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From Issue #17 May 23, 2013

Cunning Old Fox

Americans start to appreciate wine made from native grapes in Middle America.

By Sandra Allen Twitter icon

“The first time I flew to Iowa for this, I said to my wife, ‘I’ll get through the weekend; I’ll just have to smile a lot,’” Bob Foster whispers loudly to me. That was in 2007, when Foster’s friend Doug Frost was founding a wine competition and convinced Foster to coordinate it.

Foster’s skepticism had two roots: the competition would not only be held in Iowa, but it would be open only to commercial wineries from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma — many of the so-called “Middle America” states.

Foster, a retired prosecutor who had coordinated and judged well-regarded California wine competitions for a number of years, hadn’t heard much about wine produced in these states, and figured it couldn’t be any good. But he is a nice guy, and so, smiling a lot, he had traveled to Ankeny, Iowa, just north of Des Moines, to this very, very air-conditioned community college ballroom. He turns to face me and grins: “I was so wrong.”

At the edge of the partition that divides the room, Foster sits holding a clipboard. He slowly rises, and insists we take a tour. “It’s an ideal location for a wine competition because of its natural light and access to dishwashers,” he says. Out of the judges’ view, behind the partition, awaits a line of several hundred bottles of Middle American wine. They’re arranged across several folding tables and sorted from sweetest to driest and white to red, followed by Ports, dessert wines, and ice wines. It’s a gaudy queue, refuting at a glance Foster’s earlier thought that Middle America wasn’t producing any wine.

Undiscovered country

Volunteers in burgundy-colored shirts bustle about popping corks, pouring samples, and double-checking that each glass has been labeled with the correct numeric code to ensure anonymity. They wheel clattering trays out onto the judging floor, disturbing its silence, and quickly arrange flights of glasses before each judge, who are seated in groups of five around large, circular tables. The judges uncap their pens and unscrew the lids of bottles of water, anticipating the eight or so hours of smelling, sipping, and spitting that’s soon to commence.

“We shouldn’t just try to give out medals because a wine is palatable,” Frost begins his remarks to the other judges, opening this Mid-American Wine Competition.1 He’s a middle-aged man whose white socks are pulled up tall from his Chuck Taylors to the cuff of his khaki shorts. The once serious room delights as he peppers his speech with goofball accents and lamentations about the fish dish at the previous night’s welcome dinner.

Frost is one of three people on earth who have received the distinctions of both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier, which is sort of like being a Ph.D. and an M.D. if there were only three of those anywhere. He is, it’s safe to say, one of the beverage’s most decorated experts, though you’d never guess it passing him in the street. Being a proud Kansas Citian, he took notice in the last decades when wineries started popping up in Kansas and Missouri, and he began his Middle American wine project when he realized that some of this wine is pretty good.

Bob Foster points his clipboard one by one at each of the judges and summarizes their résumés for me. He’s emphasizing the point that each professional has made this trip in an affirmation of his or her belief that there is some good, maybe even amazing, wine produced here. I ask him whether a particular wine or two “converted” him. He recalls two bottles: a norton, which is a hearty red, by an established Missouri producer, Stone Hill Winery; and a vignoles, an off-dry, flowery white by Kansas’s Holy-Field. The sheer unlikelihood of these wines existing makes this competition all the more exciting for him. “Any gorilla can grow wine in California,” he says.

The culprit and the cure

A millennium ago, Leif Erikson gave America its first European name: Vinland, or “wine-land,” because of the quantity of grapes he and his men found. Of the 50 or so known species of grape worldwide, about 30 are indigenous to North America and another dozen come from Asia. Only one comes from Europe, Vitis vinifera, otherwise known as the “winegrape.” Vinifera’s history has long been synonymous with the history of wine. It is parent to every commonly known varietal, from albariño to zinfandel.2

But European settlers as far back as Jamestown ignored the native grape species and tried futilely to get vinifera to grow. It consistently withered. Even Thomas Jefferson tried and failed, and he filled his cellars with imported wine. Still, he occasionally praised the quality of wine from native grapes. In one letter, he described tasting two local bottles: “This was a very fine wine, & so exactly resembling the red Burgundy of Caumratin (one of the best crops) that…the company could not distinguish the one from the other.” He went on to hypothesize that “it would be well to push the culture of that grape, without losing our time & efforts in search of foreign vines, which will take centuries to adapt to our soil & climate.”

