WHEN towards the end of a sultry afternoon last spring — it was June 7th, to be exact — my wife and I said good-bye to Capitaine Francis de Luze on the station platform at Bordeaux and climbed aboard the Sud-Express bound for the Spanish frontier, we were unaware that in taking leave of a very dear friend we were also bidding farewell for an indefinite period to the two institutions he so completely symbolizes: the wines of France, and France herself.
One of the corollaries of this, the bitterest chapter in France’s history, is the suspension of imports into this country of her many familiar products — including, of course, her wines. No longer do the genial wares of Bordeaux, the Côte d’Or, of Épernay and Reims, move westward. For Americans, apart from existing ‘stocks on hand,’ the curtain for the time being is down.
To some the fate of French wines may perhaps rank as one of the lesser horrors of war, yet there are many to whom even the temporary demise of these unique exponents of a graceful civilization will be a matter of deep regret. The approaching dearth of imported vintages has, however, already caused more and more Americans to become aware of the potentialities of their own native wines, and many an American ‘connoisseur’ who lately shuddered at the very mention of California Claret or New York State Champagne has discovered to his reluctant surprise that a number of American wines are not only passable but actually good.
As to the salutary effect of this conclusion upon the American vintner, let us consider for a moment the immense wineland that is California, whose three principal viticultural regions (the Southern Counties, from San Diego to Los Angeles; the Central District, which includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys; and the Northern Coast Counties — Sonoma, Napa, Alameda, Santa Clara, and so forth — clustering around San Francisco Bay) provide between them an amazing variety of soil and climate, and together produce about nine tenths of all our native wines.
Appropriately enough, the first West Coast wine vineyards were those of the San Diego Mission, founded by the Spanish Padres in 1769, but almost a century was to elapse before wine was produced throughout California on any considerable scale. In 1850, however, destiny in the person of a Hungarian nobleman, Count Agoston Haraszthy, descended upon the startled inhabitants of Sonoma County with a blare of trumpets, a fanatical zeal, and a couple of hundred thousand vines and cuttings acquired in the course of a whirlwind tour of Europe’s vineyards. To the herculean labors of this fabulous individual and his baggage of exotic flora and fauna may be ascribed the definite orientation of California viticulture and its preponderant function today — that of raising and adapting to its own purposes a wide variety of European grapes.
The going has been hard. Winemaking is a tough game, and even the favored Sun-kissed State has suffered many vicissitudes — diseases of the vine, ill-advised policies of quantity production, and, worst of all, the blight of Prohibition. At the time of repeal, seven years ago, the majority of California vineyards were planted with high-yield but relatively low-quality grapes which during the dark Volstead years had been shipped in huge quantities to the industrious but undiscriminating bootlegger, speak-easy proprietor, and amateur wine-maker of that unlamented epoch. In addition to the necessity for replanting and for finding new cooperage, the native vintner at the dawn of the new era was faced in many states with restrictive and confusing legislation, as well as abysmal ignorance in respect to wine on the part of the general public. In spite of these adverse factors, he has made marked and rapid progress, particularly during the last two or three years.
It is true that a majority of the five hundred odd California wineries still cling to borrowed geographical appellations such as ‘Burgundy,’ ‘Moselle,’ ‘Port,’ ‘Sherry,’ and the like, but up to a certain point the use of familar foreign names to designate blended wines of a general type is justified, and it can scarcely be claimed that anyone is thereby deceived. Those who sneer at native ‘Chablis’ and ‘Sauternes’ should remember that the average French variety labeled in similar manner is often pretty bad, and that, while the great wines of France are incomparable, they form but an infinitesimal fraction (not more than two or three per cent) of the total French wine production. As a matter of fact, there is no earthly reason why the fortified wines of Southern California (wines to which alcohol is added after or during fermentation — known in the trade as ‘sweet’ wines) should not be called, for convenience’ sake, California Port or Sherry, as the case may be. Certainly they bear little resemblance to the great wines of Oporto and Xeres, but neither does the Porto Blanc that one used to get at the corner bistro.
