Postscript from ‘Norton Wine: Walking Off To Look For America‘, set for release this June.
Whether it’s ‘what if’ scenarios proposed by historians, or the not-entirely-discountable notion that if Britain had won the Revolutionary War slavery would have ended fifty years sooner, or the classic mockumentary ‘The Confederate States of America’, or me explaining why I showed up three days late for my wedding with a hangover and a beard, I’m a sucker for rewritten history.
There are few common denominators in the world of wine, but if anything significant popped up during my Nortonlust wanderfest, it was the eureka realization that nearly every pocket growing Dr. Norton’s eighteenth century brainchild cultivar in the United States, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, relies on vines planted within the past fifty years. Since then, the Midwest has experienced a viticultural renaissance to rival the reawakening of Europe after the Dark Ages.
Wine’s Dark Ages, of course, was Prohibition.
Following that monumental burst of Puritan soberer-than-thou claptrap—moonshine monkeyshines that began on January 17th, 1920 with the 18th Amendment and didn’t end until its repeal in 1933—American wine production dropped by 94%. Although some wineries managed to survive by obtaining permits to make wines used for medicinal, sacramental and non-beverage additive purposes, and others cashed in on the loophole that allowed citizens to make wine at home, most of these ventures were centered in California.
In California, wine grape production actually increased during Prohibition.
Unfortunately for those with a natural affinity for decent wine, the then-favored varietals were grapes like Alicante Bouschet and Alicante Ganzin—thick-skinned fruit that could survive unrefrigerated cross country transportation, but bore a winemaking pedigree somewhere between Scuppernong and huckleberries. Thus, although Prohibition laid the foundation for the massive California wine industry that today dominates the American market, it was largely at the expense of products we’d drink out of anything but desperation.
A lot of people are surprised to learn that prior to the Civil War, North Carolina ranked as the leading wine producer in the United States and afterward (when the South came out on the wrong of the stick), it was Ohio. In this era, Cincinnati was the most important city in the national wine trade, and when a devastating dose of black rot fungus destroyed the Ohio vineyards, growers moved to New York, especially to the lake-effect terroirs of Finger Lakes. Between the Civil War and World War I, most of the wine made in the United States hailed from east of the Rocky Mountains, and far from producing bulk product, in the closing years of the 19th century, many of these wines were taking top prizes at European exhibitions.
So, if it hadn’t been for the Volstead Act, how might the American wine map look today? Quite differently, I assume.
Here’s a useless—albeit fun—bit of counterfactual American history, one that supposes that this blight upon our national conscience—this pox upon our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happy hour, along with a few other plagues thrown in for good measure—had never happened:
Life Without Prohibition
The Gilded Age of American wine, which today has lost none of its luster, can be traced to the Vienna World Exposition of 1873. At that event, 26,000 exhibitors poured their cellar’s crème de la crème under the Exposition’s motto of Kultur und Erziehung (Culture and Education), and certainly received their come-uppance education when a Norton wine from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Missouri won a gold medal in the red wine category.
Henry Vizetelly, a noted critic of the time, insisted that Missouri would one day rival the great wines of Europe in quality and quantity.
His ominous prediction came true far sooner than even he had anticipated. The death knell for the European wine industry had sounded a decade earlier when French scientist Jules Émile Planchon identified the microscopic root louse known as Phylloxera vastatrix as the source of a vineyard blight in Languedoc that eventually spread throughout much of the wine world. Planchon was set to begin work on a botanical solution to the problem when he died in a massive laboratory fire at Montpelier University in 1870. Unfortunately, his notes were also lost, and today, Planchon’s proposed ‘fix’ remains one of the greatest mysteries in the world of wine.
It was initially believed that he intended to replant French vineyards with Phylloxera-resistant American vines Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia, but when this was attempt was made by French botanist Pierre-Marie-Alexis Millardet the following year, Catawba and Niagara et. al were found to respond poorly to French terroirs and produced wines scarcely suitable for everyday consumption let alone comparable to the classic wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Later that decade, American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley suggested that the grafting of French vines onto American root stock might make the entire plant resistant to the louse, but by then, all of Europe’s Vitis vinifera vines had perished with the exception of one small field of Ugni Blanc, which today remain the only vinifera species produced in Europe.
By the turn of the 20th century, most American vineyards in the central and southeastern United States were planted to Norton and Granny Val, a white Vitis rotundifolia grape similar to Scuppernong.
The cottage wine industry in California, largely located in the south part of the state, centered on Criolla and Moscatel Amarillo, grapes with Spanish origins and primarily used in sacramental and fortified wines, with a few locally-made table wines that were unable to compete with East Coast and Central wines from vast, established markets outside the state.
In the small village of Napa, a few attempts were made to cultivate a Bordeaux-style wine using the Mission grape , most notably at the Inglenook Winery founded by Finnish Sea Captain Gustave Niebaum, but was abandoned after Niebaum’s death in 1908. The property was later purchased by director Francis Ford Coppola who used the ‘ghost winery’ as the backdrop to his Academy Award-winning epic ‘Apocalypse Eh’ (1979) about the War of Canadian Succession (1941-1945).
