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Chapter 18


Neglect of the Vine in America.—Drunkenness in France.—Cholera especially fatal to Drunkards.—The Soldier's and the Sailor's Vice.—Sparkling Champagne and Still Champagne.—Excessive Price of these Wines in America.—Burgundy.—Proper soil for the Vine.—Anecdote.—Vines of Vévey.—The American Fox-grape.

Dear ——,

A little incident has lately impressed me with the great wealth of this quarter of the world in wines, as compared with our own poverty. By poverty, I do not mean ignorance of the beverage, or a want of good liquors; for I believe few nations have so many varieties, or varieties so excellent, as ourselves. Certainly it is not common to meet as good Bordeaux wines in Paris as in New York. The other good liquors of France are not so common; and yet the best Burgundy I ever drank was in America.[35] This is said without reference to the different qualities of the vineyards—but, by poverty, I mean the want of the vines.

Vineyards abound all over the American continent, within the proper latitudes, except in the portions of it peopled by the colonists who have an English origin. To this fact, then, it is fair to infer, that we owe the general neglect of this generous plant among ourselves. The Swiss, German, and French emigrants are already thinking of the vine, while we have been in possession of the country two centuries without making a cask of wine. If this be not literally true it is so nearly true, as to render it not less a leading fact. I do not attach exactly the same moral consequences to the want of the vine as is usually attributed to the circumstances by political economists; though I am of opinion that serious physical evils may be traced to this cause. Men will seek some stimulus or other, if it be attainable, place them in what situations you will, although wine is forbidden by the Koran, the Mahomedan is often intoxicated; and my own eyes have shown me how much drunkenness exists in the vine-growing countries of Europe. On this subject it may be well to say a word en passant.

I came to Europe under the impression that there was more drunkenness among us than in any other country, England, perhaps, excepted. A residence of six months in Paris changed my views entirely. You will judge of my surprise when first I saw a platoon of the Royal Guard,—literally a whole platoon, so far as numbers and the order of their promenade was concerned,—staggering drunk, within plain view of the palace of their master. From this time I became more observant, and not a day passed that I did not see men, and even women, in the same situation in the open streets. Usually, when the fact was mentioned to Americans, they expressed surprise, declaring they had never seen such a thing! They were too much amused with other sights to regard this; and then they had come abroad with different notions, and it is easier to float in the current of popular opinion than to stem it. In two or three instances I have taken the unbelievers with me into the streets, where I have never failed to convince them of their mistake in the course of an hour. These experiments, too, were usually made in the better quarters of the town, or near our own residence, where one is much less apt to meet with drunkenness than in the other quarters. On one occasion, a party of four of us went out with this object, and we passed thirteen drunken men, during a walk of an hour. Many of them were so far gone as to be totally unable to walk. I once saw, on the occasion of a festival, three men literally wallowing in the gutter before my window; a degree of beastly degradation I never witnessed in any other country.

The usual reply of a Frenchman, when the subject has been introduced, was that the army of occupation introduced the habit into the capital. But I have spoken to you of M——, a man whose candour is only equalled by his information. He laughed at this account of the matter, saying that he had now known France nearly sixty years; it is his native country; and he says that he cannot see any difference, in this particular, in his time. It is probable that, during the wars of Napoleon, when there was so great a demand for men of the lower classes, it was less usual to encounter this vice in the open streets, than now, for want of subjects; but, by all I can learn, there never was a time when drunkards did not abound in France. I do assure you that, in the course of passing between Paris and London, I have been more struck by drunkenness in the streets of the former, than in those of the latter.

Not long since, I asked a labourer if he ever got grisé, and he laughingly told me—"yes, whenever he could." He moreover added, that a good portion of his associates did the same thing. Now I take it, this word grisé contains the essence of the superiority of wine over whiskey. It means fuddled, a condition from which one recovers more readily, than from downright drunkenness, and of which the physical effects are not so injurious. I believe the consequences of even total inebriety from wine, are not as bad as those which follow inebriety from whiskey and rum. But your real amateur here is no more content with wine than he is with us; he drinks a white brandy that is pretty near the pure alcohol.

The cholera has laid bare the secrets of drunkenness, all over Europe. At first we were astonished when the disease got among the upper classes; but, with all my experience, I confess I was astonished at hearing it whispered of a gentleman, as I certainly did in a dozen instances—"mais il avait l'habitude de boire trop." Cholera, beyond a question, killed many a sober man, but it also laid bare the fault of many a devotee of the bottle.