As regards the natural unfortified table wines, which to the confirmed winedrinker hold by far the greatest interest, the question is open to debate. It is probable that for some time to come the staple blends of the Central District will be with us in the form of ‘ brand ‘ Clarets, Burgundies, Moselles, and Sauternes, and as frankly blended wines they have — at a price — their place. However, among the more progressive and farsighted growers in those districts which produce the best of all California natural or ‘dry’ table wines, — the coastal counties around San Francisco Bay,— an enlightened few are now energetically pursuing a policy of quality and individuality rather than quantity and uniformity, with the result that today it is a matter of more or less common knowledge that the best California ‘dry’ wines will stand comparison with all but the great European wines. You will not find in California, or anywhere else other than in loco, the counterparts of Mouton, Montrachet, or Romanée-Conti, but among the genuine varietal wines of the West Coast (that is to say, wines made in each case from a single variety of grape) is to be found many a bottle that compares favorably with imported St. Julien or Graves, or Beaujolais. Moreover, your drinker of European wines will immediately recognize the affinity of certain California wines to those of corresponding French regions.
For example, it is apparent to anyone accustomed to the Médocs of the Gironde that a well-made California Cabernet with a few years of bottle age is, so to speak, one of the family. And indeed why not, since it is the same Cabernet grape that forms the principal ingredient of Lafite, Margaux, and Latour? Likewise the Pinot, Semillon, Sauvignon, Riesling, and other European grapes, though transplanted to the soil of Napa and Sonoma Counties or the Livermore Valley, can and do, when conscientiously vinified, produce attractive natural wines bearing a recognizable resemblance to their prototypes of the Côte d’Or, Sauternes, or, if we must speak of it, the Rhine. The resemblance is naturally tempered by differences in soil and climate which induce individual characteristics, and it is, of course, this very individuality which lends interest to the varietal wines of the West Coast. It is heartening to note that such leading wineries as Inglenook, Wente, Paul Masson, and others have so far risen above old inferiority complexes as to dispense with European borrowed titles and give their best wines the grape and geographical appellations they deserve. Thus a San Francisco Bay ‘Lafite’ gives way to the far more informative designation of Napa County Cabernet, and California ‘Yquem’ sails proudly under its true colors as Livermore Valley Sauvignon — which is just as it should be.
From the statistics of the California Wine Institute, an organization created by the growers in 1934 for the purpose of serving, in its own words, ‘as the medium for collective efforts of all kinds in behalf of the $420,000,000 grape and wine industry,’ it would appear that the industry is doing pretty well. In 1934, the first full year after repeal, the total consumption of wine in the United States was just under 33,000,000 gallons. Since then consumption has steadily progressed, reaching for 1939 a total of 76,721,911 gallons. The figures for last year are at present writing incomplete, but the total for 1940 will probably not be far from 90,000,000 gallons. Considering that the consumption of French wines in this country has averaged for the last few years but little over one million gallons per annum, the California showing, constituting approximately 90 per cent of the grand total, is not unimpressive.
If the wines of California are beginning to receive in many parts of the country the recognition they justly deserve, what of our Eastern vineyards? Readers of the encyclopædic Messrs. Schoonmaker and Marvel, and of Baltimore’s wine sage, Mr. Philip Wagner (required homework for Œnophilosophy I), are aware that the Eastern part of the United States and bits of Canada are the natural habitat of our native grape species, which differ so completely from Vitis vinifera, the single species from which all the European varieties derive. Such readers will have followed with solicitude the early colonists’ unsuccessful attempts to adapt the tender vinifera to our rigorous Eastern climate, and, on the other hand, learned with satisfaction — mostly academic — that by the middle of the last century prosperous vineyards of native and hybrid varieties flourished on the shores of Lake Erie, around Cleveland, in parts of Missouri and the Carolinas, in both the Ohio and Hudson River Valleys, in Central New Jersey, and in the Chautauqua and Finger Lake districts of New York State. They know that the appearance in 1882 of the disconcertingly high-yield Concord grape was an immensely important event in the history of grape culture, but perhaps on the whole an unfortunate one, because while splendid as unfermented grape juice it makes a pretty unpleasant wine, whose aroma has been likened to ‘the effluvia arising from the body of a fox.’ They surmise that as a result of this stricture all Eastern grapes have been unfairly stigmatized as ‘foxy,’ a conclusion stoutly denied by Mr. Wagner, who with admirable objectivity recounts that ‘in an effort to verify this contention I have been at pains to sniff the effluvia of several kinds of fox in a number of celebrated zoos, and have been unable to detect the faintest resemblance.’
In the belief, however, that the best way to acquire practical knowledge about wine grapes is to consort on the spot with those who grow them, it seemed logical to turn to Mr. Charles D. Champlin, grandson of one of the pioneers and founders of the wine industry in that region which for almost a century has consistently led the field in American Sparkling Wines — the Finger Lakes District of Western New York State.
