Where Did America’s Native Grapes Go?

Alfredo Alcántara and Deanna Urciuoli moved to a cockroach-infested apartment in Brooklyn to save for a down payment on a piece of farmland in Upstate New York. There, they planned to begin their dream of building a sustainable vineyard using indigenous varieties of grapes. 

Matt Niess quit his job at the critically acclaimed Northern California winery Radio-Coteau a couple of years ago to focus full-time on cultivating and farming California’s native grapes, an unpopular move in California wine country. 

Erin Rasmussen left a wine job in Sonoma Valley to return to her home state of Wisconsin in an effort to change the narrative—and scene—around Midwestern wine, upending the adage that Midwesterners only drink sweet wine. 

This trailblazing group of entrepreneurs is not alone; there are others in Vermont, Virginia and Ohio. Their mission is largely one and the same: Let’s see what these American native grapes are made of.

It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when America gave up on its own grapes entirely and focused on growing Vitis vinifera, the common European grape. But there were likely a couple of factors at play: Prohibition as well as the fact that native grapes were given nary a thought (until recently) after European settlers brought vinifera to America. 

Winemakers say that, during Prohibition, the West Coast kept its grape-growing industry afloat by selling raisins and sacramental wine. On the East Coast, producers mostly converted to juice grape farming or stopped growing grapes altogether. Rasmussen says a “whole generation of wine growing was lost to Prohibition.” After Prohibition, Rasmussen says, wine education was largely European-focused, leaving many “sceptical of the grapes growing in their neighbor’s backyard in Ohio.”

The Resistance

Eschewing the long-held position—and tradition—of using the great European grapes (such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc) to produce wine in the United States, these ambitious winemakers’ devotion to hybrid wines demonstrate an innovative, forward-thinking approach to wine production. Winemakers say that, because of the prevalence of European wine grapes, there are actually not many available wine grapes that are 100 percent native, but there are a few.

When Deirdre Heekin opened her Vermont winery La Garagista in 2010, she admits there was a “lot of skepticism” toward wines made from hybrid varieties, which are crosses between native varieties and Vitis vinifera. This was especially true of wine produced in Vermont, Heekin says. The stigma around native grapes has been particularly prevalent and the hard set beliefs about how wine is made in this country—and what wine tastes good—have made it difficult for this movement to really take off.

Heekin works with cold-climate grapes—fruit that is hardy enough to survive a cold Vermont winter—and is committed to growing and making wine in the region from complex cross-pollinations between different species of wild American grape varieties and European wine grape varieties.   

When she started out, Heekin says, there were very few people focused on the art of farming hybrid grape varieties, which did not (and still don’t) command the same respect as a Burgundian or Tuscan wine. But Heekin says in the last ten years wines made from hybrid grapes and grown in Vermont and throughout the country, in fact, “have become exciting and intriguing to many people interested in wine.”

Farming what he believes is the oldest Baco Noir (a hybrid grape with one of its parents coming from a wild selection of Vitis Riparia, an indigenous North American grape) vineyard in the country, North American Press’ Niess is selling his 2019 Baco Noir online and in some “trendy shops” in the Bay Area, but his small operation as compared to California’s myriad heavy hitters in the wine arena has a lot of barrier breaking ahead.

Baco Noir grapes. Photo courtesy of Matt Niess.

Trying to innovate on the wine front in the country’s premier wine-producing region, Niess says people in the wine world just don’t get it. “To be clear, wineries making wine from hybrid grapes is not uncommon in other parts of the country,” he says. “But having a business dedicated to doing it in California within world class AVAs is totally unheard of.” 

Still, he’s forging ahead in spite of all the eye rolls and the shocked looks on people’s faces when he tells them he’s making wine with California’s very own grapes. He’s largely undeterred. “Why wouldn’t we try and use our own grapes and really try to define what American wine can be like?” he says. 

Ready to Drink

Rasmussen, who founded the American Wine Project in 2018, is looking forward to getting to know her 2019s. “It’s such a joy to get to know their character,” Rasmussen says of the imminent next batch. With plans to open a tasting room this summer, Rasmussen is eager to talk about the art of winemaking and of getting people jazzed about Midwestern wine that’s not sweet, but she’s also keenly aware of the business aspect of owning a winery. “Your business is to sell wine and make money,” she says. 

The chances of a Wisconsin or a Catskills winery ever being as profitable as a Napa Valley winery or a Willamette Valley winery are slim to none, and Rasmussen has no illusion of it being otherwise.

But what these winemakers are trying is powerful—and not subtly so. By using indigenous grapes, which are often disease-resistant and hardy, they are in a position to change the landscape (quite literally) of wine produced in America forever. Rasmussen speaks of outwitting climate change, pointing out Wisconsin’s lack of wildfires and absent water scarcity issues. Heekin believes her farming methods—regenerative, organic and biodynamic—will help manage climate change, and she says her wine varieties “can withstand the shifts all wine regions are seeing.” 

