A Taste of Our History

The 2012 museum program, featuring a professional film production, live appearances from local renowned wine experts, and period wine and grape tastings, starts by mentioning the 16th century European explorers who dreamed of creating a wine industry in the New World. They envisioned it based on the excellent wine they expected would be made if only those abundant grapevines growing wild here in the New World were properly cultivated.

That dream did not come true. Hardly anyone, it seems, could savor the flavor of wine based on North America’s wild grapes.

In the 1630s, the Puritan Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, tried and failed to get winegrowing started in New England, but he had planted vinifera (“wine bearer”) vines brought to that colony’s shores from across the Atlantic.

Quaker founder of Pennsylvania William Penn and scores of colonists then citizens, as later scores of others, including such notables as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, sought to grow Europe’s vinifera grapes in the New World. Disappointingly, those vines all died before yielding commercial crops.

Lacking grapes to ferment into acceptable wine, Americans, both before and long after the Revolution, turned to the cheap, abundant, high-alcohol spirits made by distilling the grains that flourished in the New World. To the disappointment of leaders like Jefferson, and to the profound dismay of uncounted thousands of wives and mothers, hard liquor, not wine, would become the common alcoholic beverage. By 1810 there were more than 14,000 distilleries in the young republic. It is estimated that by 1830 average annual adult consumption of pure alcohol reached seven gallons. The resulting evils would prove
revolutionary.

The continuing failure to create a wine industry in the New World , and the grossly excessive consumption of those distilled “ardent spirits” helped make ours what some called “a nation of drunkards.” Michael Okrent points out that roadside taverns, created to provide food, drink, and overnight lodging for travelers, became saloons in which, with the help of plentiful, cheap, high-alcohol spirits, hard-working men found temporary escape from the drudgery of difficult lives.

Family budgets, however, were devastated when, in those saloons, family breadwinners squandered what they’d earned in factories, or when they left vital farm work undone. More than a few wives contracted what was known as “syphilis of the innocent” thanks to husbands who found more than comradeship, hard liquor and gambling in those 19th century saloons.

Drunken brawls were notorious. Steven Pinker writes “… the early feminists of the temperance movement were responding to the very real catastrophe of alcohol-fueled bloodbaths in male-dominated enclaves.”

In the nineteenth century American women lacked the legal standing to divorce abusive drunken husbands. And they had no right to vote for any candidate for office, including one who might work legislatively for needed reforms. Nevertheless, American women organized, demonstrated, and, hoping for eventual deliverance from the evils of appalling male drunkenness, they led the fight to gain political power.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others in the Finger Lakes region played internationally important parts in what eventually proved to be a very powerful but unsustainable over-reaction to the drunkenness, mainly of men, in 19th century America.

That over-reaction was, and still is, commonly but misleadingly called the Temperance Movement. That movement went far beyond the enlightened practice, teaching, and advocacy of voluntarily moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages that had been supported by leading thinkers in the Greek and Roman traditions, as well as in the Jewish and Christian traditions (both Protestant and Roman Catholic).

Rather than moderation, the proponents of so-called Temperance – the Drys — came to advocate teetotalism, that is, total personal abstinence from alcoholic beverages. And they sought prohibition, that is, the enactment of laws at the local, state and federal levels forbidding the manufacture, sale, and transportation not only of “ardent spirits,” but of all alcoholic beverages.

Would-be New World winemakers had nothing to fear from the practice and advocacy of temperance, or moderation, in the consumption of wine.

But (1) the unpalatability of wine made from the wild New World grapes, (2) the inevitable early death of the imported Old World grapevines, and (3) the sweeping teetotalism and prohibitionism of the victorious Drys were tremendous challenges to be overcome by a nascent American wine industry.

How, then, did such an industry get started here in the Finger Lakes Region? How were its early wines received? How did it survive National Prohibition? How did it get beyond merely surviving to its present thriving?

Volunteer professional wine writers have compiled this year’s script, and gathered both still and moving images to illustrate that story of daunting challenge and human response in our Finger Lakes region. Specialists in early American popular music enhance the story. Videography experts and editors are weaving the strands artfully.

Dates, additional details and venues for this year’s program will be released and promoted on The Finger Lakes Museum website at www.fingerlakes
museum.org.

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Admittedly, when the Board and Programs Committee members of The Finger Lakes Museum asked me to be point man for a program on the history of Finger Lakes grape growing and winemaking I agreed quite
impulsively.

It was a very attractive challenge, but I was a retired philosophy professor, not an historian, and decades earlier I’d found studying history tedious. The boredom had ended when I began winegrowing as an amateur, and became fascinated by its history in our region.

Hopefully, you’ll attend the Museum’s upcoming program series entitled Vine to Wine: Savor our Finger Lakes and find them to be appealingly informative, even surprising. Perhaps you too will find the subject fascinating.


by Gary Cox