Isolationism had formed the backbone of American foreign policy throughout the 19th century, and it became more firmly entrenched in the national conscience following the humiliating defeat of the United States during the Spanish–American War, perhaps most famously represented in the massacre of the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (dubbed ‘The Rough Riders’) on San Juan Hill in 1898. Also called ‘Roosevelt’s Last Stand’, it echoed a similar military disaster led by George Armstrong Custer in 1876. Like the doomed expedition at the Little Big Horn, there were no American survivors at San Juan Hill.
Non-interventionalist sentiment remained strong during the Bosnian crisis of 1908–1909, and when incumbent President William Howard Taft won the 1912 election following the assassination of front-running Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson by an unemployed saloonkeeper outside a Milwaukee hotel, the Republican protectionism platform ensured that heavy tariffs on important goods would further undermine US/European relations.
There was no credible argument made in Congress for American intervention in Great European War I (1914-1918), and following a negotiated settlement, which had become a military stalemate despite America’s massive program of arms sales to Great Britain, most of the major combatants, including the Allied Powers, faced a long period of economic instability. This, in part, forced a bankrupt Great Britain to sell Canada to the United States in 1920 for a sum of $24 (in today’s terms, $103), the identical amount for which the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Lenape Indians in 1626. Although the price seems paltry to us today, consider that prime real estate in Manhattan is now worth around $1000 per square foot whereas prime real estate in Canada averages less than ten dollars per square mile.
Shortly after the end of Great European War I, the American Temperance Society revived efforts to enact a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The idea found momentum among pietistic Protestant denominations and African-American labor activists who believed that prohibition would benefit workers, especially in ‘wet’ strongholds like New York City and Chicago.
The most significant Temperance Society rally occurred it the St. Louis Coliseum on September 8, 1918 and was led by temperance leaders from all over the United States. It was intended to be a turning-point for the movement, and may well have proven itself as such, but as a significant rail hub, St. Louis was especially vulnerable to that year’s influenza epidemic, and of the hundred thousand Prohibition supporters who attended the rally, nearly all contracted the virus, and it is believed that only twelve survived to the following year. Among the seventeen keynote speakers at the rally, only a single Connecticut minister avoided infection, and he came to view the disaster as a sign from Jesus Christ, who had a Biblical affinity for wine. He became a vocal Anti-Temperance spokesman and died of cirrhosis in 1926.
1926 also represents a significant milestone in California wine industry. Despite the relative scarcity of mass-appeal wines coming from the Golden State, it became clear that the climate was ideal and the quality bar could potentially be raised to match that of the Midwest.
Researchers determined that there were five unique climatic zones in California, each capable of growing unique wine grapes. On September 8, 1926, the California Wine Association sponsored a wine symposium at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and anybody even vaguely connected with the California wine industry was encouraged to attend. The luminaries of that community (such as it was) included Georges de Latour, James Moffitt, A.L. Tubbs and Hyman Lipschitz. At approximately 9 PM, an earthquake of magnitude 7.3 struck the city of San Francisco, destroying the Palace of Fine Arts and killing everyone inside.
Great Depression I followed the stock market collapse of September 8, 1929, which devastated the manufacturing infrastructure of the United States, but the Midwest wine industry remained bullet-proof. Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois were actually able to up the ante on quality, and in 1938, Stone Hill Winery or Hermann, MO lured Andre Tchelistcheff from the Transylvania National Agronomy Institute where he was attempting to clone Ugni Blanc with Scuppernong to produce a hybrid wine grape that tasted like blood and was capable of surviving in the Congo.
Tchelistcheff’s impact at Stone Hill was immediate and profound: He concentrated his efforts on Stone Hill’s signature grape, Norton, and introduced new techniques and procedures to the region, including the use of small Missouri oak barrels. In addition, his hybrid grape Ugnernong proved to be ideally suited to the thin, rocky Ozarks soils of ‘Missouri’s Rhineland’ and soon began producing white wines said to rival the great Burgundians of the previous century made from the extinct cultivar ‘Chardonnay’.
The Midwest wine industry received another shot in the arm during the Great California Drought I, which lasted from 1933 until about 1939. The few remaining fruit growers in the vast Central Valley were forced to abandoned farms from Redding to Bakersfield, and began an eastward and northerly migration. Many settled in the vast prairies of the new state of Canadia, often forcing residents to relocate to government-run concentration camps in the Yukon. A few of the migrating families, called ‘Callies’, also found swaths of potential wine country in the Midwest and finally abandoned the idea of growing wine grapes west of the Rocky Mountains.
Great European War II coincided historically with The War of Canadian Secession, which began in part as a protest to the reservation system of forced relocation managed by the US Bureau of Canadian Affairs which affected more than 10,000 Canadians, or roughly half the population.