As the 19th century began, Americans — a category that now included immigrants from viticultural countries like Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Greece — began to cultivate native species, often because they were what was freely or solely available. The Northwestern species Vitis labrusca parented the first big commercial hit of the native American varietals: the concord, as featured in cough-syrupy Manischewitz, a wine associated with Jewish holidays.3 Other species, rotundifolia, aestevalis, and mustangensis spawned varietals that include Delaware, Niagara, scuppernog, and norton.

Perhaps the most popular of all the native varietals developed during the 19th century, though, was Catawba, so admired that Longfellow made it the subject of a rather schmaltzy poem, “Catawba Wine.” More than once in his verses he speaks ill of European wines to boost Catawba’s reputation, remarking that Catawba has “driven the Old World frantic.”

The Old World was frantic, but not due to the New World’s local grapes. Europeans watched their wine industry collapse for the same reason that vinifera couldn’t be grown in most of America. The phylloxera, an American louse that loved to feast on vinifera’s Continental roots, had made its way to Europe, preserved by the speed of steamboats and aided by the development of the bell jar, which allowed botanists to keep specimens intact during transatlantic voyages.

France lost 40% of its vineyards and billions of francs (the rough equivalent of at least $10 billion today) during the 15 years it took to identify phylloxera as the cause. A solution also came from America, however: grafting vinifera onto rootstock of native American grape varietals kept the roots phylloxera-resistant and didn’t affect the taste of the grapes. Many French vintners opposed the graft, but they had little choice. It took decades, interrupted by two world wars, for French wine to regain its place atop the world wine hierarchy.4

Phylloxera didn’t live west of the Rockies until the middle of the 20th century, and thus in California, unlike everywhere else on the continent, vinifera vines hadn’t inexplicably perished. Spanish missionaries had first planted vines they’d brought from home without issue, in fact, in the 1550s. The state’s climate is often cited as the reason that the state became synonymous with wine so easily, but sunshine and cool nights wouldn’t have made a lick of difference if phylloxera had also been present.

For medicinal purposes only

Middle American wine began to lose favor as California’s star rose. In the 1860s and 1870s, the dominant winemaking states — primarily Missouri, New York, Virginia, and Ohio — began to lose market share to California. Antagonism grew between the eastern and western industries. A third faction, though, soon made this rivalry obsolete: teetotalers.5 In many southern and midwestern states, statewide prohibition was gaining quick favor in the late 19th century. (Kansas was the first to ban alcohol entirely, in 1881.)

National Prohibition was disastrous for the wine industry at large, but it didn’t curtail all production. The luckiest few (read: best-funded and, almost without exception, Californian) sought out loopholes, obtaining licenses for sacramental production, commercial grape juice, and so-called “medical wine tonics” (for which your physician could write a prescription).

Some wineries even obtained licenses to sell dehydrated bricks of cheap grapes with a packet of yeast. These were sold with a label warning that adding water and sugar to the yeast and grapes would result after several days in the creation of illegal alcohol. For the most part, the producers that survived the Great Experiment were the big guys. The smaller ventures — what we’d today call “boutique wineries” — did not. The majority of wine cultivation east of the Sierra Nevadas disappeared.

America emerged from Prohibition with a renewed thirst for mass-produced lagers, a thriving cocktail culture, and an astounding ignorance of wine. Waiters fumbled with wine keys, storeowners stored bottles upright, allowing corks to dry out and wine to spoil, and — perhaps most disastrously — the wine being produced was made hastily. It takes years to make wine well, and in the wake of the 21st Amendment, producers were mostly focused on getting bottles on shelves. (Alison Hallett explained the rise and fall and rise of complex liquor-based drinks and associated ice artistry in “Icecapades,” February 14, 2013 — Editor.)

