The Great Grape

How vines from a Clarksburg garden helped establish America’s fledgling wine industry

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse.

 

Around 1816, John Adlum, one of America’s earliest winemakers, paid a visit to Mrs. Scholl’s Public House in Clarksburg. The tiny Montgomery County hamlet, founded in 1780, was a rambling collection of inns and taverns along the “Great Wagon Road” that ran from Georgetown to Frederick, now known as Route 355. Stagecoaches stopped at Mrs. Scholl’s twice a week, a brief respite for travelers on their way west.

Adlum—an indefatigable cultivator of grapevines—had heard about a particular native grape that grew in Catherine Scholl’s garden, one she called “Catawba.” Once he had tasted the sweet red berry, Adlum realized this variety was far better than the New World Alexander grape he had been using in wine he produced. He took a number of cuttings and brought them to his “experimental station,” a 100-acre tract in what is now Cleveland Park, along Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., not far from Peirce Mill. There, a variety of grapes were carefully trialed in search of the perfect fruit. Scholl’s Catawba grape became the standout.

Adlum produced 400 gallons of his first vintage Catawba wine in 1822. His friend Thomas Jefferson received one of the inaugural bottles and was unimpressed. Nevertheless, Adlum persisted, propagated and propagandized, extolling the virtues of his vines all along the Eastern Seaboard. In 1830, The New England Farmer advertised 58 vines of “the true Catawba Grape” for sale, “one of the best native, table or wine grapes cultivated.” The grapes, with large berries of a pale red or lilac color, “have a slight, musky taste and delicate flavor.” Noted the ad, “The vines are great bearers: one vine in Mrs. Scholl’s garden in Clarksburg, Maryland, has produced eight bushels of grapes in one season.”

Soon, cuttings from Mrs. Scholl’s Catawba grapes were growing in the vineyards of Nicholas Longworth, near Cincinnati, Ohio. Longworth’s Alexander grape wine was only mildly regarded—and ridiculed by the French. Longworth turned instead to the Catawba grape, producing a still wine and, by accident, stumbling onto a method to create a sparkling wine.

Longworth’s still and sparkling Catawba wines became sensations, both at home and abroad—the first American wine to win praise from Old World sommeliers. A journalist from The Illustrated London News declared that the still Catawba compared favorably to the wines of the Rhine, and, effusively, that the sparkling Catawba “transcends the Champagnes of France.”

Renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was such a fan that in 1858 he penned an ode to Scholl’s grapes in his Birds of Passage collection of poems:

          Very good in its way
          Is the Verzenay,
         Or the Sillery soft and creamy;
         But Catawba wine
         Has a taste more divine,
         More dulcet, delicious, and dreamy.

Catawba’s fortunes would change forever in 1860, when a powdery mildew swept through the fields on the East Coast and in the Midwest, decimating production. Yet Catawba is still grown today east of the Mississippi River, with more than 3,000 acres under cultivation spread throughout the states. Catawba vineyards have been particularly successful in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Limited runs of the pink Catawba wine can still be found gracing store shelves.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.

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