|To learn more about native American grapes, I spoke with Jerry Eisterhold, whose winery, Vox Vineyards, is the only one I know of in the United States that uses no vitis vinifera (the European species that includes all the noble grapes).
Located in Missouri, which was once a cradle of American viticulture, the vineyard is instead wholly devoted to making wine from native grapes.
Q: We’re talking today because you make wine with grapes from North America. Why is that unusual?
One reason is there’s no brand recognition, and no one knows how to do it. So it’s really inefficient from a business perspective.
The other is that wine culture is dominated by vinifera, and wine culture in the middle of the U.S. is kind of dominated by the French hybrids.
Many wines were developed in the 19th century. But with Prohibition, all of that exploration was just blown away.
There was kind of a process of cultural dominance. As people on the East Coast migrated westward, they carried with them the stuff that they were familiar with and planted that in their backyards and vineyards. No one was prompted to sort of go beyond the usual norm.
Q: Grapes from the Americas are consistently described as having a “foxy” flavor. What’s the deal with that?
I had always assumed the foxiness meant a sort of a wet dog aroma and flavor that you really don’t want to put in your mouth, and everyone assumes that’s what American grapes are.
I came across a book by this guy named T.V. Munson, where he had been identifying all the [species] of grapes on the planet. Of which one is vinifera; one is [American] labrusca, which includes Concord, Welch’s, Manischewitz. It’s labrusca that has that foxiness.
But that’s just one of many types of native wine he identified or developed, and many of the others grow in the Midwest. So that was the curiosity for me. What do these grapes have to say?
So there’s a little bit of kind of an underdog, missionary trope going on [at Vox Vineyards]. I’m trying to show people that there’s a lot more potential to these American grapes.
Q: How did you start making wine with American grapes?
My day job, I design museums. So I spend a lot of time doing research and in archives. And growing up on the Gasconade River, upriver from Hermann, Missouri, making wine is kind of mandatory.
In a used bookstore, I found that book by Thomas Vonne Munson. It’s called Foundations of American Grape Culture. In it, he identified not only different genuses of grapes, but hundreds of varieties that he had created [with American grapes or hybrids], many of which had commercial success way back when.
So I started tracking down the stuff. It took about a dozen years to track down some 60 of them. And then you have to try to figure out how to grow them. And that took about a dozen years. And then you figure out which of them will make a decent wine. And frankly, some of them do not.
Q: You alluded to the fact that working with native grapes is not a smart business move?
There’s one variety that we got 100 cuttings of from a vineyard. And from those 100 cuttings, I got a single vine. That tells you they don’t propagate very easily.
[These varieties] do all sorts of weird things that are just non-standard. And the conversation you have with the grapevine, it’s not very immediate feedback. You try something, see what the results are, try it again next year, try something else next year.
We also really have to sell the idea of diversity [in wine] and exploring that diversity and getting people curious about this stuff, because no one’s going into a restaurant and [asking for these wines].
Q: You talk about the winery like a living museum.
Yeah. It has to have that mission. If I had a board with a quarterly report, this would never fly. We need to get [financially] sustainable at some point. But we want to educate, to make things of quality that will represent these grapes.
Which is why, frankly, we started with 60 [grapes] and we’re down to 40. We’ve been pretty rigorous about not putting things out there that we wouldn’t actually want to put in our mouths.