Grape juice with a kick. That is a common description of Steuben wine, a native hybrid labrusca. Similar to the Concord grape, Steuben produces mild, grapey, red wine with a light “foxy” feel. Created at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York and released in 1947, Steuben is a cross between the Wayne and Sheridan grapes. This grape is very popular in the Eastern and Midwestern regions of the United States, and in particular: Indiana.
The Indiana wine industry was started by John James Dufour, a Swiss immigrant who immigrated to the United States after fleeing Napoleon's armies. After failing to grow vinferia grapes in Lexington, Kentucky; in the early 1800s, he took cuttings of a hybrid labrusca grape, Cape, and moved to an area in the Indiana Territory now known as Vevay. This hardy grape flourished and was the basis for the first successful wine production in the United States. For the next 15 years, Indiana was at the forefront of the U.S. wine industry, marketing “Vevay” wine to the remainder of the country. However, as quickly as the Indiana wine industry emerged, it crashed due to falling land values and agriculture prices. The focus of wine-making soon shifted to Cincinnati (see Catawba article.) From this period until Prohibition, Indiana was still the 10 largest wine producer in the country, with small family owned wineries throughout the countryside. Prohibition nearly terminated the Indiana wine industry and the industry did not revitalize until the Small Winery Act of 1971. This legislation allowed small wineries to sell directly to the public rather than strictly through distributors. With the help of the Indiana Wine Grape Council, over thirty wineries now operate in the state with the number of gallons produced increasing 15% annually.
Several Indiana wineries produce Steuben wine. French Lick Winery started growing this grape because it had trouble procuring grapes when the winery started 10 years ago. Steuben grapes were available and other wineries appeared not to want it. French Lick Winery turned this apparent outcast into a Gold winner at the Great Lakes competition by producing a fruity alternative to White Zinfandel. The 2% residual sugar balances very nicely with the high acidity in the Steuben grape. They sell most of their Steuben through the tasting room since most people have not heard of the variety, but are willing to try it within the confines of the winery. French Lick Winery recommends pairing with wine with Italian dishes and poultry, especially during the upcoming Thanksgiving season. The winery warns however, that the wine does suffer from the bottling process and requires about six months to recover. In addition, the wine’s color may change to an orange color over time, but this does not affect the wines flavor.
Another Indiana winery, Satek Winery, is located in Steuben County, Indiana. First operating as a vineyard, Satek’s Steuben grapes have won numerous awards by other wineries. In 2001, the Sateks opened their own winery and have excelled in producing vinifera and labrusca grapes. In 2005 the winery won 17 medals in the Indy International, the third largest international wine competition in the United States. Their 2003 Steuben received a Silver medal in the competition. Like French Lick Winery, Satek’s Steuben is made in the style of a white zinfandel that is a semi-sweet, fruity wine with strawberry and kiwi characteristics.
Steuben is also grown in neighboring Illinois. Vahling Vineyards has been producing Steuben for the past few years, primarily because the Vahlings liked the taste of the grape. They also feel that the Blush characteristics of their Steuben make it a good wine for the beginning wine drinker.
Farther east, Kelly Betz, the owner of Stoney Acres Winery in Nescopeck Pennsylvania, started cultivating Steuben after trying the varietal made from a winemaker friend. He enjoyed the taste and decided to add it to his winery’s selection. Apparently the winery’s customers also like the taste of this semi-sweet wine. Their version is a rose’ style wine with a "pink grapefruit” finish. Acid levels can be high at times and after a rainy growing season the color may be very pale, but in general, Stoney Acres Winery has a faithful, local following for their Steuben.
Steuben is a great alternative for those tiring of the standard White Zinfandel-Blush offerings. It’s semi-sweet and grapey characteristics compliment many meals and it’s a great porch wine. It can also make an interesting beverage when combined with sparkling wine.