Vitis rotundifolia, or Muscadine grapes – Credit Wikipedia.com
Which grapes dominate winemaking today?
There are six grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling – that dominate winemaking, and all of them are grown in San Luis Obispo County. They have been referred to as the “noble grapes” by generations of wine writers and authorities who identified these grapes at the top of an aristocratic hierarchy in Vitis vinifera. They are European grapes – none are American Heritage Grapes.
Why limit our thinking about any grape’s potential?
It is time to recognize that many grape varieties throughout the world have been neglected and others falsely judged about their potential for winemaking during the last 100 years. Grapes planted and nurtured in environments that favor the specific variety enable growers and winemakers to explore and experiment without prejudice. Historically speaking, over 200 grape varieties of vinifera were planted in San Luis Obispo County during the 19th and early 20th centuries. That spirit has been rekindled in our county where some local growers search for plant material.
Isn’t it time to explore the flavor potential of grapes native to America? Do you know that we have American Heritage Grapes? The Wine History Project endorses this idea. There are more than 79 different grape species across the world and 27 are native to middle America.
Can you name any native American grapes?
This is not an easy question to answer because only a handful of serious growers and winemakers are exploring the flavor potential of native American grape varieties.
Vitis labrusca is the species first discovered by the Pilgrims in the woods of New England. Labrusca is also known as the “northern fox grape.” It bears large berries in black, red or white, the only native grapes to produce this range of colors. It is the most famous of our native species because of the 1849 cultivar, the concord grape, which Americans associate with commercial grape juice and jellies such as those produced by Welch. It is the aroma and flavor that defines these native grapes.
On the website of Palate Press (www.palatepress.com) you will find a “primer” describing indigenous American Grape Varieties in detail. The introduction states that of the eight species of grapes in the Vitis genus, six are native to North America while only vinifera is native to Europe and amurensis to Asia.
Is anyone making wine from native American grapes?
There is one man who has been working on reviving interest in Heritage American Grapes and making wines from them. His name is Jerry Eisterhold and he has been working with native grapes for over 30 years. Jerry grew up in the Gasconade River Valley Missouri, once known as the heartland of American winemaking during the Nineteenth century. Prior to Prohibition, Missouri was the second largest wine producing state. Ohio was first. Missouri is known as the state with the most biodiversity in the United States. Jerry studied soils in the late 1960s at the University of Missouri.
Jerry Eisterhold became a museum designer (his day job). His curiosity paired with his archival skills are the perfect combination for researching our indigenous grapes. He started by perusing hundreds of books on grapes and winemaking but found almost no mention of native American grapes. He discovered that there had been a wide variety of grapes and wines produced prior to 1919, including wines from native grapes. However, when Prohibition laws were passed following the ratification of the 18th Amendment, the vineyards and wineries producing them gradually disappeared.
Vitis labrusca, the fox grape Concord grapes – Credit Wikipedia.com
One Book – Foundations of American Grape Culture by Thomas Vonne Munson – inspired Jerry Eisterhold
Jerry founded his own winery, Vox Vineyards, in Weston, Missouri. Vox Vineyards is the only winery in the United States that has eliminated “noble grapes” and focuses on producing wine from native American grapes.
He faced two major challenges. The first was to develop a business that has no brand recognition. The second was to develop a national recognition of American grapes and wines as an alternative to the current wine culture which is dominated by vinifera. Jerry has been inspiring a few more American winemakers in the Midwest to follow his lead. His grapes and wines are showcasing the potential of American grapes. He is promoting the idea of diversity and encouraging winemakers to learn and experiment with the curiosity and excitement that we now see in the beer industry.
In a recent interview for the Gastro Obscura website, Jerry discussed his inspiration and mission. “In a used bookstore, I found that book by Thomas Volney Munson, (a 19th-century horticulturist and grape breeder) called Foundations of American Grape Culture. In it, T.V., as he was known, identified not only different genuses of grapes, but hundreds of varieties that he had created [with American grapes or hybrids], many of which had commercial success way back when.”
“So I started tracking down the stuff. It took about a dozen years to track down some sixty of them. And then you have to try to figure out how to grow them. And that took about a dozen years. And then you figure out which of them will make a decent wine. And frankly, some of them do not.”
