When a man from Vaud set out to bring his knowledge of wine to North America… Illustration by Marco Heer.
When a man from Vaud set out to bring his knowledge of wine to North America… Illustration by Marco Heer.

The first commercial winery in the United States – established by a Swiss immigrant!

In 1796, Jean-Jacques Dufour emigrated from the Lake Geneva region with the stated aim of becoming a successful winegrower in distant America. The Swiss grower founded the colony of Vevay, Indiana, which did indeed manage to produce wine.

Petra Koci

Petra Koci

Petra Koci is a freelance journalist and author. In her book “Weltatlas der Schweizer Orte” (World Atlas of Swiss Places), she profiles Swiss settlements on five continents.

Today, not a single vine grows in Vevay (pronounced: VEEvee), in Switzerland County in Indiana, USA. But they still hold the Swiss Wine Festival there on the last weekend in August every year. And there is one wine producer. Tom Demaree of the Ridge Winery makes wines in Vevay; he buys grapes, grape juice and fruit for his wines in other regions. The view from the terrace of his former tasting room looks out over the Ohio River. Brownish-green and sluggish, the river rolls past the little town. The southern riverbank is in Kentucky state. It was on that riverbank that Jean-Jacques Dufour, a winemaker’s son from Châtelard near Vevey, founded his first vineyard more than 220 years ago.
Vevay in the state of Indiana has just under 2,000 inhabitants. It’s been a very long time since wine was last produced there.
Vevay in the state of Indiana has just under 2,000 inhabitants. It’s been a very long time since wine was last produced there. Wikimedia
As a young man in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Dufour had read in the newspaper about the Seven Years’ War between the English and the French in America. According to the article he read, French soldiers complained about the lack of wine on the New Continent. When the young Jean-Jacques looked at a map of the world, he noticed that parts of the Americas lay on the same latitudes as some of the top wine-producing countries – France, Spain and Italy. There and then, he made the decision to grow grapes and produce wine in distant America. In 1796 Jean-Jacques Dufour left Lake Geneva for New York, following his dream of successful viticulture. With his stunted left arm, the 33-year-old was hardly the typical image of a winegrower, a man used to labouring. However, he brought with him 15 years of experience from his father’s vineyard.
Franco-English negotiations in North America, 1757. Perhaps a sip of good wine would have brought more consensus…
Franco-English negotiations in North America, 1757. Perhaps a sip of good wine would have brought more consensus… Wikimedia
From New York he travelled first to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and visited existing vineyards, all of which had died. “So far I’ve seen only discouraging attempts at viticulture here in the East,” he noted. “Now I'm curious to know if there is more potential further west.” By stagecoach, on horseback and by boat, he travelled inland to the recently founded state of Kentucky. The Swiss entrepreneur and his idea of viticulture were enthusiastically received by the citizens of Lexington, then an up-and-coming town on the western frontier of the settled states. His chosen business model for financing a vineyard, by offering shares for subscription, had been copied from one of the hapless winegrowers in Philadelphia. On 17 January 1798, Jean-Jacques Dufour – now calling himself John James – announced in the Kentucky Gazette the sale of 200 shares at a value of 50 dollars each. A few weeks later the Kentucky Vineyard Society was established. Before all the shares had even been subscribed, the enthusiastic pioneer got started: he bought land on the Kentucky River, about 40 kilometres from Lexington, planted vine cuttings and optimistically named the winery “First Vineyard”. From Pennsylvania he obtained a large number of cuttings of 35 different grape varieties, along with seedling fruit trees. His brothers and sisters and other Swiss emigrants who followed him to America in 1801 brought other varieties with them.
Share certificate in John James Dufour’s “First Vineyard” and his “Kentucky Vineyard Society”.
Share certificate in John James Dufour’s “First Vineyard” and his “Kentucky Vineyard Society”. University of California Press

