How it Began – The Roots of Finger Lakes Wine

The first European explorers of our East Coast were impressed with the remarkable profusion of wild grapevines here. Upon viewing them, early 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazzano observed, “[There are] many vines, growing naturally, which growing up, tooke hold of the trees as they doe in Lombardie, which if by husbandmen they were dressed in good order, without all doubt they would yield excellent wines,” (from Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America).

Creating a wine industry here that would produce the kind of wine they enjoyed in Europe was a dream doggedly pursued by colonists, beginning in the 1600s. But time and time again frustration and disappointment were the result. Even though the vines of many species of North American wild grapes grew luxuriantly here, they were subjected only to natural selection. Nearly all of them yielded utterly unsatisfactory wines.Europeans had cultivated their diverse vinifera (“wine bearer”) grapevines for thousands of years, and had selected them for their wine quality. But on this side of the Atlantic, the vinifera planted in eastern North America failed to survive long enough to bear commercial crops. (That changed much later, in the mid-20th century, thanks to the efforts of a stubborn but visionary Ukrainian immigrant to the Finger Lakes.) As a result, there was no commercially produced domestic table wine or communion wine here. Imported wine was scarce, expensive and often adulterated.

Grain, spirits and a nightmare
On the other hand, grain flourished. To profitably prevent it from spoiling, much of it was turned into high-alcohol distilled spirits. By 1810 there were more than 14,000 stills in our young republic, but only one winery, in Vevay in southern Indiana. The nation’s first successful commercial winery, founded by Swiss Jean Jacques Dufour, produced its first vintage in 1806 or ’07.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1818, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” but our nation was notoriously drunk on readily available, cheap, grain-based distilled spirits. In 1823 America, the per capita consumption of these high-alcohol spirits, even counting nondrinkers, was 7.5 gallons. The resulting societal nightmare was certainly not what would-be New World winemakers had envisioned.

The appalling 19th-century drunkenness in America would eventually result in the Temperance Movement, the Second Great Awakening, and the Women’s Rights Movement – all very powerful here in central and western New York.

Fulfillment takes root in York and Hammondsport
Against that backdrop of immoderate consumption of high-alcohol spirits, two devout Christian men, Deacon Samuel Warren in Livingston County and the Reverend William Bostwick in neighboring Steuben, pursued the creation of New World wine in different ways, both with remarkable success. Their work would begin to change the humanly harmful spirits-to-wine ratio.

Crucial for their success was the emergence of natural, or “accidental” hybrid vines bearing the DNA of both the European and the wild American vines. In New York the Catawba and Isabella were especially important because they tolerated our growing conditions. Although their wine was distinctly non-European, it was readily accepted.

Still in his teens, Samuel Warren came here in 1816 from Litchfield, New York, to work as a farmhand. A year later, he bought his own 33-acre farm and built an iconic log cabin on the frontier in what would become the town of York.

An avid reader and musician, Warren taught school, grafted fruit trees in the region, and helped to found the York Bible Society. He was a long-term deacon and Sunday school teacher in the York Congregationalist Church. On his land on the western slope of the valley of the Genesee, Warren built one of York’s first sawmills and began producing brick and tile.

His dream was to produce wine from his own vineyard for the churches to use for the sacrament of Holy Communion. His first vintage – just 20 gallons – was in 1832. Four years later, he advertised his wine to the churches of western New York in the nationally read New York Evangelist. Ironically, his ad appeared on the same page as ads for “temperence hotels.” The era’s notorious drunkenness had already given rise to “temperance societies,” some of which were as intemperate in their opposition to the fermented juice of the grape (and hard cider and beer) as their drunken fellow citizens were in their devotion to distilled spirits.

Despite our nation’s underdeveloped production and transportation capabilities at the time, Warren’s wine yield had grown to more than 3,400 gallons by 1853, and it became known from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What’s more, Warren distributed many cuttings from his extensive vineyard that contributing to the growth of other vineyards in our region. Beginning in 1860 many acres of vines were planted for wine in southern Livingston County, especially on Dansville’s East Hill. The year after Warren’s death in 1862, his older son Josiah entered no fewer than 12 native varietal wines in the Livingston County Agricultural Fair and built a stone winery near the family homestead.

Sharing Warren’s dream of producing decent domestic wine for the churches was Rochester’s first Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard McQuaid. Also in Livingston County, high above the western shore of Hemlock Lake, he founded the O-Neh-Da (Seneca for “Hemlock”) winery in 1872. Today, having survived Prohibition, it continues to produce and distribute sacramental wines throughout the Northeast, along with the Eagle Crest Vineyards line of table wines.

Samuel Warren’s younger son Harlan Page Warren returned to run the family businesses after serving in the Union Army, and added facilities for grinding grain and apples. Business was good until the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, backed by powerful industrialist J. P. Morgan, ran a line through the Warren property. Armed with the power of eminent domain, the D. L. & W. destroyed the Warren businesses.

