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by Fred McMillin
for July 4, 1997

Winery of the Week

The Fourth of July...
      A Winery George Washington Would Have Loved

Prologue: The Commander in Chief of the first American Army, General George Washington, won our war for independence from Great Britian. However, he lost another war, as we shall see.

Capt. John Smith had defined the problem when he founded the first permanent English settlement on our shores in 1607. While admiring the native American grapes around Jamestown, Virginia, he noted that "none [of them] do the taste so well please when made into wine."

Robert Palmer
A 150 years later, George Washington felt the same way so he brought over a German vintner with European vines to plant a vineyard in 1759. The vines, and the project, died.

In 1774, with political tensions rising, he tried again. This time he enlisted a partner of whom you may have heard...Thomas Jefferson. They and some other investors each put up 50 pounds sterling, formed The Wine Company, and brought over vintner Philip Mazzei from Tuscany. This effort, too, foundered. There may have been a little problem with the Italian connection... culminating in Philip shipping his former Tuscan sponsor a live rattlesnake packed in sawdust!

So, the Commander in Chief did lose a war...a viticultural struggle against the climate and insects of the East Coast.

The Rest of the Story: Today, armed with modern technology, East Coast vintners have won that war. E.g., Robert Palmer planted 55 acres of European vines on the North Fork of Long Island in 1983. Are they successful? The Chardonnay was placed in the Top Ten Wines by Anthony Dias Blue's Bon Appetit Tasting Panel..."lush, rich with toasty oak." The Dessert Gewurztraminer compared favorably with Alsace's best in a New York Times review. The Cabernet Franc was given four stars by Master of Wine Ronn Weigand. General Washington would be astonished.

Just the Facts

Name Palmer Vineyards
Location Aquebogue, North Fork, Long Island
Founded 1983
Winemaker Dan Kleck, "a most gifted winemaker," N.Y. Times
Capacity 20,000 cases annually
Contact (516) 722-WINE

Postscript: President Washington did have some American vines growing at Mt. Vernon. How did THEY do? Well, Washington allowed a German general and his horse to stay at the estate. As for the vines, the horse ate 'em!

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf

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