Native grapes have natural disease resistance and possess an extraordinary tolerance to extreme climates, which means they can grow anywhere, opening up completely new regions of the country for wine growing and production. 

Niess says the ability to avoid pesticides and even organic spray, which still requires the sprayer to don a full hazmat suit, is potentially a game changer. Alcántara and Urciuoli say they simply don’t see a reason to shun native grape varieties, particularly in light of “farming in today’s erratic climate patterns.”

 

Deanna Urciuoli plants grapes. Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alcántara.

Alcántara and Urciuoli are a couple of years away from having any bottled wine to show for their work up in the Catskills. The couple, in their early thirties, planted their first block of grapes last summer—two acres of “nearly-lost varieties,” as well as some “newer varieties developed by universities across the US, and a few super experimental ones cultivated by some pretty clever grape growers in Virginia and Ohio.”

“The whole thing is a big field trail to see what works in our extreme, yet generous Catskills climate,” says Alcántara, although the plan is to have their first harvest for Dear Native Grapes (the project’s working title) in 2023. 

Plenty of these unique wines are available for purchase around the country, although discovery can prove remarkably difficult. At a local Brooklyn, NY wine shop boasting “top artisanal, natural, and benchmark wines,” a recent visit revealed exactly two hybrid wines available for purchase. And Jen Ziskin, a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, who is putting the finishing touches on her third restaurant’s wine list (an all-female one) says she’s not opposed to hybrid wines, she just hasn’t had a chance to taste many of them. 

La Garagista is currently being sold across the United States and in Europe. Heekin is excited about introducing more people to her wines each year. Rasmussen is eager to do the same, but she cites challenges with distribution, a “hangover from Prohibition,” which makes it difficult for small wineries like hers to move their products around the country.  

With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Niess says he’s considering approaching some local restaurants about putting his wine on their lists. In spite of skepticism from perhaps the more old-school wine professionals, Niess believes a younger crowd “who just wants to learn as much as they can about the wine in general,” don’t care about only drinking certain grapes and not others. 

Alcántara agrees. “A younger market is adopting the differences, embracing the diversity and seeing past those old biases. They probably don’t care what kind of grape the wine is made with, as long as it’s good, it has a sense of where it came from, was farmed sustainably and has a good story, right?”  

,

Alfredo Alcántara and Deanna Urciuoli moved to a cockroach-infested apartment in Brooklyn to save for a down payment on a piece of farmland in Upstate New York. There, they planned to begin their dream of building a sustainable vineyard using indigenous varieties of grapes. 

Matt Niess quit his job at the critically acclaimed Northern California winery Radio-Coteau a couple of years ago to focus full-time on cultivating and farming California’s native grapes, an unpopular move in California wine country. 

Erin Rasmussen left a wine job in Sonoma Valley to return to her home state of Wisconsin in an effort to change the narrative—and scene—around Midwestern wine, upending the adage that Midwesterners only drink sweet wine. 

This trailblazing group of entrepreneurs is not alone; there are others in Vermont, Virginia and Ohio. Their mission is largely one and the same: Let’s see what these American native grapes are made of.

It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when America gave up on its own grapes entirely and focused on growing Vitis vinifera, the common European grape. But there were likely a couple of factors at play: Prohibition as well as the fact that native grapes were given nary a thought (until recently) after European settlers brought vinifera to America. 

Winemakers say that, during Prohibition, the West Coast kept its grape-growing industry afloat by selling raisins and sacramental wine. On the East Coast, producers mostly converted to juice grape farming or stopped growing grapes altogether. Rasmussen says a “whole generation of wine growing was lost to Prohibition.” After Prohibition, Rasmussen says, wine education was largely European-focused, leaving many “sceptical of the grapes growing in their neighbor’s backyard in Ohio.”

The Resistance

Eschewing the long-held position—and tradition—of using the great European grapes (such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc) to produce wine in the United States, these ambitious winemakers’ devotion to hybrid wines demonstrate an innovative, forward-thinking approach to wine production. Winemakers say that, because of the prevalence of European wine grapes, there are actually not many available wine grapes that are 100 percent native, but there are a few.

When Deirdre Heekin opened her Vermont winery La Garagista in 2010, she admits there was a “lot of skepticism” toward wines made from hybrid varieties, which are crosses between native varieties and Vitis vinifera. This was especially true of wine produced in Vermont, Heekin says. The stigma around native grapes has been particularly prevalent and the hard set beliefs about how wine is made in this country—and what wine tastes good—have made it difficult for this movement to really take off.

Heekin works with cold-climate grapes—fruit that is hardy enough to survive a cold Vermont winter—and is committed to growing and making wine in the region from complex cross-pollinations between different species of wild American grape varieties and European wine grape varieties.   

