Q&A with Professor Erica Hannickel

Associate Professor of Environmental History Erica Hannickel talks with us about her book, “Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America,” published in 2013 by University of Pennsylvania Press.

Q. You’re an environmental historian writing about grape cultivation. How does one intersect with the other and how did you get interested?

A. I came to grapes through an interest in 19th century gardening and agriculture in general. These topics spoke so interestingly about country-to-city transitions for Americans, as well as what they were thinking about in regards to nature and culture. I soon found that the environmental impact of vineyards hasn’t been widely studied, nor publicized, even in our contemporary times. Growing grapes is quite different than growing something like corn. But, the environmental historian in me immediately recognized that however beautiful vineyards might be, they are still monocultures, and of course radically alter and simplify the ecosystems they replace.

Q. In fact, you start the book talking about the environmental impacts.

A. My editor convinced me to start the introduction with an overview of environmental damage done by contemporary vineyards. Although taking some contemporary winemakers to task about their overuse of methyl bromide—a highly toxic, ozone-depleting pesticide—and sulfur is a provocative way to open a book about wine, my deeper questions were really about what has animated American wine culture since the 19th century. And I was surprised to find that it had so much to do with another deep natural-cum-cultural topic: Americans’ long love affair with “manifest destiny.”

Q. Remind me about manifest destiny?

A. The 1840s was a time of superheated national expansion when U.S. leaders sought to incorporate more land into the national fabric. Manifest destiny was used as justification for aggression in the Southwest throughout the Mexican-American War, as well as in Oregon territory. My book focuses on the true manifest destiny period, the 1830s-1860s, but extends it through the turn of the 20th century in later chapters, especially in the way that race plays out in grape and wine literature.

Q. You grew up in California. What attracted you to the Midwestern wine story?

A. When I stumbled on the Ohio wine story, a story that used all the same grandiose language, and made all the same promises as California—but was doing it decades before California wine hit national markets—I was intrigued. I grew up in the foothills of the Sacramento Valley but as a kid, I didn’t think too much about wine country. Once I moved to Iowa for my PhD, and then to Northland College to teach, I became more conscious of how California had long constructed itself as the fruit and breadbasket of the United States and the world.

Q. In what way?

A. It was as if Californians believed that their growing conditions were not only exceptional, but absolutely innate—again, like a long-time belief in manifest destiny, but at the state level. Every wine history I had ever read culminated in California, as if the Napa and Sonoma Valleys were foreordained for greatness, and everything else was passing fancy. So I was also drawn in by larger national horticultural and gardening trends of the 19th century—efforts to “cultivate the continent” that again sounded a whole lot like manifest destiny narratives to me.

Q. Nicholas Longworth is a great character and one not well known. Tell me more.

A. I was shocked at every turn researching Nicholas Longworth. First, I didn’t understand how no one knows about him except for the nerdiest of wine scholars and only the most historically informed Cincinnatians. Because of his land investments and his wine, he was the second-richest man in America, behind John Jacob Astor, for a few decades—and yet he hasn’t received any of the positive or negative attention that America’s 19th century moguls regularly do. Longworth was a master mythmaker and manipulator of his own life story and business investments. He was preternaturally gifted at enswathing the unseemly in storybook grandeur. I guess this made him a great salesman, but I think he’s more than that. He’s also at the heart of constructing a larger mythos about American fruit production and wine drinking. He made people think that both were moral, democratic, genteel pastimes, working to soothe class conflict, beautify ugly landscapes, and solve the growing problems with the Industrial Revolution. He was the first American that took the leap into serious and sustained wine production, selling his products nationally and internationally.

Q. You’ve researched and written “Empire of Vines” for the last eight years, including your entire five years here at Northland College. What is the most surprising thing you learned?

A. Before landing a book contract, I thought writing was rather soul sucking. In contrast, research is always fun. Finding new things in archives, connecting with people and things from the past—what could be better? But writing, ugh. Yet in the course of turning the dissertation into a book, a process that essentially entailed reframing or rewriting it a total of four times, writing became extremely pleasurable. I think this means it just took me this long to get to a place of true facility with written language. I fully realized the corner I had turned when Andrea Wulf, author of Founding Gardeners, visited Northland last year. We were chatting with some students and she said, “A day spent writing is always a good day.” As much as I love teaching, I couldn’t agree with her more.

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