To my inquiries Mr. Champlin responded with a kind invitation to attend this year’s vendange, and since the grapepicking was already under way, it being the first week in October, naturally my wife and I lost no time in getting ourselves to the East Boston Airport and on to a west-bound plane. At the Rochester Airport we were met by Mr. Champlin’s nephew, who was to pilot us on our seventy-mile drive to the southeast.
Skirting the shores of Keuka Lake, the road, after traversing Hammondsport, the shipping centre of the region, turns northward again below the uplands with their rows of trellised vines. Our guide slowed down for a passing truck, then ran the car up the short incline leading to a long stone building nestling among the trees.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘here we are!’
Above the entrance was a painted wooden sign with the legend: PLEASANT VALLEY WINE CO. BONDED WINERY No. 1. Above it a larger sign: U. S. POST OFFICE, RHEIMS, NEW YORK.
We stepped inside. From the Stamps and General Delivery window issued a familiar and penetrating scent, the sweet, heady aroma of newly pressed grapes.
‘With the possible exception of the Poste et Télégraphs at Beaune, it’s the nicest post office I’ve ever smelled,’ my wife observed.
Proceeding through a short passageway, we arrived at the combined office, reception hall, and dining room of the winery, where we were received by the head of the house.
From past experience I have come to realize that when a wine man starts off by talking about his vines rather than of distribution, markets, overhead, and sales resistance, you can be quite sure that everything is going to be lovely. You know that his heart is in the right place, and that he is primarily what every good wine-grower must be, a man of the soil. Moreover, if you are wise you will never refuse an owner’s invitation to visit his vines, since there is as much to be learned about wine in the vineyard as in the cellar — sometimes more.
As Mr. Champlin piloted the car up the precipitous narrow road leading to the leafy slopes about the winery, he discoursed on the origin of the business. The original Charles Davenport Champlin was among the first if not the first of the Lake Keuka growers of grapes in sizable quantities. Aware of the need of expert guidance, he imported from the province of Burgundy in France a certain Monsieur Jules Masson, who, steeped in the lore of that older Reims, assumed the tending of the vines and blending of the cuvées in strict accordance with the ancient traditions. Today a grandson Masson remains in consultative relationship with the grandson Champlin.
Wandering among the rows of sundrenched vines, brushing elbows with the grape-pickers (yes, they do sing as they work), we were irresistibly reminded of a particular section of the golden slopes of Corton above the Clos-du-Roi which overlooks the plains of Burgundy and the road to Nuits-Saint-Georges. One could well understand that successive Massons felt at home here.
But now Mr. Champlin was talking of the present and of the future: prevention of soil erosion, carbonate of ammonia mixtures, new findings of the State Agricultural Experiment Station, new crossing of species. As he talked he would stoop over and detach a bunch of purple Eumelan from its vine, examining it with a velvet touch, offer you a grape to munch, explain its particular function in the making of a cuvée. Clinton, Ives, Elvira, Dutchess, Catawba, even the lowly Concord, were represented, but he was perhaps proudest of his Delawares. Pale rose in color, with a bloom of ashen mauve, they are by common consent the tops in Eastern white wine grapes.
With the afternoon sun striking flames of color from the upper slopes of maple and oak, we descended the hillside past creaking wagons loaded high with fruitladen containers. At the winery door preceding carts were unloading. In the pressing room eager hands spread the grapes over the receiving tables, whence in burlap covering they were conveyed to the broad wooden presses.
The details of Champagne making are too familiar to need recital here. Suffice it to say that in this establishment each step of the traditional métkode Champenoise is meticulously adhered to. No vacuum tanks or carbonization for the Champlin family. After the first period of fermentation, the various musts are judiciously blended into cuvées. In the following spring the wine is bottled. In each bottle there then takes place the secondary fermentation which produces those pleasing bubbles. As the wine clarifies, the sediment begins to deposit.
The bottles are now stacked in pupitres, — or A-racks, as they are called here, — neck downward at the suitable angle. For the next couple of months a talented individual called in France a remueur (and in New York State I forget what) passes daily among the A-racks, giving to the base of each bottle a skillful twist designed gradually to work all the sediment down on to the cork. The process of degorging, or extracting the sediment-coated cork, is accomplished by freezing the neck of the bottle. A gentleman with a fine-meshed catcher’s mask (every now and then a bottle explodes) pops the cork, which brings away with it the sediment neatly encased in its globule of ice. The bottle is then brought to capacity by the addition of the dosage, — a small shot of sugar-crystal dissolved in brandy and old wine, — recorked, wired, labeled, and stowed away in the cellar. The whole cycle takes about three years. It’s worth it.
