Article By: Harvey Finkel
ALTHOUGH, since South Dakota joined the club in 1996, all 5O states and all ten of Canada’s provinces host wineries, those in the east are hardly noticed by network news or international wire service reports, which concentrate on regions three time zones to our west or beyond the ocean to the east. Yet the wine industry in eastern portions of the US and Canada is rapidly developing – both in numbers and quality.
Wines of the east are distinctive. They are born of a greater variety of grapes and other sources – benefited and challenged by many more soils and microclimates, forced to contend with a broader array of diseases and pests, and the repressive actions of governmental powers under the sway of neo-Prohibitionists and sometimes of narcissistic segments of the industry, – than wines grown under Mediterranean-type conditions in tolerant California. Grapes at harvest in the east tend to higher acids and lower sugars – a mixed blessing.
Now we have a worthy account of how the wine industry in the east got from near absolute zero during Prohibition to its most interesting and dynamic current position. Hudson Cattell’s just-published magnum opus, Wines Of Eastern North America, is accurately subtitled, “From Prohibition to the Present – a History and Desk Reference”. We are also given a telescoped history of eastern American viti- and viniculture from the time of the Vineland sighting a thousand years ago. Cattell, now 82, a journalist evolved into a much bemedaled wine historian, is the author of several books on eastern wine, the cofounder and editor of WINE EAST magazine, and has been closely observing the wine trade east of the Rockies for nearly 4O years. He knows everybody – all the legendary figures – and has interviewed almost all of them. He was instrumental in the founding of the Eastern Wine and Grape Archive in Cornell University’s Carl A. Kroch Library. In his records and memory, which he generously shares, repose the dispassionately deposited details of every aspect of eastern wine’s life story. Cattell’s invaluable historical files will ultimately be donated to the Kroch Library or to the Frank A. Lee Library at the Geneva (NY) Agricultural Experiment Station.
The book is based on Cattell’s winery visits, interviews, articles, and his readings of voluminous records left by author such as Philip Wagner, all meticulously documented. It is enhanced by 6O photographs, most by the author, and by seven maps, 16 tables, abundant informative and sometimes entertaining endnotes, an admirable index, and eight often fascinating appendixes, one of which, in 36 pages, recounts the early post-Prohibition vinous histories of the 33 states under consideration. The book is written in Cattell’s unmistakable voice: unhurried, detailed, in twentieth-century American declarative sentences.
Progress in the industry was slow to start. Well after the wasteland of Prohibition, at Cattell’s initiation in 1976, only 125 wineries managed to exist in the 33 states and six provinces covered, but, as is so engagingly related, the aggregate has grown to more than 3OOO. The accelerants of this expansion are explained by narrative and example. Starting in the 193Os, several major foci are apparent. Adhemar de Chaunac and others at Harry Hatch’s T.G. Bright & Company in Ontario were seminal innovators. Charles Fournier adapted knowledge gained in running Veuve Clicquot to making sparkling wine in the Finger Lakes at Gold Seal Vineyards. Philip Wagner widely trumpeted the qualities of French-American hybrids from his base in Maryland at Boordy Vineyard. From 1952, when Konstantin Frank arrived in the Finger Lakes, until his death in 1985, he held forth like a biblical prophet from his Vinifera Wine Cellars. At times, the debate between the Wagnerian advocates of hybrids and the frankly partisan avatars of vinifera became so heated that Cattell and possibly others have referred to “grape racism”.
Easing the way further have been developments not tied to single individuals. Farm winery laws were eventually passed. Advances in viticulture and winemaking have become more widely known. Newly created grape varieties are both hardier and more subtly flavored. Burgeoning neo-prohibitionism was most effectively countered by the mounting medical evidence that moderate consumption of wine promotes health and prolongs life.
It was realized that wineries are good for the economy, the environment, land use, and agriculture. The proliferation of wineries in the east became even more vigorous after 2OOO, especially in the northeast. The quality produced, even in the first years of new wineries, is now almost uniformly satisfactory. Cattell believes that each endeavor is a new experiment, and that success is most dependent upon the determination of the vintner.
This book provides a good story, a wealth of information not readily available elsewhere, and, for some of us, nostalgic pleasure. It will remain a treasured resource. Cattell tells me he’s starting on a new book. I’ve lined up to be his first reader.