In fact, civil unrest had plagued the new state of Canadia virtually from the outset, and many saw the rebellion as an inevitable outcome of forcing Canadian children to learn English while banning their native French and Canuck in public settings and the abolishment of the metric system. Canadians deeply resented being referred to as ‘frostbacks’ during the inauguration speech of President Franklin Delano Taft in 1933 and being forced to support FDT’s ‘New Deal’ public works programs, primarily the building of bridges, airports, dams, post offices, courthouses and thousands of miles of road entirely of Canadian Sugar Maple trees, which destroyed their economic backbone, maple syrup.
The uprising began on September 8, 1941—a date which has, in FDT’s prophetic words, ‘lived in infamy’. Although the CSA (the Canadian States of America) was only able to raise a ragtag army of lumberjacks, comedians, folk singers and social commentarians armed primarily with axes, farm implements and acoustic guitars, they enjoyed an initial victory at the Battle of Crotch Lake (September 8, 1941)—primarily a result of the Federal forces getting lost on he way and being forced to forfeit.
After that, the war was prolonged simply as a humorous diversion for Depression-ravaged Americans, and the invention of the television allowed the many battles to become the first televised comedy series; The War of Canadian Succession is often credited with being the harbinger of the Golden Age of the new medium. Millions of American families gathered around crude tv sets each night to see what sort of absurd weapons the Canadian rebels would come up with, which included Sherman tanks made out of combines, pancake panzer divisions and their much-anticipated Adam bomb, which turned out to be Adam West in a Batman suit. The war was finally canceled on September 8, 1945 after ratings dropped with the introduction of such mass-appeal comedies as I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The Armistice was signed at the courthouse in Saint-Louis-Du-Ha!-Ha!, Quebec later that day.
Following the war, which effectively ended the Great Depression I, much of Canada’s vast grain fields were found to have suffered irreparable damage through wartime neglect, and were replanted to grape vines. Thus, the Midwest found its first genuine rival in the global wine market. Many Canadians with French roots remained loyal to French winemaking techniques, and they made the most out of several new hybrid varietals capable of surviving winter temperatures of minus 85°F.
The most significant moment for the Canadian wine industry occurred on September 8, 1976 in what has been nicknamed The Judgment of Dildo. A wine competition organized in Dildo, Newfoundland by Steven Spurrier, a Hermann wine merchant, in which judges carried out two blind tasting comparisons: One of top-quality Ugnernong white wine and another of Norton red wine. A wine from Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, Alberta rated best in each category, which caused global surprise as Missouri was generally regarded as being the foremost producer of the world’s best wines.
In the aftermath, a few plucky winemakers decided again to attempt to revive the Californian wine industry, but a series of earthquakes, wild fires, labor strikes, locusts and plagues of hail and darkness soon rendered the idea unfeasible.
In the years since The Judgment of Dildo, the international wine market has changed markedly. The sophisticated American palate had long favored dry, high-quality wines from the Midwest and had largely put the beer industry out of business, but in the 1990s, some of the more resilient brewers like Coors, Miller and Anheuser-Busch, who had survived by making sacramental beer and medicinal ale, began to experiment with small craft beers with funny names. They initially faced a tough road, but gradually, entrenched American tastes began to discover these unique, beautifully crafted products, and Norton, ‘the King of Wine’, found it’s throne threatened. This, of course, forced a re-evaluation of the consumer, and a few forward-thinking vintners began to experiment with mass-produced wines with higher levels of residual (or even added) sugar and innovative packaging, such as jugs and bag-in-the-box. Although the public was slow to embrace this stylistic U-turn, there was a certain aura of sophistication associated with highly-priced sugar-bombs, often fortified with expensive corn alcohol.
By Y2K, the face of the global consumer wine market had changed, and although there were still masses of common , workaday Americans who maintained a preference for complex, dry wine, porch pounders slowly found their niche market. Although the old adage ‘Americans talk sweet but drink dry’ was more true than most of the new breed of wine sophisticates were willing to admit, nearly all the industry’s major wineries added lines of highly-priced picnic wines meant to appeal to the wine cognoscenti, while ‘keeping the lights’ on with their broader-appeal, traditionally vinified, bone-dry shelf-stackers.
The last serious effort to grown wine grapes in California occurred in 2006, when the formerly great Bordeaux house of LaTour purchased the estate of formerly great Ernest and Julio Gallo in Modesto and replanted the vineyards with American varietals transplanted to vinifera rootstock that had been preserved cryogenically, but on September 8, 2007, shortly after the first successful harvest, an offshore earthquake in the Gulf of Farallones, magnitude 9.5, , created a tsunami of such force that all the land from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevadas was inundated—a total area of approximately 10,515 square miles.
On September 8, 2015, the NASA Earth Exchange (NEX) released a climate model study at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California to determine the future viability of California’s wine grape industry. With the assistance of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), they provided detailed view of future temperature and precipitation patterns in California at a 15.5 mile (25 kilometer) resolution, covering the time period from 1850 to 2100.
The 11-terabyte dataset provided the clearest evidence yet that no matter how diligently enologists, viticulturists, growers and people who believe in unicorns pursue world-class California wine, God will always prefer the Midwest.