The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years

By Thomas Pinney | Go to book overview

ONE
John James Dufour,
or the Uses of Failure
A MAN WITH A MISSION

THE BRIG SALLY, CAPTAIN MITCHELL COMMANDING, arrived at the port of Philadelphia on August 12, 1796, after an uneventful voyage of sixty days from Le Havre. Among its passengers was a Swiss named Jean Jacques Dufour (John James in his American years), no longer in his first youth—he was then thirty-three years old—and remarkable at first glance only for having a left arm that ended at the elbow, probably a congenital defect.1 Whether he had any English before he left home is uncertain, but no doubt he had learned some on the voyage to add to his native French.

Among the stream of emigrants seeking their fortunes in postrevolutionary America, Dufour had nothing to distinguish him, except for the accident of his arm. But he came to the new republic possessed by a single purpose: to make wine for a wineless country. And the extraordinary fact is that he succeeded. That success was limited, it was of brief duration, and it was largely carried out by others. But without Dufour’s determination and his willingness to take advantage of what the country offered, it would not have come about as it did.

Dufour was the eldest son of a family of vinedressers, as the term was then, living in the commune of Chatelard, near Vevey, on the terraced northern slopes of the Lake of Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux. This region, called La Côte in Switzerland, is ancient wine-growing country, the largest single concentration of vines in the country and the source of some of Switzerland’s most distinguished white wines. Vevey is also the home of the venerable Fête des Vignerons, a celebration whose recorded history goes back to 1651 but which is probably even older than that.

Dufour would thus have grown up in an atmosphere saturated in wine. But why, one wonders, should he have left a secure and established wine

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