July 22, 2016 — Gilbert Stoewsand, a Cornell food scientist, belongs in the hierarchy of great contributors to the wine industry in the United States. He died in Geneva, N.Y. on July 4 at age 83.
The story is nothing short of bizarre and extraordinary. It involves deformed chickens, Adolf Hitler, an embittered scientist, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson and hybrid grapes.
Back in the 1960s, French and German scientists claimed that deformities in animals were the result of drinking wine made from hybrid grapes. The wine was consumed by chickens resulting in leg and feather malformations. Unfortunately, muckraking Washington columnist Jack Anderson who was widely syndicated in almost 1,000 newspapers, reported a sensational account of the dangers of hybrid grapes, in this case French hybrid grapes, causing deformities resulting in retailers removing New York wines from their stores. At the time, most New York wines were made with hybrid grapes.
The conclusions of the French and German scientists were corroborated in 1965 by Hans Breider formerly head of the Bavarian State Institute for Wine, Fruit and Horticulture but what was Breider’s background and credibility? This is where the story takes a fascinating turn. Hans Breider was chief viticulturist in the 1930s under Adolf Hitler, an enthusiastic supporter of the German wine industry. But he ended up in prison for several years after falling out with the Führer for some unexplained reason. His successor created hybrid wine grapes and when an embittered Breider got out of jail, he maliciously claimed hybrid grapes were toxic in order to discredit them.
Enter Gilbert Stoewsand who was hired by Cornell in 1967 as a toxicologist and poultry expert charged with investigating the claims of toxicity of hybrid grapes and the effects on chickens. He found that Breider’s chickens suffered from poor diet, which was the cause of their deformities. Chickens with a healthy diet did not suffer when given hybrid wines or juices. The clear refutation of Hans Breider’s claims published by Cornell in 1971 put an end to the controversy. A statement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was published in the Washington Post.
Mr. Stoewsand’s story was detailed by Blaine Friedlander for the Cornell Chronicle. We’re grateful to be able to share this fascinating piece of wine history and lore. Incidentally, Gilbert Stoewsand became an associate professor of toxicology at Cornell in 1973, a professor in 1979 and an emeritus professor in 1996.