WE leave Florence on one of those “perfect days that make imperfect things impossible,”a balmy air, a cloudless sky, and such surroundings altogether as prompt one to regret the leaving.
On the route to Paris the traveller passes through a region in Italy, for hundreds of miles, most admirably adapted to the cultivation of the grape, and an immense acreage is, and long has been, devoted to vineyards. It would be difficult to find, anywhere, a more happy combination of conditions to this end than exists here. Both climate and soil seem exactly conditioned to produce the best result. While in Florence we daily procured table grapes from the market that were simply perfect, and not infrequently bunches among them weighed from two to three pounds ! Some of the berries were more than an inch in diameter, and all were dead ripe to the very centre.
There was nob the least trace of that acid usually found in the centre of grapes produced in the more northern latitudes.
The vines in many of the Italian vineyards are allowed to climb up on trees, from which the immense bunches hang in surprising pro-fusion. The trees are set in double rows, wide spaces being left between for the cultivation of other crops. In other sections, and especially on the hill-sides in the mountain regions, the vines are trained upon trellises, as in Germany, and are set very close together, with only a space of about four feet between the rows, which run both ways filling the whole space. In the region of the St. Gothard we noticed that, in many vineyards, stone posts about six feet high were used as supports for the trellises.
As all the conditions for the production of the best results in wines exist in Italy, and especially in Tuscany, the province of which Florence is the capital, we are not surprised to find it comparatively easy to procure most admirable wines at a very moderate price. In the hotels of Germany, Switzerland, and even of France, a bottle of real old Bordeaux costs from one to two dollars, while we have been able to get excellent Italian wine for twenty or thirty cents a bottle. The effect of this beverage upon the organism is remarkably beneficial. A lady of our party who has rheumatic tendency, and cannot take the least quantity of such Bordeaux claret as can be had at the European hotels without an immediate un-favorable effect, can drink the Italian vintages freely with her meals, not only without deleterious result but with manifest benefit, as the vitality is low and the system requires just the tonic which the wine furnishes.
There is, undoubtedly, a great future for the Italian wines, if the producers and dealers do not adopt the tricks of the French. The amount now produced is very moderate, compared to the capacity of the region adapted to the culture of the grape. Of course there is no fear of damage from frost, and, so far, there has been little injury from phylloxera and other pests which have worked such ruin in France during the last few years. Heretofore there has been but little effort made to procure foreign markets for Italian wines. Moderate quantities have been sent to England, Germany and Russia, and more perhaps to France, for combining with the Bordeaux wines, but comparatively little has gone to America.
The bitter experience of the wine-drinking public with French red wines, and the universal distrust prevailing in the United States of the wines of France, are good reasons why a large trade with Italy should be opened. Indeed, the producers and dealers of the Italian peninsula begin to see the advantages thus afforded and to avail themselves of them. They are now making considerable shipments to this country and if they are wise enough to avoid following the bad example of the French, they should be able to build up a large trade in this direction. The present tariff war between France and Italy may act as a stimulus on the Italian wine as well as on the silk trade. The import of French wine is well-nigh prohibited by the high duty, and the habit of drinking it, as far as it still exists, will be eradicated. On the other hand the Italian wine, which, heretofore, has been exported to France, and from there re-exported, after some adulteration, as a French brand, to other countries, will, in consequence of the present commercial hostilities, avoid France, go directly by the St. Gothard to northern Europe under its own name, and perhaps succeed in building up there a reputation of its own.
Unfortunately the commercial enterprise of modern Italians is limited, and is improving but slowly. We heard of a great land-owner and wine-grower in Sicily, as one instance, who, since the commencement of the tariff war, has ceased to pay his bills, finding his wines virtually excluded from France where he used to send them. He lets his grapes rot on the vines instead of trying to find another market for them. This is simply a characteristic case, illustrating the unenterprising nature of the Italian and his indifference to his own interests when he has to create new conditions.
The passage of the Alps by the Mt. Cenis tunnel brings us into France, which was long known as the “home of the vine,” but has measurably lost this distinction during the last few years through the dishonesty of her wine merchants, as well as her producers, who now counterfeit her red wines with such skill that it can only be detected by good judges, or by its bad effect upon the consumer. It is well known that the country, of late, has not produced enough for its own use, that it imports more than it exports. For the ordinary mortal it is practically impossible to procure a pure French wine. There are extensive dealers at Bordeaux who do not hesitate to admit to their friends that their entire business consists of the production of “Bordeaux” wines by combining the cheap acid wines which they procure from Africa, Cypress and other parts of the Mediterranean region, with a little genuine Bordeaux to flavor the compound ! It does not appear by their own confession whether they go a step further and add drugs, but, if they do not, others ‘do, and escape the law if they are not quite as imprudent as the French count who, being a wine grower on a large scale near Nice, was only convicted after he had virtually poisoned and made ill hundreds of people. In view of these facts, and of the possibility of procuring pure wines from Italy, will not other countries turn to her for their supplies, and leave the French to consume their own ?
There can be little doubt that the increase in the consumption of distilled liquors in France and Switzerland, which has been noticed recently, has been caused by the difficulty of procuring pure wines, that are healthful and satisfying, and by the use of fabricated mixtures in which crude alcohol is a principal ingredient, and which, consequently, produce the morbid craving for the stronger distilled spirits. In Switzerland this evil threatened to become so alarming that the government has secured the monopoly of all the brandy in the country, and fixed a high price upon it, so that the people cannot afford to purchase it.
Across the channel, the people of Great Britain present a marked contrast in their drinking habits with those of the vine-growing countries. There the consumption of wines, except the heavy port and sherries, is comparatively small, while the quantities of distilled spirits and strong ale and porter consumed is something appalling, but, more appalling still, are the effects produced upon the drinkers, especially the lower classes. Among the most important missionary measures of reform there should be the introduction of pure simple wines, which can be sold at such moderate price as to be easily within the reach of all.
The following figures and statistics are full of interest in this connection, showing conclusively the almost absolute impossibility of procuring pure French wines in America, by the fact that they do not produce enough for their own consumption, and also showing the possibilities existing in our own country, not only for supplying the home demand but of exporting it extensively to other countries.
Before the advent of the destroying phylloxera in Europe, France had an area of 6,000,000 acres in vines, and produced at one time over 2,000,000,000 gallons of wine annually. Since then, what with the phylloxera and other diseases of the vine, the acreage has fallen off about one-half, and the product has dropped to about 700,000,000 gallons, and to-day she produces less wine than her population consumes, and her exportation must be measured by her imports from neighboring countries supplemented by the 100,000,000 gallons made from raisins, and the cider products of the north of France. As to French brandy, it is a thing of the past, so far as it may be commercially considered.
In 1870 the entire product of wine in the United States was only 3,000,000 gallons. Each succeeding year has marked a steady increase, till in 1880 it amounted to near 40,000,000 gallons, while our importations have steadily dwindled from 11,000,000 gallons in 1871 to 4,000,000 in 1886. Considering the increase in population, this is a very great falling off in imports, and the ratio of increase in our native product, indicated by the above figures, fully warrant us in anticipating the most important results for our vineyard interests in the near future. From present indications it seems not unlikely that, twenty years hence, American viticulture will take front rank in point of quality and variety of grape production, and our wines and other vineyard products will be known in every market in the world.
California has at the present time over 300,000 acres in vines, and the ratio of increase is at the rate of one hundred per cent. every three and a half years. California has more acreage adapted to grape culture than Prance, while, in the divisions east of the Rocky Mountains, the acreage is just about equal to that of California.