Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Those First Attempts to Produce (Real) Wine in the New World

Europe has been involved in the wine industry for hundreds of year.  But did you know that the U.S. could have also been an active player 400 years ago, if not for colonists other interest?

It all began on July 16, 1619 when the King of England, and a Virginia colonist by the name of George Yeardley, decided to start a vineyard of French grapes in the New World.

Ten years before, in 1609, Sir George had set sail for Jamestown as a captain in charge of soldiers but was shipwrecked in Bermuda. Passengers from the doomed ship worked together and built two more ships from supplies on the island. They arrived safely in Jamestown 10 months later.

The Starving Time
But Jamestown was in a desperate state, with most of the settlers dead from sickness, starvation, or Indian attacks. Captain Yeardley and his men were ordered to protect the town until help arrived. Once it had, Yeardley led 150 men into the mountains to search for gold and silver that could be mined.

Chickahominy Indian Agreement
Just four years later, in 1616, Yeardley was appointed Deputy-Governor of Virginia. Understanding what the colony needed to survive and thrive, he promptly reached an agreement with the Chickahominy Indian that secured peace and food for the settlers for two years.  He was appointed to the post again in 1625.

House of Burgesess
Yeardley was well respected in the community. He presided over the initial session of Virginia’s first representative legislative body, known then as the House of Burgesess, (Virginia General Assembly) on July 30, 1619.  In November 1619, Yeardley was appointed to serve as governor of Virginia until 1622.

King James I
King James I was against colonists growing tobacco. He touted Virginia as a fruitful land and saw an opportunity for wine to become a major export product to England. Under the king’s orders, Yeardley took French grapevines back to Jamestown to be cultivated by vignerons (winemakers) who knew how to tend the vines correctly and could produce a drinkable wine.

Although there were abundant wild grapes in the New World, the “wine” produced from them was acidic and sour. Colonists had no patience with winemaking and let the wine “age” 5 or 6 days before drinking it. The French grapes flourished but the winemaker died.

How to Make Wine
By 1620, more winemakers and over 10,000 vines had arrived in the New World. King James I commanded that every householder in the colony be given a booklet written by John Bonoeil with the "instructions how to plant and dress vines, and to make wine." These booklets were the first written instructions given to American winemakers.
According to Bonoeil’s instructions, “if the grapes be too hard, they may boil them with some water; . . . and then let them work thus together five or six days . . . After that, you may draw it, and barrel it, as we have said, and use it when you need. I have oftentimes seen such wine made reasonable good for the household. And by this means every man may presently have wine in Virginia to drink.”

Jamestown in 1620
But the colonists had little time or patience to plant and tend wine grapes; there was far too much money to be made with tobacco. What wine that did get sent back to Britain was said to have spoiled during the long voyage and was considered to be “rather of scandal than credit to us."

By 1625, the king had commanded that vineyards be planted by all land owners – “Wherefore now we have taken an order that every plantation . . . shall impale [fence] two acres of ground, and employ the sole labor of 2 men in that business [planting grape vines] for the term of 7 years, enlarging the same two acres more, with a like increase of labor . . . By this means I hope this work will go really forward, and the better if good store of Spanish or French vines may be sent us.”

The Virginia General Assembly also passed a law that required every male over the age of 20 to plant 20 grape vines. 

But in the end, colonists refused to give up the economical advantages of growing tobacco, and the vineyards and winemaking fell to the wayside. By the mid-1650’s it was apparent, Virginia was not going to become the land of wine and vines. Tobacco was king and would reign for another 300 years.

~ Joy