrimage through European vinelands: Returning from that tour, he labored to impart this enthusiasm and this knowledge to the wine producers of California. Those whose interest in vineyard culture was not altogether speculative soon began to plant good grape varieties. There were also people of independent means who began to produce fine wine as gentlemen wine growers; and thanks to the cheap Chinese labor which was then available, acre after acre along the steep slopes overlooking the Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Clara valleys was cleared of brush, plowed, and planted in vines. Storage cellars were dug back into the hills; and big, cool, thick-walled stone wineries began to spring up all over northern California. A good many of these carried simply the names of their owners; others were given classical or purely fanciful or foreign names.
There must have been a hundred such vineyards, within fifty or sixty miles of San Francisco Bay, that were relatively famous in 1890, and even more famous at the turn of the century. Some had changed hands, but most of them were going their sound and prosperous way in 1910. A decade later, the cultivation of a fine vineyard had become a millionaire’s or a bankrupt’s occupation; and all but a pitiful few of the great wine names of California had disappeared.
It is difficult, across the chasm of twenty-five years, to see national Prohibition as the better California vintners saw it. One of the principal arguments of the Prohibitionists was that essential foodstuffs were being diverted by the liquor industry; but wine grapes are not raisin or table grapes, and what could the growers do with wine grapes except make wine? Good wine grapes are grown on hillsides where little else, least of all cereals, will grow; then why were vines torn up which had taken a decade or more to come into full production? The wine growers of California had seen their fathers make wine, and their friends and their fathers’ friends drink it without drunkenness, and with real enjoyment. It is not a pleasant thing to be told, when you have loyally and honestly pursued an occupation which has been honorably regarded since the beginnings of human literacy, an occupation which your father and grandfather pursued before you, that your occupation is criminal. But that was the law. So the upland vineyards were uprooted, and the equipment and the cellars were allowed to fall into disrepair.
It looked at first as though Prohibition meant the end of the wine-grape industry in California—but not for long. California farmers actually found it profitable between 1915 and 1934 to plant one hundred thousand acres of red-wine grapes.
Now a word about the grapes that were planted during this period. The public in the East wanted and demanded what were euphemistically described as “juice grapes,” and was prepared to pay fancy prices for them. These home winemakers knew little about wine and less about grapes. As it happens, almost all of the fine-wine grapes of the world are small, thin-skinned, fragile, and not particularly prepossessing. They ship poorly. On the other hand, the thick-skinned, tough, common varieties—Alicante Bouschet, Mataro, Carignane—travel well; and it was these which the winemakers of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston wanted and secured. As a result, hundreds of acres of superior wine grapes in California were torn up and replanted in these varieties, which never could yield, even under the best conditions, anything but mediocre wine.
The damage Prohibition did to California is not likely to be repaired for another fifteen or twenty years. With a few notable exceptions, those who had created the traditions of wine producing in California, and had maintained its standards, did not survive Prohibition. The industry fell inevitably into less scrupulous hands. The decline in the quality of California table wine is partially due to this. Also, let it be remembered, the poor-quality grapes that were planted during the Prohibition era to satisfy the demand of the home wine-makers are still there, still producing.
How long it will take for the wine industry of California to recover from Prohibition and its succeeding evils is difficult to estimate. This hoped-for recovery has been further delayed by the mistaken policy which many of the wine growers adopted after Repeal. Instead of frankly admitting at that time that there was almost no sound, well-aged wine on hand in this country, California’s wine industry decided to brazen it out; no more dishonest and disastrous policy was ever adopted by a major industry. Wines that were poor, unsound, artificially “aged,” artificially flavored, misrepresented, and mislabeled became the rule rather than the exception on the American market. It is to our everlasting credit that we recognized these for the frauds they were, and turned instead to cocktails and highballs. California wine producers have gone through difficult years since the end of Prohibition, but most of the difficulties were very largely of their own making.
Since 1936 and 1937 the situation has changed remarkably and for the better. The intelligent producers of California have begun to plant fine-wine grapes, to make their wine with vastly more attention and care, and to put out wines which are quite able to hold their own against all but the really great wines of Europe.
This country for just and valid reasons condemned the California wines that were being marketed in 1934 and 1935. For no less just and valid reasons, we should now welcome with open arms the excellent California wines which are being produced today; for the vine, at long last, is beginning to receive in the better California vineyards the respect and study and loving care which it deserves, and which it can so richly reward. April 1941From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from History in a Glass by Edited and with an Introduction by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2006 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.