Tasting for the President

As soon as the first vintage was produced, in 1805, the younger brother, John Francis Dufour, was despatched to deliver a sample of the wine to US President Thomas Jefferson. Mounted on horseback and leading a second pack horse loaded with two 5-gallon barrels – each about 19 litres – of wine, the 20-year-old rode across the prairie to Washington. Jefferson, a wine connoisseur, is said to have enjoyed the wine in the White House and to have concluded that it had potential: “The young wine has promise, but it needs to age more.” Despite its successful beginnings, the First Vineyard was not a success. The vines died as a result of phylloxera, mildew and other diseases. Only two varieties – John James believed at the time that they were Madeira and Cape grapes – survived. And the payment practices of the First Vineyard shareholders left something to be desired. Nonetheless, the vineyard in Kentucky is considered the first commercially run winery in the United States – even though there were a number of problems and the experiment failed.
Said to have seen potential in Dufour’s wine: Thomas Jefferson, third President of the USA.
Said to have seen potential in Dufour’s wine: Thomas Jefferson, third President of the USA. Wikimedia
However, John James had already realised that more land was needed for the establishment of his new colony of Swiss winegrowers. He had heard that the government had put up land for sale on the north bank of the Ohio River, in present-day Indiana, and in 1802 he wrote to President Thomas Jefferson. For Congress, he enclosed a handwritten application for a loan for the new Swiss winegrowers’ colony. In this missive, he prophesied to the gentlemen in Congress a future in which the Ohio would rival the Rhine and the Rhône in terms of viticulture. But as his application arrived too late for the current government session, John James used his own money to buy 795 hectares of land on the northern bank of the Ohio River. Only after a second petition did the government grant the Swiss settlers a loan, repayable interest-free in ten years, for an additional 2,000 hectares. They named their piece of land “New Switzerland”, and later gave the settlement the name “Vevay”.
John James Dufour’s application to the US Senate to purchase land northwest of the Ohio River, 1802.
John James Dufour’s application to the US Senate to purchase land northwest of the Ohio River, 1802. Library of Congress
In 1802 the site was nothing more than a tangle of untamed natural growth. A wilderness of beech, spruce, oak, linden, horse chestnut and walnut trees. Deer and wolves, and even bears, roamed the dense undergrowth. The terrain, sloping gently down to the river, had first to be cleared and made cultivable. John James Dufour himself went back to Switzerland in 1806 to earn some money, as he had fallen into debt buying the land; it was ten years before he was able to return to the Indiana settlement. In the intervening years, he left the cultivation of the vineyards to his brothers and other Swiss settlers. Wine was produced in Vevay, in the “Second Vineyard”, from 1806 or 1807, mainly from the Madeira and “Cape Grape” varieties that had survived in Kentucky. John Francis Dufour wrote at the time: “The blue grapes originally come from the Cape in South Africa. The white wine is made from Madeira grapes. Once the wines have reached a certain age and are laid down, the quality will also improve, and later on America will be able to do without imported wine.” Wine production in Vevay did in fact increase steadily. The vineyard produced 800 gallons of wine in 1808, 1,200 gallons in 1809, and double that just two years later. In 1818 the winemaking families pressed 7,000 gallons, and at peak times as much as 12,000 gallons of wine. So the first successful wine production in America took place in Vevay, Indiana.
Interestingly, it was actually a mistake that helped the Swiss winegrowers achieve their breakthrough. They believed they had planted grape varieties imported from abroad, in particular the “Cape Grape”. The seedlings were sold to them under that name. It later transpired that this grape was the first hybrid American variety, Alexander – a chance cross between an introduced variety (Vitis vinifera) and a native variety (Vitis labrusca), which was more resistant. But nothing could save the wine industry in Vevay; when the US real estate speculation bubble burst in 1820, a severe financial crisis caused the markets to nosedive. Winegrowing was no longer profitable, and whiskey became cheaper.
Winemaker Dufour also became an author shortly before his death, recording his knowledge for posterity.
Winemaker Dufour also became an author shortly before his death, recording his knowledge for posterity. Google Books
All that remains of the once thriving wine culture in Vevay is a broken wine barrel. The 200-year-old wooden barrel, smashed in on one side, lies in the restored home of Jean-Daniel Morerod, one of the very first settlers and winegrowers. The current owners of the home have let the barrel stay where it is, as a kind of memento of the nation’s first successful winery. Another remnant of Dufour’s ambitious venture is the book The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide. Cultivation of the Vine and the Process of Wine Making in the United States, published by John James a year before his death. And, somewhere in the tangled undergrowth above the Ohio River, on the piece of land purchased in 1802, a gravestone is said to be hidden. The gravestone of John James Dufour, who died on 9 February 1827.

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