That evening we dined in the reception hall of the winery. The legs in the Gothic fireplace crackled briskly, intermittently throwing into relief the dark hand-hewn ceiling beams. Among other things Mr. Champlin is famous for his special dishes, and dinner was a memorable affair: an amazing chowder which would put to shame many a bouillabaisse, the thickest and most succulent porterhouse steak I have ever seen, potatoes in a deep dish au gratin and the tenderest of lima beans in cream, a cunningly mixed salad, and New York State cheese, of pungent flavor and a real bite. Of natural still wines there were four, three whites and a red, each one from a specific grape of a single year — a Catawba, a Dutchess, a Delaware, and a red Eumelan.
To anyone accustomed to the comparative suavity of European varieties, these highly personalized and almost belligerently forthright Eastern natives are in their uncompromising individuality something of a surprise. You may like them or you may not. Some people prefer French mustard, others English. But of one thing I am certain: in all instances where these remarkable grapes can be successfully grown and vinified they should be bottled as straight varietal wines and so labeled — grape name, place name, the grower’s or bottler’s name, and the year. Delaware, Elvira, Iona, Brighton, Dutchess, and the popular Catawba, which owes so much to the original Nicholas Longworth, and vice versa; and with them our native reds, the Norton, Ives, Clinton, Eumelan, and of course the ubiquitous Concord — these quite literally are the ‘wines of the country.’ While those of California more closely approximate the familiar types of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Cotes-du-Rhone, it is here in the East, where the European grapes were never able to thrive, that are to be found the wholly characteristic products of our own indigenous vines. To tag any one of these with a Gallic euphemism is about as appropriate as attempting to fit a conical stage-Frenchman’s hat to the craggy brow of General Hugh Johnson.
Towards the end of the meal, our host produced a bottle of his best Brut Champagne made from a special cuvée and possessed of considerably more finesse than his well-known Extra Dry which had previously been served as an apéritif. As the embers in the big fireplace glowed a duller red, and the bubbles in the glasses before us worked more slowly, some association of ideas brought sharply back the memory of an evening in the Marne only a few short months ago. As on many previous occasions, my wife and I were guests of Jacques Bollinger, head of the great Champagne house that bears his name. To commemorate an occasion experienced in common during the last war, he had brought from the cellar with his own hands a magnum of his magnificent 1915 vintage. The talk naturally centred on the eternal subject of the vines.
Yes, the conversation was much the same — but with a difference. The windows were tightly shuttered so that no light would show. Two days before, the garden of the house in which we sat had been bombed and a part of the cellars which adjoined it demolished. All the servants, together with half the civilian population of Ay, had departed. Our arrival before dinner had interrupted a curious ceremony. At the small grate in the drawing-room fireplace the master of the house and his wife had been burning their private papers. One letter on creased and yellowed note paper was held out. Squaring his shoulders, Bollinger put it carefully away in his wallet.
‘It is from my grandfather,’ he said, ‘describing the Germans’ entrance into Ay in 1870. My father went through it again in 1914. For us this will make the third time. A matter of tradition.’
Here too, in the Champagne region of the New World, the sense of tradition runs strong and deep. Like their wines, the roots of these people are in the soil. But their heads are in the air, and in their blood runs the pioneer’s determination to carry on the endless battle with nature, to develop and improve their native species, and in the end to vindicate the observation made by Leif the Lucky a thousand years ago that this land is a land of great viticultural promise.
‘How,’ I asked Mr. Champlin as we were leaving, ‘did your Champagne get its name?’
‘ Well,’ he said, ‘ it was this way. When my grandfather completed his first cuvée he sent a case to his old friend Marshall Wilder in Boston. It took some time to get there. The railroad in those days reached only as far as Bath, and it didn’t run as regularly as it does now. However, when it arrived Mr. Wilder gave a banquet. The guests liked the wine and asked the name.
‘“It hasn’t got a name,” Mr. Wilder said. “It is a present from my friend Champlin out in Steuben County, New York.”
‘It seems there was a pause, and then an elderly gentleman raised his glass and said, “I suggest that a suitable name for this excellent wine would be Great Western, since, as you tell us, it came all the way from our great western country.”’
‘I guess you people in Massachusetts,’ observed Mr. Champlin, — the present one, — ‘used to think of us as kind of frontiersmen.’
In a sense — the best sense — some of us still do.