When she started out, Heekin says, there were very few people focused on the art of farming hybrid grape varieties, which did not (and still don’t) command the same respect as a Burgundian or Tuscan wine. But Heekin says in the last ten years wines made from hybrid grapes and grown in Vermont and throughout the country, in fact, “have become exciting and intriguing to many people interested in wine.”

Farming what he believes is the oldest Baco Noir (a hybrid grape with one of its parents coming from a wild selection of Vitis Riparia, an indigenous North American grape) vineyard in the country, North American Press’ Niess is selling his 2019 Baco Noir online and in some “trendy shops” in the Bay Area, but his small operation as compared to California’s myriad heavy hitters in the wine arena has a lot of barrier breaking ahead.

Baco Noir grapes. Photo courtesy of Matt Niess.

Trying to innovate on the wine front in the country’s premier wine-producing region, Niess says people in the wine world just don’t get it. “To be clear, wineries making wine from hybrid grapes is not uncommon in other parts of the country,” he says. “But having a business dedicated to doing it in California within world class AVAs is totally unheard of.” 

Still, he’s forging ahead in spite of all the eye rolls and the shocked looks on people’s faces when he tells them he’s making wine with California’s very own grapes. He’s largely undeterred. “Why wouldn’t we try and use our own grapes and really try to define what American wine can be like?” he says. 

Ready to Drink

Rasmussen, who founded the American Wine Project in 2018, is looking forward to getting to know her 2019s. “It’s such a joy to get to know their character,” Rasmussen says of the imminent next batch. With plans to open a tasting room this summer, Rasmussen is eager to talk about the art of winemaking and of getting people jazzed about Midwestern wine that’s not sweet, but she’s also keenly aware of the business aspect of owning a winery. “Your business is to sell wine and make money,” she says. 

The chances of a Wisconsin or a Catskills winery ever being as profitable as a Napa Valley winery or a Willamette Valley winery are slim to none, and Rasmussen has no illusion of it being otherwise.

But what these winemakers are trying is powerful—and not subtly so. By using indigenous grapes, which are often disease-resistant and hardy, they are in a position to change the landscape (quite literally) of wine produced in America forever. Rasmussen speaks of outwitting climate change, pointing out Wisconsin’s lack of wildfires and absent water scarcity issues. Heekin believes her farming methods—regenerative, organic and biodynamic—will help manage climate change, and she says her wine varieties “can withstand the shifts all wine regions are seeing.” 

Native grapes have natural disease resistance and possess an extraordinary tolerance to extreme climates, which means they can grow anywhere, opening up completely new regions of the country for wine growing and production. 

Niess says the ability to avoid pesticides and even organic spray, which still requires the sprayer to don a full hazmat suit, is potentially a game changer. Alcántara and Urciuoli say they simply don’t see a reason to shun native grape varieties, particularly in light of “farming in today’s erratic climate patterns.”

 

Deanna Urciuoli plants grapes. Photo courtesy of Alfredo Alcántara.

Alcántara and Urciuoli are a couple of years away from having any bottled wine to show for their work up in the Catskills. The couple, in their early thirties, planted their first block of grapes last summer—two acres of “nearly-lost varieties,” as well as some “newer varieties developed by universities across the US, and a few super experimental ones cultivated by some pretty clever grape growers in Virginia and Ohio.”

“The whole thing is a big field trail to see what works in our extreme, yet generous Catskills climate,” says Alcántara, although the plan is to have their first harvest for Dear Native Grapes (the project’s working title) in 2023. 

Plenty of these unique wines are available for purchase around the country, although discovery can prove remarkably difficult. At a local Brooklyn, NY wine shop boasting “top artisanal, natural, and benchmark wines,” a recent visit revealed exactly two hybrid wines available for purchase. And Jen Ziskin, a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, who is putting the finishing touches on her third restaurant’s wine list (an all-female one) says she’s not opposed to hybrid wines, she just hasn’t had a chance to taste many of them. 

La Garagista is currently being sold across the United States and in Europe. Heekin is excited about introducing more people to her wines each year. Rasmussen is eager to do the same, but she cites challenges with distribution, a “hangover from Prohibition,” which makes it difficult for small wineries like hers to move their products around the country.  

With light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Niess says he’s considering approaching some local restaurants about putting his wine on their lists. In spite of skepticism from perhaps the more old-school wine professionals, Niess believes a younger crowd “who just wants to learn as much as they can about the wine in general,” don’t care about only drinking certain grapes and not others. 

Alcántara agrees. “A younger market is adopting the differences, embracing the diversity and seeing past those old biases. They probably don’t care what kind of grape the wine is made with, as long as it’s good, it has a sense of where it came from, was farmed sustainably and has a good story, right?”  

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