The disparity between wine’s reputation in Europe and its reputation in America persists. In Europe much wine is consumed locally, informally, and relatively inexpensively, whereas many Americans still consider wine to be something daunting, foreign, and snobby. Prior to Prohibition, it could be argued, wine was on track to be consumed in much the same way as Coors Light or Jack Daniels. Imagine a television wine ad with the same aesthetic as one for beer or liquor: pool sticks in calloused hands, glasses clanking, red froth pouring from an open cask — “The NFL, brought to you by Mondavi.”

Crazy like a fox

California now produces 88% of American wine by volume today. It and Washington (6.5%) and New York (3.5%) dominate the industry, with Texas and Oregon a distant fourth and fifth. And yet, as of the last several years, there are more wineries open in more diverse locations than ever before. Just 440 wineries were in business in 1970; 7,000 are active today.6 And for the first time since before Prohibition, half of those are outside California. Every American state now has a winery, which includes one on the slopes of a volcano on the Island of Hawaii and another among the foothills of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. Wine Business Monthly estimates that there’s been a 67% rise in the number of American wineries just in the last six years.

This boom has been fueled by locavore culture in general, a steady rise in wine consumption, and some adjustments in the law. Most important was the 2005 Supreme Court decision Granholm v. Heald. The court declared unconstitutional the laws in New York and Michigan that allowed in-state wineries to ship directly to consumers but barred those out of state from doing the same without relying on distributors. As wine educator Kevin Zraly puts it in his American Wine Guide, “Distribution had been the main obstacle to growth [in American wine sales], especially for smaller wineries.”

Yet wine tastemakers, including sommeliers and such journals as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Advocate Magazine, largely ignore all but the four or five biggest wine-producing states. This seems to be largely because the other states cannot successfully grow pure vinifera. Instead, they rely on native varietals and native/vinifera hybrids. The vines they choose withstand historic pests (like our old friend phylloxera) and native climates (like a 100% humidity Georgia summer and the -30°F of a Minnesota winter). Some can ripen despite a growing season a small fraction as long as California’s.

The wine establishment doesn’t like these plants. In the European Union, a drop of native or hybrid wine in a bottle prohibits it from being legally labeled as “wine.” Both abroad and at home, experts are quick to dismiss non-vinifera wines for being inherently less complex, refined, and delicious or — most notably and perhaps also most confusingly — for being “foxy.” That term is used broadly and imprecisely, always to convey distaste.7

Some native and hybrid grapes contain methyl anthranilate, which can cause an unfavorable smell, but research has shown that there is little to none of that compound in many of the wines that the term “foxy” has been applied to. Further, hybrid development programs such as the University of Minnesota’s have worked to breed out that chemical and other unfavorable traits. Even as quality improves, prejudice lingers.

Wine drinkers — both amateur and expert — tend to be conservative, something that makes sense for a product that can be studied, cellared, and deified. In fact, all New World wine was thought to be inherently inferior to Europe’s until 1967, when Steven Spurrier, an Englishman with a Paris wine shop, staged “The Judgment of Paris”: a blind tasting of French and Napa wines. Shockingly (to themselves and the wine world), the French judges unanimously favored the Napa wines.

That event shocked the wine world, which has since become increasingly global in both production and consumption, challenging the notions of which grapes are best and which conditions ideal. Malbec, a second-string Bordeaux blending grape, became a world-class star when grown thousands of feet up in the mountains of Argentina, while the classic white-grape sauvignon blanc when cultivated in the Marlborough region of New Zealand was fine enough to have helped jumpstart that country’s wine industry in the 1970s to its current global scale. Into that new world, does a good wine from the Midwest seem so strange?

A conversation with the industry

Bob Foster doesn’t think there will someday be a “Judgment of Des Moines.” He points out that with a traditional Old World versus New World tasting the same varietals are compared: chardonnay to chardonnay, pinot noir to pinot noir. Because of the reliance on native and hybrid grapes, “there’s no wine region in the world like the Midwest.”

