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INDIANA AT 200, A COLUMN BY ANDREA NEAL

The Swiss created first commercial winery in Indiana

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 12:01 am

In 1796, John James Dufour left his native Switzerland to seek a new life and opportunity in the United States. Less than a decade later, he opened the country's first successful winemaking business – in southeastern Indiana.

It was still the Indiana Territory at that time, but the settlement would soon become the town of Vevay in Switzerland County. It was briefly a popular destination for Swiss immigrants fleeing revolutionary Europe.

Dufour had done his homework.

As a teen, he studied viticulture and worked the family vineyards in Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Upon his arrival in America, he visited private vineyards, including Thomas Jefferson's at Monticello, to study grape types, soil and climate.

In an 1826 book detailing his experiences as a vintner, Dufour recalled the time he resolved to come to America.

“I was but 14; and I came to this determination by reading the newspapers, which were full of the American Revolutionary War and contained many letters from the officers of the French army aiding the republicans, which complained of the scarcity of the wine among them, in the midst of the greatest abundance of everything else . . .By inspection of the maps, I saw that America was in the parallel of the best wine countries in the world – like Spain, south of France, Italy and Greece.”

Dufour initially settled near Lexington, Ky., and was joined by extended family members. There they planted 35 grape varieties, most of which fell victim to disease because they were European species not suited to American growing conditions.

Uncomfortable with legal slavery in Kentucky, the family moved to Indiana and tried again, dubbing the area “New Switzerland,” and this time focusing on the two grape varieties that had flourished in Kentucky: Cape and Madeira.

Congress in 1802 granted 2,500 acres to Dufour on credit, and he later bought 1,200 more for the community's expanding vineyards. He resold parcels to other French-speaking Swiss, including Louis Gex Oboussier, who purchased a tract of 319 acres along Indian Creek, which was renamed Venoge by the Swiss after a river in their native land. The first wine was produced in 1806 or 1807 and sold in frontier cities including Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis.

In the end, the wine business did not prove economically viable. It was eclipsed by hay, which was in high demand as livestock feed and easy to load onto riverboats passing through Vevay on their way down the Ohio River.

Today the Musée de Venoge stands as a testament to southern Indiana's once thriving grape culture. The farmhouse dates to about 1805 and is a rare example of French colonial architecture that would have been favored by the Swiss immigrants.

“It was slated to be burned down” in the mid 1990s when local preservationists stepped in to save it. “We realized it was an important piece of architecture in Switzerland County,” saysDonna Weaver.

The home is open 1-4 p.m. Sundays from spring through fall and by appointment by calling 1-812-593-5726. Although the grape vines are gone, the landscape is unchanged from the days of Dufour, Oboussier and their fellow Swiss vine growers.

Note to Readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard's Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.