Drunkenness, almost as a matter of course, abounds in nearly all, if not in all, the armies of Europe. It is peculiarly the soldier's and the sailor's vice, and some queer scenes have occurred directly under my own eyes here, which go to prove it. Take among others, the fact, that a whole guard, not long since, got drunk in the Faubourg St. Germain, and actually arrested people in the streets and confined them in the guard-house. The Invalids are notorious for staggering back to their quarters; and I presume I have seen a thousand of these worthies, first and last, as happy as if they had all their eyes, and arms, and legs about them. The official reports show ten thousand cases of females arrested for drunkenness, in Paris, during the last year.—But to return to our vineyards.

Although I am quite certain drunkenness is not prevented by the fact that wine is within the reach of the mass, it is easy to see that its use is less injurious, physically, than that of the stronger compounds and distillations, to which the people of the non-vine-growing regions have recourse as substitutes. Nature is a better brewer than man, and the pure juice of the grape is less injurious than the mixed and fiery beverages that are used in America. In reasonable quantities, it is not injurious at all. Five-and-twenty years since, when I first visited Europe, I was astonished to see wine drunk in tumblers. I did not at first understand that half of what I had up to that time been drinking was brandy, under the name of wine.

While our imported wines are, as a whole, so good, we do not always show the same discrimination in choosing. There is very little good champagne, for instance, drunk in America. A vast deal is consumed, and we are beginning to understand that it is properly a table-wine, or one that is to be taken with the meats; but sparkling champagne is, ex necessitate, a wine of inferior quality. No wine mousses, as the French term it, that has body enough to pass a certain period without fermentation. My friend de V—— is a proprietor of vines at Aï, and he tells me that the English take most of their good wines, which are the "still champagnes," and the Russians and the Americans the poor, or the sparkling. A great deal of the sparkling, however, is consumed in France, the price better suiting French economy. But the wine-growers of Champagne themselves speak of us as consumers of their second-class liquors.

I drunk at Paris, as good "sparkling champagne" as anybody I knew, de V—— having the good nature to let me have it, from his cellar, for the price at which it is sold to the dealer and exporter, or at three francs the bottle. The octroi and the transportation bring the price up to about three francs and a half. This then is the cost to the restaurateur and the innkeeper. These sell it again to their customers, at six francs the bottle. Now a bottle of wine ought not, and I presume does not, cost the American dealer any more; the difference in favour of the duty more than equalling the difference against them, in the transportation. This wine is sold in our eating-houses and taverns at two dollars, and even at two dollars and a half, the bottle! In other words, the consumer pays three times the amount of the first cost and charges. Now, it happens, that there is something very like free trade in this article, (to use the vernacular), and here are its fruits; You also see in this fact, the truth of what I have told you of our paying for the want of a class of men who wilt be content to be shopkeepers and innkeepers, and who do not look forward to becoming anything more. I do not say that we are the less respectable for this circumstance, but we are, certainly, as a people, less comfortable. Champagne, Rhenish, and Bordeaux wines ought to be sold in New York, quite as cheap as they are sold in the great towns of the countries in which they are made. They can be bought of the wine-merchants nearly as low, even as things are.

If the innkeepers and steam-boat stewards, of America, would buy and sell low-priced Burgundy wines, that, as the French call it, carry water well, as well as some other wines that might be named, the custom of drinking this innocent and useful beverage at table would become general, attention would then be paid to the vine, and in twenty years we should be consumers of the products of our own vineyards.

The idea that our winters are too severe can hardly be just. There may be mountainous districts where such is the fact, but, in a country that extends from the 27th to the 47th degrees of latitude, it is scarcely possible to suppose the vine cannot flourish. I have told you that wine is made on the Elbe, and it is made in more than half the Swiss cantons. Proper exposures and proper soil are necessary for good wines, anywhere, but nothing is easier than to have both. In America, I fear, we have hitherto sought land that was too rich; or rather, land that is wanting in the proper and peculiar richness that is congenial to the vine. All the great vineyards I have seen, and all of which I can obtain authentic accounts, are on thin gravelly soils; frequently, as is the case in the Rheingau, on decomposed granite, quartz, and sienite. Slate mixed with quartz on a clayish bottom, and with basalt, is esteemed a good soil, as is also marl and gravel. The Germans use rich manures, but I do not think this is the case in France.