Tragically, when rail traffic began to go through the Warrens’ Mills area of York, Harlan hanged himself in the remains of the winery. Only the modest family homestead, in remarkably good condition, still stands. Thomas Pinney, Hudson Cattell and other prominent wine historians agree that Samuel Warren’s winery in Livingston County was the first successful commercial winery in the Finger Lakes and the first in New York State.

Reverend Bostwick’s dream: commercial grapes and wine
In 1825 the Reverend William W. Bostwick from Albany settled in Hammondsport and organized the Episcopal Church Society. “Reverend Bostwick was somewhat of an amateur horticulturist and on many occasions was a contributor to The Genesee Farmer and Gardener’s Journal,” noted the late Richard Sherer, former Steuben County historian.

In January 1829, Lazarus Hammond deeded a village lot to Reverend Bostwick to use as a garden plot, Sherer said. Shortly after, Bostwick made cuttings from the few vines planted by the owner of the local tavern, Richard Sheffield, who had brought rootstock of several varieties of grapes from the Hudson River region to Hammondsport roughly two or three years earlier.

Envisioning agricultural development on barren hillsides where forests had earlier dominated, Bostwick encouraged neighbors to plant cuttings from the few Isabella and Catawba vines he was growing in his rectory garden. “The good Reverend would subsequently give his neighbors a nudge in the direction of winemaking,” said Sherer.

Several small vineyards were planted and the fresh fruit was enjoyed locally.

Lake Keuka grapes for the table
Beginning in 1847, small shipments of Finger Lakes grapes were sent to New York City by ferry, stagecoach and rail. The results were mixed. In 1854 or ’56, J. W. Prentiss, who began a vineyard in Pulteney in 1836, sent the first large shipment of grapes – a ton of Isabellas in half-barrel tubs – to New York. Another ton was called for. This netted Prentiss 16 cents per pound profit. Those high profits led many area farmers to go into debt to plant vineyards, often on logged-out hillsides. In 1853 the German “vine-dresser” Andrew Reisinger planted a vineyard in Harmonyville, Pulteney Township, and introduced to the area the training and pruning of vines, and tilling of vineyards.

With thousands of cuttings brought from neighboring Livingston County and from as far away as Kelley’s Island, Ohio, vineyards expanded and flourished. By 1870 Hammondsport boasted 3,000 acres, by 1879, 5,000, and by 1889, 14,500. Vineyards arose near Hemlock, Canandaigua, Seneca and Cayuga lakes as well. Many jobs had been created to plant and tend the vineyards; and to make, pack and ship the colorfully labeled baskets. Lake steamers and railroads were busy transporting them in season to East Coast markets.

The Reverend Bostwick’s dream of promoting agricultural development for the region had come true; his neighborly nudge to encourage winemaking would also prove effective.

Rather than to allow the periodic surplus grape crop to rot, the large Pleasant Valley Wine Company was formed in Hammondsport in 1860. Its first wine was shipped in 1862, 30 years after Samuel Warren, in neighboring Livingston County, had produced his first vintage. Pleasant Valley had brought French-trained Champagne makers to their firm from Nicholas Longworth’s failed winery in Cincinnati. By 1867 its sparkling wine had won an award in Europe and in 1873, to the great pleasure of area residents, its Great Western Champagne had won a gold medal in Vienna.

Apparently indifferent to the difference between table wine and high-alcohol spirits, Hammondsport’s temperance society was not amused by the Reverend Bostwick and his efforts to create a local wine industry. “[They] accused the innovative clergyman of inventing tools of the devil. Feelings ran so high that when Bostwick left Hammondsport for Illinois in 1843, someone ripped his grapevines out of the ground,” said Sherer. More vineyard vandalism would occur.

Livingston County, too, had an active temperance society. Perhaps, like Bostwick, Warren had opponents, but this well-loved churchman’s decision to market mainly, if not entirely, to churches for Holy Communion, and to pharmacies for medicinal purposes, probably undercut much opposition to his project. (One wonders, however, whether extremist “Drys” thought the D. L. & W.’s 1882 destruction of Deacon Warren’s winery was divine punishment.)

When the national prohibition amendment was adopted in 1919, the Drys surely felt victorious. Most wineries in the Finger Lakes and elsewhere in the U. S. did not survive.

Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazzano could not have imagined the frustrating, centuries-long struggle here against the obstacles that would prevent our pioneers from making excellent wines. But the struggle has been succeeding, and an extraordinary array of excellent wines are made here every autumn.

For a list of sources please visit See also Richard Sherer’s 1983 article in Vineyard View, volume 11, issue 3, published by Bully Hill Winery.


by Gary A. Cox

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