American Wines on the Seine

Gunflint and Gastronomy, Yankee-style

Below is a photograph of wine and liquor exhibits at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. As mentioned in our last post, high quality American wines were excluded from the awards on the basis their labels infringed French “indications of origin”. In a word, the use of French wine or place names was an attempt to deceive, in the French mind.
This is even though the bottles clearly showed the wines were from vineyards in California, United States of America.

The image above is in Volume 5 of the six-volume Report of the Commissioner-general for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900. This detailed America’s participation in the Exposition with a close examination of exhibits and prizes won.

Volume 6 contains reports by Harvey Wiley, the chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture and pure food czar, whom we profiled earlier, and L.J. Vance. Wiley had been responsible to collect and present wine samples for the American agricultural exhibit.

Leo Vance, a juror and New York-based writer, wrote a longer detailed analysis of the American exhibits, the American wine industry and the world wine industry; his account follows Wiley’s but both are well-worth reading.

Vance’s mini-essay provide a neat capsule of the industry in all these facets as the 20th century opened.

The great majority of the wines were provided of course by France, an enormous 6,000 vs. California’s tiny 80 and Canada’s near-infinitesimal, four. Still, the significance of the New World’s contributions far outweighed their numbers, as the awards to the United States at the 1889 Paris fair showed.

Reference to liquor’s morals was by 1900 virtually routine in any consideration of the wine, brewing, or distilling industries, even by the latter’s trade organs. Yet Vance’s account, which starts here, is notable for eliding a moralistic perspective. In this sense the piece sounds unusually modern.

The reasons are obvious: the exposition was a trade fair. There was no room to discuss political questions on booze including the desirability of limited or total prohibition. The interests of American industry needed to be advanced: end of story.

The value of this perspective though is that it shows clearly where the wine world was heading on its own terms. And clearly it had a bright future, the future it would fully reclaim only after the 1960s.

That first future was foreclosed to it by the advent of National Prohibition in 1920.

Vance and Wiley present an ambitious, forward-looking wine industry, one that unlike today was national, not just through distribution of wineries throughout the country, but in production as well. Data included showed states outside California still produced over 40% of the wine consumed in the country, see pg. 483.

Today, in contrast, California produces 90% of all U.S. wine.

New York was considered in fact a champagne specialist with the industry centered around Lake Keuka in western New York. You could still see remains of some of the large champagne houses in Hammondsport and Penn Yann, NY when I first visited there in the 1980s: large mouldering stone warehouses, for example. They probably still stand, perhaps repurposed for modern winemaking or other uses.

Had Prohibition, WW I and the Depression never come, this snapshot of 1900 wine culture would have matured into the wine world we know now – just much earlier. Whether the native grape tradition of the East described by Vance would have survived – or possibly flourished – is another question.

I think it may well have, but as things resulted, Vinifera, king in California by 1900, defined tastes nationally, finally.

Already in 1900 Vance offers a primer on wine-tasting. He recites a typically modern wine vocabulary, clearly by this time Franco-Anglo-American – international. One example is the term flinty, from pierre de fusil as the cosmopolitan Vance notes.

Vance was an epicure, obviously. The report uses neutral language to conceal the sensual and hedonistic aspects of wine, after all it was a government and bureaucratic document. Nonetheless between the lines, and not too far between them, is our consumer wine world of today.

Little seems to have survived on Vance himself. He is referred to in this restaurant history by Andrew Haley as a New York journalist important for having drawn attention to the city’s cosmopolitan food culture of the 1890s.

Clearly Vance was a progenitor of Manhattan’s 1930s food and wine clubs I profiled earlier, which in turn influenced the postwar food and wine boom. We are in a direct line of descent from Vance via the dusty pages of the solemn-looking Report.

Online sources suggest that Vance was also a business journalist; the sophistication of his commentary on the American and global wine business reinforces this conclusion.

In sum, Vance outlined the wine world we live in today, one in which American winemaking has had an outsize influence. It would have all happened much sooner – perhaps enlivened by a vibrant Eastern native grape tradition – but for the advent of repressive national laws, the Dirty Thirties, and World War.

Note re images: The first image above is from the Report referenced and linked in the text, via HathiTrust. The second is from the Wikipedia entry on the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, also linked in the text. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.