The grape that makes good wine is rarely fit to eat. Much care is had to reject the defective fruit, when a delicate wine is expected, just as we cull apples to make fine cider. A really good vineyard is a fortune at once, and a tolerable one is as good a disposition as can be made of land. All the fine wines of Hockheim are said to be the produce of only eight or ten acres. There is certainly more land than this, in the vine, south of the village, but the rest is not esteemed to be Hockheimer.

Time is indispensable to fine wines, and time is a thing that an American lives too fast to spare. The grapes become better by time, although periodically renewed, and the wine improves in the same way. I have told you in these letters, that I passed a vineyard on the lake of Zurich of which there are records to show it has borne the vine five hundred years. Five centuries since, if historians are to be believed, the winters on this lake must have been as severe as they are usually on Champlain; they are almost as severe, even now.

Extraordinary characters are given to some of the vines here. Thus some of the Moselle wines, it is said, will not make good vinegar! If this be true, judging by my own experience, vinegar is converted into wines of the Moselle. I know no story of this sort, after all, that is more marvellous than one I have heard of the grandfather of A——, and which I believe to be perfectly true, as it is handed down on authority that can scarcely be called in question.

A pipe of Madeira was sent to him, about the year 1750, which proved to be so bad that, giving it up as a gone case, he ordered it to be put in the sun, with a bottle in its bung-hole, in order that it might, at least, make good vinegar. Bis official station compelled him to entertain a great deal, and his factotum, on these occasions, was a negro, whose name I have forgotten. This fellow, a capital servant when sober, occasionally did as he saw his betters do, and got drunk. Of course this greatly deranged the economy of the government dinners. On one occasion, particular care was taken to keep him in his right senses, and yet at the critical moment he appeared behind his master's chair, as happy as the best of them. This matter was seriously inquired into next day, when it was discovered that a miracle had been going on out of doors, and that the vinegar had been transformed into wine. The tradition is, that this wine was remarkable for its excellence, and that it was long known by the name of the negro, as the best wine of a colony, where more good wine of the sort was drunk, probably, than was ever known by the same number of people, in the same time, anywhere else. Now should one experimenting on a vineyard, in America, find vinegar come from his press, he would never have patience to let it ferment itself back into good liquor. Patience, I conceive, is the only obstacle to our becoming a great wine-growing and a great silk-growing country.

I have been led into these remarks by observing the vineyards here. The qualities of wines, of course, are affected by the positions of the vineyards, for all who can make wine do not make good wine, but the vines of Vévey, owing most probably to their exposure, are said to be the best of Switzerland. The best liquor comes from St. Saphorin, a hamlet that is quite near the town, which lies at the foot of the acclivity, described to you in our approach to this place. The little chateau-looking house that so much struck our fancies, on that occasion, is, in fact, in the immediate neighbourhood of the spot. All these circumstances show how much depends on minor circumstances in the cultivation of the vine, and how much may be expected from the plant, when care is had to respect them.

The heat may be too great for the vineyard as well as the cold. In Italy there is a practice of causing the vines to run on trees, in order to diminish the effect of the heat, by means of the shade they create. But the good wines are nearly everywhere, if not positively everywhere, produced from the short, clipped standards. This fact has induced me to think that we may succeed better with the vine in the middle, and even in the eastern, than in the southern and western states. I take it, the cold is of no importance, provided it be not so intense as to kill the plant, and the season is long enough to permit the fruit to ripen. It would be absurd in me, who have but a very superficial knowledge of the subject, to pretend to be very skillful in this matter, but I cannot help thinking that, if one had patience to try the experiment, it would be found the common the American fox-grape would in time bring a fine wine. It greatly resembles the grapes of some of the best vineyards here, and the fact of its not being a good eating grape is altogether in its favour.

In short, I throw it out as a conjecture more than as an ascertained fact, it is true, but from all I have seen in Europe, I am induced to think that, in making our experiments on the vine, we have been too ambitious to obtain a fat soil, and too warp of the higher latitudes of the country. A gravelly hill-side, in the interior, that has been well stirred, and which has the proper exposure, I cannot but thing would bring good wine, in all the low countries of the middle states.

James Fenimore Cooper

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