The first documented American Icewine?

I have lately been researching the 18th century vineyards of Washington County, Maryland for a post I put up on my blog today. I came across an interesting description for what appears to be the first documented American icewine. In 1868, an article appeared in The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturalist in which the author tasted the wines of George and John Heyser. Amongst the wines tasted from George Heyser was:

finally Catawba of 1865, made of grapes after frost. On tasting this wine I almost suspected a mystification and that some choice Rudesheimer or other high grade Rhine wine had been set before us; such exquisite bouquet, such rich flavor, body and fire. I never before had discovered in American wines; all of which excellent qualities, apart, of careful preparation, Mr H. attributes to his gathering the Grapes after they had a slight frost.

I did not think much of this until yesterday when I read that American and Canadian icewine production dates back to the 1970s. This is not to be confused with the “frost grape” nor Jean-Jacques Dufours attempt to concentrate wine through frost. Now I have read one or two mentions in early 19th century books that some grapes, such as the Grant (a cross between Clinton and Black St. Peter’s), the fruit improves after a slight frost. In any event, I thought this description quite interesting.

My post and references are here:



Wish we could determine what “slight frost” meant.

I bring this up because a slight and not too low temperature frost is not uncommon in Northeastern and Midwestern grape growing, and if it is quick and not serious, the worst it will do is slow maturation or halt it if the leaves are affected. It’s not at all the conditions for Ice Wine. Catawba harvest being in October, it’s always a possibility that a not-too-serious frost will blow through the vineyard before the grapes are harvested.

Is there mention of where the grapes were grown for that wine or of the weather that year?

I read your blog post where this appears and see that the grapes may have been grown in Hagerstown, but no mention of the weather.

In any case, the blog is quite interesting and now in my address book.


Thanks for replying. The wine was made by George Heyser of Hagerstown, MD. The Heyser family is still around so I emailed them earlier this week but have not heard back. I have found no further references to this wine, though they may be out there somewhere, so we do not know what was meant by “slight frost” nor when the grapes were harvested.

In researching further, there was clearly a range of meanings for “frost” with relationship to grapevines. Towards the end of the 19th c a frosted grape vine was one that was frozen. There are many references throughout the century to varieties of grapes which improved their flavor “after frost”. This was not just the winter or frost grape. Some of these were clearly meant for the table so they probably were not frozen hard. Some people tied bags or netting over the grape clusters so they could continue past the first frost.

The weather in Maryland for October, 1865 was based on temperature readings taken at 7am, 7pm, and 9pm. On October 10, 1865 the high temperature of the month was reported between 80-83 F for Cecil, Anne Arundel, St. Mary’s and Carroll counties. The low was recorded on October 30, 1865, as 31-40 F, with only Carroll county below freezing on the 26th and 30th. The weather appears to get cold into November with Cecil County reaching 23 F on November 11, 1865, and Anne Arundel reaching 28 F on November 12, 1865. It then warmed up with both Cecil, Anne Arundel, and Washington, DC reporting highs of 65-78 F on November 17, 1865.

For October 1865, Sykesville, MD reported frost in the Valley on October 3, 1865. October 6, 1865, saw more frost with tender vines killed in the valley. On October 30, 1865 the ice was 0.25 inches thick. Woodlawn, MD reported partial hoar frost on October 3, 1865, hoar frost and a little ice on October 7, 1865, frost and ice on October 22, 1865, and on October 25th and 30th the ground was frozen and puddles frozen over. They saw a little snow on November 5, 1865.

So it looks like frost and ice the first week, perhaps getting colder through the week, of October then it warmed up by the 10th. Frost and ice returned during the third week of October and temperatures continued to get colder until the end of the month.

Sykesville is further west than Woodlawn but still quite a ways to Hagerstown.




The grapes were certainly grown near Hagerstown. Look at the first map in the post, zoom in all the way. In the area red Confederate lines near Hagerstown, there are notations for “Hyser” and “J. Hyser” which could be a different spelling of “Heyser”. The Heyser Woods were an army camp during the Civil War and were located near the Williamsport road.


‘Slight frost’ doesn’t sound to me like it meets the frozen requirements for icewine. Unless, of course, they froze the grapes before pressing :wink:

fascinating stuff Aaron. great work.

What about partially frozen grapes? What does hoar frost do to Catawba? “Frost wine” instead of “ice wine”! I haven’t found weather reports for cities immediately near Hagerstown but it was definitely colder in Pennsylvania.

BTW, glad you like the blog Thomas and thanks Matt.

For the current rules, as I understand them, it would have to be in the 15-19F, which I’d think is well below frost. In Ontario currently IIRC the icewine harvest usually ends up being in mid-January.

Also, for some reason I seem to recall that Heyser was a rather common name in the Hagerstown area at that time.


I’m submitting my local newspaper weekly wine column today (Finger Lakes). I’m going to mention your work on this subject, as both Catawba and Ice Wine are subjects in this region.

The Catawba vineyards nearby and that that surround my property were harvested just this morning! These grapes usually go toward blending into cheap wines, so they don’t have to be fully ripe, but the 2013 vintage has been quite good for all grapes grown in the region, including vinifera varieties. As for 2013 Ice Wine, it’s of course an unknown right now, but a couple of producers also make wines from grapes they subject to cryogenics.

I agree this fails to meet 20th and 21st century rules for icewine. Looking further I suspect it fails the 19th century idea. In the Saturday Magazine published May 26, 1838 appears an article about the “Johannesberg Castle” in the Rhine and how the “German Tokay” is made from grapes harvested at the beginning of November, “after the grapes have been completely ripened by the frost.” Schloss Johannisberg did not produce their first icewine until 1858. A book published in New York in 1807, references Count Rumford stating the best wine made in Germany is made “from the grape, after the frost has touched it”. This book also compares to the wines of Arbois, most likely Vin de Gelee, which Wink Lorch informs me is never fully frozen.

There was certainly ice and frost that October, 1865. But it appears it was not freakishly cold nor does it sound like the grapes were completely frozen.

Yes, I gather the Heyser family is quite famous in Hagerstown. I have yet to visit Hagerstown. George Heyser had 206 acres of land and John H. Heyser at 170. John H. Heyser built the Mansion House and cellars which are still around. They had vineyards and made wine for decades. It also looks like there are Heyser’s in Pennsylvania. One William Heyser wrote in his diary on March 9, 1863, “Damp and unpleasant. Spent time at bank and then to gas works. Attempted to make some wine, but fear it is all ruined, at this business I am not adept.”

I love it when a person understands his limitations…


Glad to read this is relevant for your wine column! I’ve been gathering my references to write something about this “after frost” wine but keep getting distracted by other areas of history like the wines of New Albion in the 17th C.