Jerry is referring to T.V. Munson who graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1870. Within three years T.V. became interested in improving various species of grapes native to the United States. He decided to develop new varieties by cross-pollination and hybridization. He moved to Texas and was very successful with his project.
In 1893 he exhibited his collection of grape species at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago; a defining moment in the history of the United States. His work is preserved at the Grayson County College in Denison Texas. The T.V. Munson Memorial Vineyard established there in 1974 preserves many of his cultivars and produces stock for propagation. As interest in his work has expanded, the T.V. Munson Viticulture and Enology Center was opened in 1988. His research materials and other historical documents are available. His studies led to the introduction of more than 300 grape varieties. In 1909 he published his Foundations of American Grape Culture which inspired Jerry to found his vineyards. This book became the standard reference guide for grape culture in the United States.
T.V. also researched and recommended rootstocks with Phylloxera resistance for grapes in both Europe and California. They are still used worldwide. His work was vital in preserving French vinifera during the Phylloxera epidemic in Europe. He is the second American (following Thomas Edison) to be named a Chévalier du Merite by the French Government in 1888.
His book Foundations of American Grape Culture has been reprinted and is available to Amazon in three formats – Kindle, hardcover and paperback.
A New Flavor Frontier at Vox Vineyards
Jerry reminds us that it has been over forty years since California wine defeated French wine in the Judgement of Paris. He laments that American wine producers have made little progress in developing and crafting wines possessing a true American character. This movement has begun to develop in San Luis Obispo County during the last five years.
Jerry believes that all great wines begin in the vineyard and so he searched for the soils he wanted to plant with the grapevines to fulfill his dream of developing a North American wine culture through the cultivation of American Heritage grapes. The vineyard is located above the Missouri River valley near Kansas City, Missouri.
He currently has 30 varieties growing on the first six acres planted. He expanded to thirteen acres. The rare collection of American Heritage Grapes can be viewed at his website: www.voxvineyards.com/our-story.
His brand is TerraVox – terra meaning earth or ground and vox meaning voice or speech. He states “this is our goal, to let the land speak for itself through our wine, and for our wine to be a Voice of the Land.”
You Can Taste Wines produced from American Heritage Grapes
According to the Gastro Obscura website, many American wines are syrupy and not interesting but they recommend the three wineries below which offer you the chance to explore the frontier of American wines.
1) Vox Vineyards, Missouri
Eisterhold’s vineyard has a tasting room at the Green Dirt Farm Creamery in Weston, Missouri. It also offers curbside pickup and ships to most states in the U.S. Website is www.voxvineyard.com/ourstory
2) The Skeleton Root, Ohio
This winery in Cincinnati—the hilltop vineyards are located in an area known as Over-The-Rhine, another forgotten cradle of American wine. When you visit the vibe-y tasting room, ask for wines made with native grapes, because they also make wines with their European cousins. (Try pairing the Pét-Nat with pub fare.) The winery also ships across the United States. Website is www.skeletonroot.com
3) Fairhaven Vineyards, Texas
Texas is home to a particularly high concentration of native grapes. This vineyard located in the highlands of the Sabine Valley in Hawkins,
East Texas, which Eisterhold has corresponded with more than any other, offers wines such as an American-hybrid Lomanto, which they also ship for online orders. The website is www.fairhavenvineyrds.com
- Article on Gastro Obscura Website dated 2/26/2022 – The Tyranny of Europe’s Noble Grapes by Alex Mayyasi, Editor of Gastro Obscura.
- Website Palate Press (www.palatepress.com ) with Primer on indigenous American Grape Varieties.
- Website: Vox Vineyard (www.voxvineyard.com )
- Website: The Skeleton Root, urban winery and event space in Over the Rhine, Cincinnati (www.skeletonroot.com )
- Website: www.grayson.edu . The article is entitled The Grape Man of Texas: T.V. Munson/ Grayson College.
- Wikipedia: Thomas Volney Munson
- Website-Texas History: (www.texashistory.unt.edu) Article is The Legacy of T.V. Munson: His Grapes and His School of Viticulture and Enology.
- Book: Foundations of American Grape Culture by Thomas Volney Munson. It has been reprinted and is available to Amazon in three formats – kindle, hardcover and paperback.