The New World is also in its viticultural infancy, and this is especially true in the Midwest. “With the exception of Missouri, all of these regions are under 10 years old,” Foster says. “The French have had several hundred years to figure out that cab[ernet] grows in Bordeaux. We’re still figuring out what grows where.”

This underlies the importance of a professional wine competition in Iowa in the heart of the new territory. It lets winemakers compare their planting efforts to those of their immediate and regional neighbors. Wineries couldn’t afford to do so alone. “Today we’re going to have a conversation with the industry,” Doug Frost had told judges that morning. The competition isn’t doing its job, at all, if it blindly cheerleads. “Encourage good work, and discourage bad,” he said.

And so they do. The judges at a given table first individually assess each wine in a flight of 15 or so. This takes an hour or more and occurs in complete silence. Notes are taken. Noses are thrust into glasses. At regular intervals, a spurt of liquid flies from a judge’s lips into a bucket on the floor, and a silent volunteer dutifully swaps out the bucket for a clean one. When each judge has made up his or her mind about the merits or faults of the wine in each glass, they debate with one another until awards — gold, silver, bronze, and “no award” — are decided upon. Although compromises are often reached, disagreements occasionally erupt into Beckettian brawls.8

The first unanimous gold at the table doesn’t get discovered until about one in the afternoon. I ask Frost whether I can try it, and he hands a glass back to me. It’s a Frontenac, a full-bodied, fruit-forward, smooth-drinking red — a riparia hybrid — which compares to any $20 bottle I’d buy at the Hy-Vee that had been shipped from halfway across the country or globe.

Being no expert, I won’t say that I understand as well as the judges did why it’s a great wine. And I can’t say whether it smelled like a fox, but that’s mostly because I’m not sure what a fox smells like. I can say it was great, and perhaps even more so because it came from here, of all places.

  1. I visited the competition in summer 2010 and have followed and corresponded with its coordinators in the interim; the details about it and the situation of local wine at large are current. 

  2. For those unfamiliar with the term varietal (synonymous in viticulture with cultivar), think breeds of dogs. Vitis vinifera is to chardonnay as Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog) is to Labrador. Dalmatians, Newfoundlands, and Chihuahuas are remarkably all the same species, and vinifera grape varietals vary just as wildly. If vinifera’s many hundreds of known varietals were to represent all the domestic breeds of dog, its commonly cultivated North American winegrape cousins, Vitis labrusca, Vitis rotundifolia, and Vitis riparia compare to our dogs’ close relatives: dingoes, wolves, and foxes. 

  3. The story behind the Concord grape, and its discoverer, Ephraim W. Bull, fills multiple books. 

  4. As a result of the Great Wine Blight, today nearly all of the vinifera-derived wine in the world — from Two Buck Chuck to a $3,000 Romanée Conti — owes its very existence to native American grape rootstock. (Not that anyone’s thanking it.) 

  5. Teetotaler is a delightful word, the usage of which can be tracked back to at least 1840, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has nothing to do with tea; rather, it’s a reduplication of the “t” in total for emphasis. Today, we would say, “she’s a ‘capital T’ total abstainer”; then, a “tee-totaler.” 

  6. Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy provide this winery statistic in their guide American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States, which they wrote after visiting thousands of wineries. 

  7. In his seminal A History of Wine in America, Thomas Pinney devotes an entire appendix to attempting to pin down the origin and referent of the word, providing 10 theories in total, one of which is that the plants smell like foxes. 

  8. Judge A: “No Award.”

    Judge B: “Silver.”

    Judge A: “Silver? Silver?”

    Judge B: “Green grass, papaya —”

    Judge A: “— Lemon soap. Lemon soap.”

    Judge B: “No way. Great fruit, great minerality.”

    Judge A: “Soap. Or sanitizer.”

    Judge B: “Unbelievable.”

    Judge C: “Bronze.” 

Sandra Allen received her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing program. She is the managing and essays editor of the online-only literary quarterly Wag's Revue, and currently works for BuzzFeed's longform thread, BuzzReads.

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