Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Vineland wine that wasn't: the evolution of Welch's Grape Juice

With increasing frequency, a drive around New Jersey countryside will have you riding past a vineyard or two, particularly in the southern part of the state. We're not talking big, Napa Valley-sized productions, but several viniculturalists are making a decent living producing and selling wine here.

Historically, though, the most famous product of our vineyards isn't wine at all.

It's hard to think of a time when unfermented grape juice didn't exist, but 160 years ago, it didn't. Sure, you could make the juice, but you couldn't store it very long without ending up with, well, wine. This was a problem for the many 19th century churches that advocated temperance: it was difficult to promote a life free from alcohol when your own ministers were providing wine at each Communion service.

Thomas Bramwell Welch, Welch's Grape Juice, Vineland New Jersey
The father of grape juice that doesn't ferment:
Thomas Bramwell Welch
It was especially problematic in Vineland, which had been founded as a utopian, dry community by Charles Landis in 1861. In an apparent contradiction, after discovering that the region's sandy soil was ideal for vineyards, he promoted the community as a worthy spot for Italian grape growers.

While not a viniculturalist by profession, dentist and ardent Methodist Thomas Bramwell Welch cultivated grapes in his Vineland backyard. He and his church's minister, Rev. A.K. Street, were both troubled by the presence of wine during services, and in 1869 they agreed that Welch would produce enough juice from his grapes to supply an alcohol-free Communion.

Welch harvested grapes from his own vines, squeezing them by hand to get the juice. The near-term issue was solved, but what would they do when the grape growing season was over? Even if he were able to bottle enough juice to supply the church for the winter months, they'd eventually end up with wine.

Ever the experimenter, Welch turned to new developments in science for an answer. He'd read about Louis Pasteur's experiments with wine, in which the liquid was briefly heated to about 140 degrees to kill the microbes that cause unwanted acidity. Perhaps modifying the process would eliminate the alcohol-creating organisms entirely, thus allowing pasteurized juice to be bottled and stored for long periods without the danger of it turning to wine.

After more experimentation, Welch hit upon the ideal process, and a new industry was born. Word of the "unfermented wine" quickly spread through the Methodist community, and Welch soon found himself struggling to keep up with the demand. He'd had no intention of starting a business but soon found himself building a small factory, purchasing machinery and incorporating the Welch Fruit Juice Company.

Welch himself didn't seem too impressed with the prospect of growing the business much further, but his son Charles saw possibilities beyond dry Communion. Buying his father out in 1873, he started on an ambitious promotional campaign that encouraged people to buy the drink for home use ("unfermented wine: it's not just for church anymore"?). He even exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where thousands of people got their first taste of New Jersey grape juice that wasn't fermented. Welch's Grape Juice was a big hit.

Though its "dry" beginnings and sandy soil were fertile ground for the start of the business, Vineland was the victim in Welch's success. When the demand for grape juice exceeded the ability of the surrounding farms to produce enough fruit, Charles moved the business to upstate New York, which was better able to supply the crop. It's since expanded its product line and become a staple of the American household. The company dutifully outlines its New Jersey roots in its website, but I'll bet few people actually realize where this quintessentially American beverage got its start.

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