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Semantics, Bar Bets and the Battle for Wine History

For my bachelor party in 2005, my friends and I descended on New Orleans, pre-Katrina, for a long weekend of debauchery.  Just as we arrived, a street grifter, part of the New Orleans patina, said to my brother, “I’ll bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes.”  My brother, hardly a sucker, but possessing enough legacy small town character to be cowed, took the bet thinking, “There’s no way this dude is going to know where I ‘got’ my shoes.”

When the grifter smiled 1000-watts of teeth and said, “You got your shoos ON Bourbon St. in Nawlins, Loueesianna,” my brother looked down at his feet now being swallowed in a sea of asphalt on Bourbon St. and reached for his pocket to pull an Abe Lincoln, smiling at the creative semantics that exposed him as tourist, despite the lack of camera.
The issue of semantics is an interesting one in the art of the con and elsewhere because American wine history is full of semantics, in addition to being good fodder for a wine bar bet.

Formed at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and curling southwesterly to Cairo, Illinois where its mouth meets the Mississippi, the Ohio River traverses the perimeters of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana where an eddy-like northwestern flare adjoins the three states and an area known as the, “Golden Triangle,” an area commonly believed to be the birthplace of American wine, and still a battleground for wine history.


As a fan of wine history, I’ve read numerous accounts of the attempts at viticulture in the United States.  American Vintage, Indiana Wine, and A History of Wine in America all cover similar ground with different protagonists.

As well, longtime readers of this site may recall posts from early 2006 in which I excerpted passages from The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide authored by John James Dufour and published in 1826, the first such American book written about matters of the vine.  While re-publishing the book passages failed to hold my (and readers) attention, it did reinforce a 200-year recounting of some of the very earliest attempts at successful viticulture in the U.S.

Aside from underscoring that American wine history is anything but conclusive, these historical accounts glance at the French Huguenots in Florida working with native grapes in the early to mid-1500s while likewise speedily moving past Spanish missionary efforts in Baja California up the California coast.  However, what isn’t given short shrift in the annuals of history is the ideological effort to promote U.S. viticulture and wine in the U.S. led by Thomas Jefferson, from Virgina, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  It was Jefferson’s paternal leadership that, ultimately, birthed a wine movement that continued to move west throughout the 1800s before meeting the temperance movement and Prohibition in California.

Aside from Jefferson, what these historical accounts all share is placement of “The Golden Triangle” as the epicenter for wine in the early 1800s.

This revisiting of history became top of mind recently as I did some behind the scenes research for an advertising agency and their client, Kentucky Wine, the grower and consumer marketing organization for the state of Kentucky.

As I read the history on the Kentucky Wine web site, they exclaimed, “America’s commercial wine industry was born in Kentucky in 1798” led by (non-Anglicized) Jean-Jacque Dufour.

“Wait a second,” I thought ...

Indiana claims Vevay, IN, on the banks of the Ohio river, and (the Anglicized) John James Dufour as the basis for, “The first successful wine production in the United States,” a sentiment shared by Dufour himself in The American Vine-Dressers Guide.

Hmm …

Undaunted, by the conflicting accounts, I checked the Ohio Wine site and then cross-referenced against a dog-eared and highlighted copy of American Vintage for corroboration.

Both the Ohio Wine Association and American Vintage cite Nicholas Longworth as successful wine’s forefather with American Vintage noting, “(Longworth) owned the first commercially successful winery in the United States.  (He) went on to become American wine’s founding father …”

Untangling this mess, unfortunately, requires an astute eye.

Kentucky had the first *attempted* commercial winery called the Kentucky Vineyard Society based on vitis vinifera cuttings from South Africa and the Cape grape, an effort that ultimately failed. 

Indiana had the first successful *vineyard operation* based on Dufour transporting more Cape cuttings from across the river in Kentucky and being able to sell wine for the first time, before failing again.

Meanwhile, some 20 years later, in the 1820s, Longworth chucked the pursuit of the Cape grape and started a successful *winery* that led wine production in the U.S. for thirty years based on a native grape called Catawba, leading the Cincinnati area to be nicknamed, “America’s Rhineland”—a nickname that lives on in the “Over the Rhine” neighborhood.

How does this convoluted wine history help you win a wine bar bet?  Good question … it is complicated.

The key to duping a friend after a couple of glasses of wine and a numbing and lengthy discourse on the Golden Triangle, John James Dufour and Nicholas Longworth, is to lull them into a sense of security while they’re dizzy with trying to figure out who founded what and where …

… Simply say to them, “I’ll bet you five bucks you don’t know who is on the $2 bill.”

Anybody who guesses Thomas Jefferson deserves to win, though most won’t, and as I learned early in life, “If you can’t dazzle ‘em with brilliance, baffle ‘em with bullshit” which seems apropos to grifters in New Orleans and the accuracy of most of wine history anyway … 


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (3) |


On 12/11, Ann Miller wrote:

Very interesting, I always assumed wine grapes started with the missions in CA. Love the Vine-dressers Guide - found a version on Google books. Thanks for the tip!

On 12/12, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

As a fellow oenophile (wine geek) who also went through my earlier phases of numismatics (money collecting) and philately (stamp collecting), I knew that TJ was on the $2 bill, as I still have a few pristine examples of the concurrent first-day-of-issue of the $2 bill and the commemorating stamp.

Since all of this occurred during the Bicentennial in 1976, it also shows that age and experience eventually do pay off—which comes back to your example of Dufour.

It took him a while, but he seemed to eventually get it right—and that’s a good life lesson for us all.

On 01/20, Kentucky Sports Online wrote:

You’d be surprised how many vineyards are in Kentucky.  There has been a real resurgence since that first failed attempt.


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