In 1812, Joseph Bonaparte, the former King of Spain and brother of Napoleon, fled political chaos in his home country and settled in Bordentown, New Jersey. There he built an estate called Bonaparte Garden. At the time, New Jersey wines were internationally renowned for their quality and London's Royal Society of the Arts had recognized two New Jersey vintners for their success in producing the first bottles of quality wine derived from colonial agriculture. Mr. Bonaparte planted vines on the fertile soil of his estate and legends suggest that vines from this estate led a grape revolution.
In 1837, Benjamin Heath, a blacksmith and wheelwright, moved to Concord Township from Frenchtown, New Jersey. He carried with him a grape that allegedly came from the Bonaparte Garden. Mr. Heath cultivated the grape for a number of years on his farm in Concord Township, Delaware County. Compared to other native varieties, this grape had a delicate fruity aroma and only a slight foxiness in the taste. He recognized the excellent qualities of the grape and shared cuttings with neighbors and friends. One of these neighbors, Abram Thomson, editor of the Delaware Gazette, was so impressed with the characteristics of the grape that, in 1855, he sent a specimen to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for their study. The Society was thrilled with this new grape and called it the “Grape from Delaware, Ohio”.
The American Horticultural Society also recognized this grape and demand increased dramatically due to the world-wide marketing of its qualities. Delaware grapevines were sold in enormous quantities at prices ranging from $1 to $5 per plant - an exorbitant amount at a time when the average unskilled laborer made only about $1 per 12 hour workday, making the cost of the grapevines by today’s money from $72.00 to $360.00 each. This instigated a “grape fever”, similar to the California Gold Rush, where speculators attempted to grow and cultivate the grape in order to reap the enormous profits. As expected, most failed, since these entrepreneurs did not possess the necessary horticultural skills. Over time, demand for the vine declined and eventually leveled out after Prohibition.
Today, the Delaware Grape is grown throughout the Northeastern US, especially New York, and in Ohio, along Lake Erie. It is widely used in some premium champagne blends and in a few, used to produce a dessert wine and to make a light fruity semi-dry drinking wine.
One New York winery, Vetter Vineyards, is located along Lake Erie and vinifies the Delaware grape into a blush wine with apple, cherry and mild grape flavors. The winery’s owner, Mark Lancaster, has been making wine with this grape for almost 20 years and believes that it is a great regional grape. In fact it makes some of the most popular wines in Lake Erie region. He adds that entering the grape into competition would not increase sales since many people in the Lake Erie region are already familiar with the product or discover its great qualities after tasting it. Unfortunately, Mr. Lancaster predicts that cultivation of the grape will slowly decline since many vineyards are replacing it with Riesling in order to increase the yields of their vineyards.
This trend has not stopped a few wineries from producing excellent wine from the Delaware grape. New Jersey's Alba Vineyards produces an award winning dessert wine, Delaware Dolce, from grapes grown not far from Frenchtown. In Minnesota, Saint Croix Vineyards produces a drier wine that has won medals at the International Eastern Wine Competition and the Indiana State Fair. In sum, there are about 30 wineries making Delaware wine, primarily in Pennsyvania, New York, and Ohio. Hopefully one is near you.