Friday, March 7, 2008

Should an indigenous wine culture start with home viticulture?

I put this question out for general contemplation and discussion. Most of us who are interested in growing wine using grape varieties suited to the continental-climate areas of North America think in commercial terms - and while this is certainly necessary, I frequently ask whether to actually get a "wine consciousness" rooted in our wider culture it might in fact be necessary to plant the seed, as it were, at a more fundamental level: the family garden / homestead.

Obviously, a great many people do not have the right kind of yardspace, or even enough space, to plant a family vineyard ... but no doubt many others do. When you think of how ingrained wine is throughout Italy, for example, where even small vineyard plots are such a regular motif across the landscape and therefore have a place in the wider culture, the question becomes obvious for us in North America: how to replicate that here?

The great challenge has until now been the unavailability of wine grapes that can thrive in our overall continental climate: vinifera is just too tender and disease-prone to serve as the main material for a North American wine culture outside of dedicated zones of production where the necessary complications are taken in stride - e.g. grafting to rootstock, spraying, applying winter protection, etc. What is really needed here in our continent are vines that will tough it out with minimal fuss: vines that your average family can stick in the ground, prune, have fun watching them grow, and then harvest the fruit and, one would imagine, make wine for their own use.

And so the question, therefore, is whether the popularization of wine as a cultural motif - something that really hasn't happened in our continent on a wide scale the way other things have been popularized in the wider culture - could take place given the right focus ... Suitable new-generation grape varieties are becoming an ever more real option, and present exciting possibilities for the identity wine in modern North America.


  1. I have just planted 38 chambourcin vines in a new home vineyard. I agree that we need to develop a real home grown wine culture in the middle of the country away from California and its reliance on Vinifera...I am in NW Arkansas up in the Ozarks. I look forward to planting Cynthiana and Noiret next year.

  2. Paul,

    Great job on your website! I couldn't be more supportive of your thoughts on developing local viticultures across America (including CA) based on the breeding of grapes from local wild stocks combined with the best suited cultivars for each region. This was done in a BIG way by T.V. Munson in the late 1800's for the Denison, TX, area, but the concept got killed in Prohibition. Visit my website ( to see how I am trying to follow Munson's century-old lead to develop wine grapes for my locality from my local wild stock. It is the exact opposite of the Green Revolution which produced crops by breeding that were "widely adapted, capable of being grown nearly anywhere agribusiness could provide them with ample doses of fertilizers, irrigation water, herbicides and pesticides." (quote from Coming Home to Eat - Gary Paul Nabhan). We MUST develop locally derived hybrids for our wine that do not depend on the constant bath of pesticides being used on vinifera in the East. It isn't healthy and it is not sustainable in the face of rising petroleum costs.

    Customers need to start asking Eastern wineries for the spray histories on the grapes in their wines! Scientists need to start analyzing wines for residues in a serious manner. Nobody polices pre-harvest intervals on pesticides -it is up to the growers to be conscientious. For example, with $100,000 worth of Chardonnay at stake for the cost of a late spray, with nobody watching what grape grower wouldn't be tempted to spray at harvest?! NO SPRAY is the goal we should be shooting for, not maximizing the number of sprays as seems to be the goal of the chemical dealers and ag extension (typically 20+ sprays per year are recommended for vinifera in the East).

    Keep up the GREAT work, Cliff

  3. Very interesting topic indeed.

    In my opinion this problem is rooted way outside of wine making: Most North Americans don't generally like making anything. It's the age of specialization. You get really good at what you do so you can maximize your $$$ so that you can buy everything from other people that have specializid in other things.

    Anybody in TO can easily grow tomatoes that taste much better than ones available in the store and yet only immigrants do it because it was in their culture before they got here. The North American way is not to home-make but to make money and purchase. We will see how transportation costs will affect this culture over the next few decades.

    By the way, I am planting my 5 cuttings of Landot Noir tomorrow. My back yard is tiny and that's all I can fit.

  4. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

    The last comment - very, very well put. Specialization has created something of a tunnel vision among people, and many of us probably don't discover talents we may have for various things because we buy most of what we need and use, rather than having to think of how to produce it ourselves.

    I do think that with something as critical as food, or as enjoyable as wine, some self-reliance is certainly honorable.


  5. I really think that we should try to have the best vine for our site. Not the most popular, because it may be out of fashion in few year. But if you have a really good grape, that is doing so great on your site that you have almost nothing to do to keep them beautifull, you will always have good grape, and good wine.

    I have 25 hybrid at home, 2 or 3 of each, and they are so different and beautifull, it's great.

  6. What are your opinions on some of the more norther European grape varieties (German varieties?) for growing in North America? I suppose they still would have issues with disease?

    There are a lot of wild grapes growing around where I live. I even have one vine growing in my back yard but I know nothing about how to prune it so that it will yield a good amount of fruit. I hacked it back last winter and this year I have maybe 25 grapes from what seems to be an enormous vine.

  7. Matt,

    If by German (or Austrian even) varieties you mean Riesling, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and such, then these can be successfully grown, and indeed are grown to some extent, in southern Ontario, New York state, etc. But being viniferas, the usual precautions still apply: grafting onto rootstock, spraying as required, and the potential for winter damage in really cold years. Just speaking from my experience with the Southern Ontario examples, these grapes - especially Riesling and Zweigelt - do make very good wines here.