Thomas Yeatman – the ‘Mean Girl’ Who Took Down Cincinnati’s Wine Industry

yeatman

It was the fall of 1864. The Civil War raged on. Nicholas Longworth, Catawba’s biggest cheerleader had gone to the Great Vineyard in the Sky the year before. It was a terrible season for the most popular, but most finicky grape being grown in the Ohio Valley. It had happened before in 1846, and the 1850s– early spring frosts and rainy and humidity-induced summer rot and bug infestations of the phylloxera. Many of the German immigrant vine dressers of the area had been growing grapes for themselves and the big names like Longworth wine house for almost thirty years. Even those who’d grown up in the industry in the Rhine, had to adapt to different grapes and different growing conditions in the Ohio River Valley than they were used to, They were getting tired of the blight and the unpredictability of the Catawba grape. The Isabella, which Longworth also championed was even worse with rot. It was used to make a woman’s sparkling wine, because its flavor was milder than the Catawba. But Cincinnati was right on the cusp of finding that native grape that could stand our funky river valley weather. And it wouldn’t be the Catawba.

Thomas Yeatman, whose father, Griffin, was the namesake of Yeatman’s Cove downtown, one of the oldest and most experienced growers in Cincinnati, had his entire vineyard decimated by the weather. He was super pissed! But as one of the most decorated growers, he was who the smaller growers looked up to, especially with Longworth now gone.

Yeatman had amassed many medals for his Catawba wines. His first was a medal in 1851 for his Catawba wine at the London World’s fair. He then added other wins at the New York World’s Fair, and fairs in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other cities. Aside from Longworth, he was the most decorated Catawba grower in the Greater Cincinnati region. Imagine having to see and hear about his trophy cabinet when visiting the vineyards.

One would hope that he would take up the mantel of positivity and help our local industry pick up and move forward. But Mr. Yeatman was a mean girl! If he couldn’t have success, then no one in Cincinnati would! Hell, he was up for a national postmaster job anyway. He didn’t really need the income of the grape anymore. And he was ready to let everyone know exactly how he felt.

Without twitter and social media available, he produced a written ‘treatise’ on how sucky Cincinnati weather was for grape growing and read it to the Cincinnati Horticultural Society in the Fall of 1864. He wined on for many pages about how it was so unprofitable as a result of our weird river climate and anyone would be stupid to continue to pursue it. He did a mic drop to a mouth-gaped-open crowd of wealthy horticulturists and abruptly walked out of the grape scene.

What was so tempting about the Catawba was that in good seasons it was super-prolific – it produced an average of 400 gallons per acre – and in most cases soured around 750 gallons per acre of vineyard. But it was a finicky mistress. When the weather was bad, the productivity was bad. Whole vineyards were decimated. There were other hardier grapes being grown locally that made good wines, but they were only half as prolific as the Catawba in its good season. Even Longworth’s last words on his deathbed were to his son-in-law, William Flagg, that he had found a new grape resistant to rot! But no one recorded which one that was.

Meanwhile, Yeatman’s vineyards were so old that all the good soil had been washed off the steep hillside off of River Road. And he had gotten so cocky with his successes, he hadn’t been keeping up the maintenance on the soil and the vines – he neither manured the ground nor trimmed, staked and cultivated the vines. Every vingeur knows that !

So a committee was formed of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society to refute Yeatman’s bitchy epitaph and publish it. They visited Indian Hill where a small community of grape growers for 15 years had been growing a variety known as the Ives grape, cultivated by an Indian Hill tailor named Henry Ives. The story goes he chomped on grapes while working and spit the seeds out the window. He noticed a vine that popped up in his spit radius, cultivated it and it fruited. He gave plantings to his neighbors like Colonel Isaac Waring and others, and they had great success with propagating it and making wine. The Ives grape is still used today as a native wine grape.

The committee inquired to the Bogens who were growing Norton and other hardy grapes in Hartwell, and Mottier who was growing the Delaware. Both Norton and Delaware were more rot resistant than the Catawba, only not quite as prolific, but still profitable. Mottier and Bogen shared their financials, which were promising and published them in the report.

A visit to Cincinnati vineyards that same year came from winemakers from Herman Missouri, a German settlement that had sort of taken the mantle from Cincinnati as the largest wine producing area of the U.S. Like the Committee to Refute Yeatman, they visited Indian Hill, the Bogens, and Mottier and kind of laughed at us for not wholesale converting from the finicky Catawba to the Ives or Norton, based on what had happened in the bad seasons. They said we had good growers right under our nose, and for whatever reason, were still banking on the frail Catawba.

The response to Yeatman’s hate speech was published in a variety of horticultural mags across the country, but Cincinnati never recovered. The Bogens would eventually give up winemaking and go into dairy. The Werks would follow other growers north to Lake Eire’s microclimate with the Concord Grape. Mottier would leave and go to Eire, Pennsylvania and grow hardier grapes there. The symbolic end to our wine making era happened when Longworth’s largest vineyard, Bald Hill in Tusculum was divided up and sold for residential housing in 1870 by his son Joseph, who had no interest in the wine industry. The Longworth Wine House, then operated by Longworth’s grandson, William Pope Anderson was leased to a variety of tenants and then converted into a cottonseed oil factory.

The bitchy negative energy Yeatman put out there had his postmaster position voted down by Congress, and he was blacklisted from attending the Horticultural Society meetings. He was done with Catawba and was happy in taking everyone down with him.

But had he and the handful of large growers banded together and moved into phase 2 of our winemaking era, abandoning the Catawba, and moved to growing the Norton, Ives, or Delaware and pooling resources, Cincinnati might have developed into a viable winemaking market like Missouri and Lake Eire. With Longworth and other Cincy Horticultural Society members, we had developed over 30 years of trialing, grafting, and developing grapes fit for our wonky weather and for making good wines. We had the science, the experience, and the acreage to go on.

But the small immigrant growers were aging and the next generation was more interested in city life and factory jobs. The newer immigrant waves coming to Cincinnati also were more interested in the trades than horticulture. Vineyard work was hard, grueling work, and required constant care and local knowledge. And Cincinnati was becoming more of a lager and whiskey city anyway.

So Thomas Yeatman and his bitchy ‘treatise’ single handedly took down what Longworth had spent a fortune on building in one bad fall weather season.

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