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empire of vines

16 december 2013

The subtitle of Ericka Hannickel's Empire of Vines – "Wine Culture in America" – is misleading unless one thinks of "culture" in the sense of cultivating plants. Hannickel herself says up front that "this project is more concerned with grapes, the grape industry, and the establishment of vineyards within the context of national expansion … than a focused study on the cultural cachet of wine" (15-16). And at that, the focus of Empire of Vines is limited to the 19th century. However, once readers accept that narrow focus, Hannickel leads them on a path through American botany and rhetoric that's as twisty and rich in fruit as any of the grapevines it discusses. Her work is wide-ranging, intriguing, and truly interdisciplinary.

Hannickel observes that 19th-century writers about grape-growing linked the success of their favorite crop to that of the nation, and specifically to a tension-laden rhetoric of republican empire strongly linked to images of Greece and Rome. Of course, they would do that. American boosters of any particular industry have been given to invocations of glory-and-grandeur; one wonders if anybody really took such writing seriously, though. More convicing than her quotations from trade journals are Hannickel's reproductions of 19th-century physical spaces: Andrew Jackson Downing's integrated home and experimental gardens in Newburgh, NY; the national Propagating Garden on a then-vacant lot at Sixth and Missouri in Washington, DC.

The 19th century expended a lot of rhetoric on viticulture, reading a lot of political and social issues through it, but it also planted a lot of vines. One of Hannickel's chapters is devoted to Nicholas Longworth, a dynamo of a guy who kept a to-do-list pinned to his jacket sleeve and dominated the real-estate business in antebellum Cincinnati, Ohio. One of the things I did not know about Cincinnati is that it was briefly, in the mid-19th-century, the center of the American wine industry. Like New York State, southwestern Ohio built its wineries around the native labrusca grape; more crucially, it built them around Longworth's a priori notion that the Ohio Valley, better-known for pork and whiskey, would make a great wine region.

Hannickel looks at grapevines as literary symbols (in the work of Charles W. Chesnutt). Chesnutt's fiction uses increased interest in grape cultivation in the postbellum South as a setting. It also speaks to a curious tension in American culture. Prevailing rhetorics (that Chesnutt attacked) insisted that hybrids were bad. (Fear of miscegenation prompted that insistence, of course.) But the practical work of agricultural scientists is all about hybridization. How to reconcile the purity of human races with the vigorous mixing of grape races?

The growth of the California wine industry from the Civil War up to Prohibition is a story of imperial rhetoric, for sure. Yet in her chapter on the rise of California viticulture, Hannickel reveals a slight flaw in her argument. She wants to show that wine and vine rhetoric was central to the American project. Most of her examples come from the boosterish publications and displays of the wine trade. But of course the wine industry saw itself as central to American ambition. Many industries did; the question is, did anyone take this rhetoric seriously, or look to the vine the way they looked to steel, or electric light, or the railroad? Hannickel charts a hierarchy of Californian agriculture, with grapevines on top, other fruit producers next, and vegetable and grain farmers below. But again, most of the evidence for this hierarchy comes from the grape growers, and they would see it that way.

That's a minor quibble. Whoever produced it, there was a serious amount of vinophile rhetoric circulating in the latter part of the long 19th century in the United States, much of it centered in California, and Hannickel documents it amply. In particular, she shows how wine formed spectacular centerpieces at the various World's Fairs that captured Americans' attention from Philadelphia in 1876 through St. Louis in 1904.

Hannickel includes a chapter of literary/cultural criticism of the "vineyard romance" in America. I didn't know that was a thing, but Hannickel establishes it as a genre with a long and surprisingly stable history, from James Fenimore Cooper and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton to the film Sideways. Fictional vineyards are sites for the exploration of hybridity (usually a bad thing) and the virtues of working close to the land in a setting of genuine cultivation (in all its good senses).

No matter that wine is huge agribusiness; as Hannickel shows, running a vineyard is always a guarantee of artisanal TLC. When a celebrity wants to go into dignified semi-retirement in this country, he plants grapevines. Hannickel illustrates how deeply the roots of such vines are planted.

Hannickel, Erica. Empire of Vines: Wine culture in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.