Table grapevines in Southern California. | George Rose/Getty Images
Winemakers around the country are working to bring back Indigenous and hybrid grape varieties that are better adapted to extreme weather
This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
In his almost 50 years in the wine industry, J. Stephen Casscles has watched the weather in New York’s Hudson Valley become wetter, hotter, and more humid — the perfect environment for fungal diseases and pests to thrive. Facing everything from black rot and downy mildew to stink bugs and spotted lanternflies — invasive insects that feed on plant sap — winegrowers across the region have been more frequently and liberally applying pesticides and fungicides, including the copper-based alternatives used in organic viticulture.
“I’m the one spraying these things, [so] I just would rather not use things that are highly toxic,” Casscles says. “Or, if I am, I’d rather use them three times a year rather than 12.”
And yet, even copper poses potential health risks, and researchers have found that it can build up in vineyards over time, negatively impacting soil health. For these reasons, Casscles and other winemakers are hoping to spray less overall by growing grape varieties better suited for an increasingly unstable climate.
Together with Milea Estate Vineyards, Casscles recently launched the Heritage Grape Project, a line of wines that aims to conserve and promote hybrid grapes, which are crosses between Indigenous American grapes and the European varieties that most wine drinkers are familiar with. Once shunned as “foxy,” “musky,” or “unidimensional,” these hybrid grapes are being re-evaluated as the climate crisis stands to reshape vineyards across the world.
“Everyone is concerned with yield and the continual health of their vineyards,” explains wine distributor and former wine cellar manager Peter Szilagyi. “People who are leaning into these Indigenous and hybrid grapes are doing so out of a concern for soil and for laborers — often because they themselves are much closer to the labor.”
Grape species such as labrusca, aestivalis, rupestris, and riparia co-evolved in North America with many of the regional pests and funguses. Historic hybrid grapes are spontaneous crosses between vinifera grapes used in the European wine industry and Indigenous American grapes, or were purposefully bred in the United States and Europe in response to pressures like the phylloxera epidemic to help the European wine industry recover or to create more productive and better-tasting grapes.
As wine-growing regions are projected to shrink by as much as 56 percent around the world, costs are going up, and the world’s wine map is set to change radically, the Heritage Grape Project sees hybrids as helping local viticulturists grow grapes in both an ecologically and economically sound manner. And in our current era, efforts to bring hybrid grapes to fields and markets are taking on a new urgency — while facing an array of challenges.
For U.S. winemakers, growing the Vitis vinifera species highly prized in Europe has always been a struggle. Vinifera grapes often failed across the Atlantic due to differing climates, pests, and fungal diseases.
When Nicholas Longworth, heralded by many as the “father of the American wine industry,” began growing grapes in Ohio in the early 1800s, he worked for decades to grow Vitis vinifera, to no avail. In response, Longworth and other growers turned to hybrids such as Catawba, a cross between vinifera and the indigenous labrusca grape. Catawba wines soon grew in popularity: Henry Longfellow wrote an ode to the grape, arguing that no wine is as “dulcet, delicious, and dreamy” as that produced with Catawba.
But Catawba and other hybrids fell out of favor when Prohibition effectively shut down most vineyards in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. and the industry eventually moved to California, where new, more industrialized practices took hold.
In recent decades, winemaking has returned to other pockets of the country, but as temperatures rise and weather becomes more and more unstable, calls are growing for a new approach.
Vitis vinifera growing in Wuerzburg, Germany.
The Hunt for Ignored Grapes
Casscles began working in the wine industry when he was 14, but has spent his full-time career as an attorney working for the state of New York. Now, he says, searching for ideal hybrid grapes reminds him of his time spent regulating New York’s horseracing industry. “It’s sort of like racehorse breeding,” he explains. “You look at its parents and its grandparents to see what the offspring might be capable of.”
In his collection of 200 old and new books on U.S. grape varieties, Casscles searches for promising hybrids. “I’m trying to look back in history for varieties that are able to be grown sustainably today,” he explains. Based on this information, Casscles extrapolates whether the grapes will be resistant to fungal diseases, how easily they can be grown in different soil types, if they will “roll with the punches” in droughts or floods, and, of course, if he thinks they will produce pleasing wine. He then orders free vine cuttings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, which aims to preserve crop biodiversity and improve breeding.
Expanding grape biodiversity is critical for more than just aesthetic reasons, says Anna Katharine Mansfield, professor of enology at Cornell University. “The genetic variability of all the Vitis vinifera is really, really tiny. They are all so closely related that if one of them gets a disease, they all are going to get it.”
Since the 1980s, university scientists at Cornell and elsewhere have used molecular tools such as genome sequencing to guide crosses between vinifera and other species, including riparia and amurensis. The University of Minnesota, for example, draws on Vitis riparia, often referred to as “Minnesota’s native grape,” to produce hybrid wine grapes that can flourish in the region’s colder climate. Together with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association, the university hosts an International Cold Climate Wine Competition featuring these hybrids.
