When people think of the history of winemaking in America, they think it must have originated in California, or maybe out east. Actually, the first commercial wine-making operation was in Vevay, Indiana, in Switzerland County.
John James Dufour, who arrived in this country in 1796, was looking for a place to start growing grapes and making wine, so he settled in Kentucky, but purchased land in the Indiana territory along the Ohio River, starting the first commercial winery in the country.
You can read about the entire growth, decline, and present-day success that sprang from Dufour’s efforts in the book Indiana Wine by James L. and John J. Butler, published by Indiana University Press. James is the owner of Butler Winery and Vineyards in Bloomington.
The book is a historical examination of how Dufour came to end up in Vevay (Benjamin Franklin told Dufour’s father to send his children to America), how he got his start in winemaking, persuaded Swiss colonists and settlers to make Switzerland County their home, and how Indiana wine struggled to survive until Prohibition put all Indiana wineries out of business.
A combination of stories, anecdotes, and historical records, the Butler brothers make us realize that Indiana wine is not a recent phenomenon, but is over 200 years old.
We learn how the Swiss colony first grew on the banks of the Ohio, purchasing land just a few miles downriver from where Vevay is located today. How Dufour and the other Swiss left Kentucky for Indiana because they “chafed under the presence of slavery and desired to escape it,” choosing to live on the Indiana side of the border, rather than the Kentucky side, and thus missing out on the Ohio River trade. And how Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy Cincinnati businessman, took up Dufour’s vision of the American wine industry after the latter’s death.
My favorite anecdote is when John James took some other families to their newly purchased land in Indiana. Upon leaving the boat, with ax in hand, he steps onto the shore and declares, “I shall cut down the first tree on our new land.” He then chops down a sapling. Most people would have tried to fell a larger tree, as a symbol of their bold new venture. But the religious and modest Dufour set his sights much lower and chopped down a manageable — not boastful — tree of moderate size.
If you’re a fan of Indiana wine, a lover of history, or you just want to learn a little more about Switzerland’s home away from home, pick up a copy of Indiana Wine: A History either online at Amazon.com or the Indiana Press website.
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