November 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines

Unexpected Characters in Wine History

Thomas Pinney's most recent book includes engaging portraits of 13 industry personalities

by Hudson Cattell

The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” is Thomas Pinney’s third contribution to the history of wine in the United States. Unlike his definitive two-volume “A History of Wine in America,” which presents the history in a traditional manner, Pinney’s latest book tells the story of the past 200 years through the lives and contributions of 13 people who either played a significant role in creating the U.S. wine industry or helped it move in a new direction. By devoting a chapter to each person he had the opportunity to give a longer and more rounded portrait of the individual—and to do so in a highly readable manner.

In an era when it is fashionable to make lists of people or events and rank them in order, Pinney makes it clear from the outset that the people he has chosen to profile are not part of a “most important people” list. While Nicholas Longworth, Robert Mondavi and Ernest and Julio Gallo (who count as one person on his list of 13) are well known and would be obvious choices to make many people’s lists, there are others whose names will be unfamiliar to many readers. For example, Charles Kohler and Percy T. Morgan were both important to the business side of California wine in the 19th century. Others on the list were chosen because they brought something new to the American wine scene: Andrea Sbarboro, an Italian immigrant who helped bring Italian Swiss Colony Wines into prominence in the 1880s, was a forerunner of the Italians who played a dominant role in the growth of the American wine industry after Prohibition; Cathy Corison, proprietor and winemaker at Corison Winery, was chosen to represent the increasing importance of women in the industry.

The early history of wine in the United States begins with the many unsuccessful attempts at winegrowing along the eastern seaboard in the 17th and 18th centuries. Not enough information is known about most of the individuals who tried to grow grapes to warrant a chapter, and Pinney decided to use John James Dufour, who founded the Kentucky Vineyard Society at the end of the 18th century, as a representative of the early days. Dufour would largely be forgotten today if it were not for his book, “The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide.” Pinney points out, however, that while Dufour did not make the first commercial wine in this country, he made it possible for others to do so. And, as Pinney states in his introduction, one of his purposes in writing the book was to give recognition to some of the overlooked makers of the industry who are deserving of it.

The second chapter is devoted to Nicholas Longworth, who established southern Ohio as a winegrowing center based on the Catawba grape in the second quarter of the 19th century. In 1859, 568,000 gallons of wine were produced around Cincinnati, Ohio, and his Catawba still wine and sparkling Catawba were acclaimed in the United States and Europe.

George Husmann, the subject of the third chapter, had a career that began in Hermann, Mo., in the middle of the 19th century and ending in California, where he moved in 1881, when he was in his 50s. Today he is primarily recognized for his advocacy of grapegrowing and winemaking based on native vines and Norton in particular.

The next four chapters profile individuals who helped build the industry in the years before Prohibition, three of them were from California. In addition to Sbarboro, there was Charles Kohler, whose firm Kohler and Frohling supplied California wine to every sizeable American city by 1875, and Percy T. Morgan, whose brainchild was the California Wine Association. The fourth, Paul Garrett, had his start in North Carolina, where his fortified wines based on the Scuppernong grape led to the creation of a winemaking empire that produced millions of gallons of wine in the South, New York state and California. His best-known brand was Virginia Dare, and his decision to market his wines with proprietary names and bottle them himself was a departure from the customary practice of selling wine in bulk and proved to be a major reason for his success.

Moving to the 20th century, Pinney included Ernest and Julio Gallo for their mass marketing of wine and Robert Mondavi for his determination to make wines that would match up with the finest in the world. Dr. Konstantin Frank was selected for his outspoken advocacy of vinifera in the east. In recognition of the vital importance of science and technology to modern winemaking, a chapter devoted to Maynard Amerine, a friend of Philip Wagner, is a fitting choice.

Two individuals selected by Pinney are likely to come as a real surprise. The first is Frank Schoonmaker, who made a case in the 1930s and 1940s for the regional and varietal labeling of American wines. Schoonmaker felt that consumers would benefit from putting the name of the grape variety on the label and identifying its growing region, and wineries would be able to charge more for such wines. His proposal met with surprisingly strong opposition from the industry, which accused him of stirring up trouble. Schoonmaker also became a major influence in educating a new generation of wine drinkers through his books and newsletters. As an importer in the 1930s, he came up with the idea of designating wines that met his specifications with the words “A Frank Schoonmaker Selection” printed in yellow on a green neck label.

The choice of Cathy Corison to represent the growing importance of women in the wine industry was an arbitrary one in that no one woman could be singled out as making a decisive change in the possibilities open to women in the industry. Pinney’s own strong personal feelings are expressed at the start of the chapter titled “Cathy Corison: Women Become Winemakers,” in which he states that at first glance it would appear that the wine trade is open without restriction to women. “But,” Pinney continues, “as long as we continue to note that such and such a person is a woman CEO or a woman winemaker, there is still an unwelcome hint of surprise in the observation: Should a woman be in these positions? Perhaps the day will come when we no longer specify the female identity in talking about a winemaker or grapegrower, but…that day is not yet.”

Apart from expressing his opinion from time to time, which is never hidden from the reader, Pinney is accurate with his facts and has the ability to tell a good story. The difference between this book and its two predecessors is that his traditional history books were comprehensive and contained a wealth of detail in a relatively short space, which helped make them definitive studies. In “The Makers of American Wine,” individuals become more three dimensional while still solidly in their historical context. In short, this book offers a highly readable history of U.S. wine for those who want an introduction to the subject and an enjoyable and useful companion to his first two books for those who love history. His book is highly recommended.

Thomas Pinney, “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years,” xviii + 318 pages. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, Hardbound, $34.95.

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