Casscles, though, prefers “heritage” hybrids, which were propagated intentionally as a result of disease in the 19th century or spontaneously after European settlement, over these newer varieties. “Not only do [“heritage”] grapes grow sustainably, but they have historic relevance,” he says. Through the Heritage Grape Project, Casscles is now producing around 900 gallons a year of these hybrid wines made from 107 varietals grown on his 12-acre farm.
Like many older varieties, however, they’re not bred for yield or speed of production. In Casscles’ experience, the hybrid vines, like vinifera grapes, often don’t reach full production until their fifth year, but he sees the gamble as worth it. “We already know they are very well-adapted to the environment and matched up with the region,” Mansfield adds. All told, Casscles’ endeavor will amount to 375 cases of wine sold this year at Milea Estate Vineyards, though he is beginning to plant more of certain hybrid varieties in order to increase future production.
That amount won’t make a dent in the total U.S. wine consumption — Wine Spectator pegs 2019 consumption at around 328.9 million cases. But for Casscles, this is a critical first step to highlight grape diversity and popularize these hybrids among consumers and other winemakers. Beyond producing his own wine, Casscles has also donated several local hybrid varieties to botanical gardens and arboretums on the East Coast, some of which are planting their own small vineyards for educational purposes and to raise the profile of hybrid grapes.
Other grape-growers and winemakers are also drawing on the deep history of hybrid grapes to tackle current problems. Justine Belle Lambright is the director of external business at the Kalchē Wine Cooperative, a Vermont-based worker cooperative that produces wine with locally grown hybrid grapes.
For Lambright, hybrid grapes can contribute to a redefinition and reclamation of wine. “Although the majority of workers in a vineyard are Black and brown bodies, they only make up 1 percent of the ownership level,” Lambright notes. As they see it, hybrid grapes, which require fewer chemical inputs, have the potential to improve labor conditions for those workers of color.
But hybrids are no silver bullet. Art and food historian Shana Klein has detailed how in the 19th century, “viticultural development promised to elevate America’s cultural importance as well as colonize landscapes that were thought to be divinely sanctioned to white Americans.” This viticultural development heavily relied on hybrids, many of which came about through spontaneous cross-breeding after settlers brought vinifera grapes to the Americas. Hybrid grapes thus are heavily implicated in the violence of settler colonialism and Indigenous displacement.
“When people are talking about heritage, whose heritage are they actually talking about?” Lambright asks, arguing that winemakers need to contend with the violent past — and present — of the industry. As Kalchē’s website declares, “It’s up to us to redefine and reclaim this next wine world.”
A Hybrid Future?
While hybrids are no panacea, Lambright sees hybrid grapes as an important part of the next era of wine production as they have the potential to improve “exploit[ation] of workers, consumers, and the environment” when given the proper considerations.
Nonetheless, hybrid grapes may still face an uphill battle to widespread acceptance; they’re new to most consumers, and restaurants can be reluctant to stock wines made with them. “I have a lot of people that come from old-school styles of wine that think there are right and wrong ways to consume this beverage,” says Marcie Gsteiger-Cox, the wine director at Michelin-starred Reverie in Washington, D.C. “There are still a lot of stigmas around hybrid grapes.”
Casscles believes consumer taste could change with more education, however. There is “not as much name recognition for these French-American hybrids and almost none for the heritage varieties developed in the Hudson Valley and New England.” He’s hoping the Heritage Grape Project and others will lead to increased recognition of these varieties. Others, like Szilagyi, suggest that hybrid wines need to chart their own path. “I’ve found some of my favorite wines from hybrid grapes,” he says. “Instead of trying to make a European-style wine with hybrid grapes,” he recommends winemakers, “just embrace them and sit comfortably with [their] qualities.”
The fact that non-vinifera grapes are less of a “known quantity” means that the kinds of large capital investments needed to get vineyards up and running can be harder to come by. And launching one of these atypical vineyards takes even more time and money.
Jerry Eisterhold of TerraVox Vineyards in Missouri got his start in winemaking after coming across a copy of the 1909 book Foundations of American Grape Culture, which catalogs the vast diversity of American grapes. Inspired, Eisterhold set out to put these varieties back on the map. He tracked down the community college in Texas that once housed Munson’s nursery and began growing Indigenous grapes.
Eisterhold notes that choosing the right grape variety in the changing climate can be even more difficult in the case of transplanted or untested varietals. “We are not exploring one grapevine; we are exploring a diverse sweep of them. So, the efficiency of all the labor to monitor and analyze and do all the tests is multiplied,” says Eisterhold, who began TerraVox with sweat equity and 60 varietals. “It is a lot of labor that is not amortized over huge amounts of wine,” he says.
Despite the challenges inherent in any shift of this size, a number of winemakers and others in the industry see hybrid and Indigenous grapes as key to wine’s future.
“The wine industry today is a largely agricultural-industrial complex,” explains Boston-based sommelier and gastronomy graduate researcher Marie-Louise Friedland. “But where we’re going to see the continued success of American wine is by embracing hybrid grapes in a more real way.”