Is it possible to “Drink like a Pilgrim” and remain true to the resources available to the early Colonists? No. No, it is not. But if, like me, you enjoy wine with your Thanksgiving meal (or any meal, for that matter) follow me for some great wine and their circuitous connections to the Mayflower and its passengers.
So, its time to play “What’s the Connection?”
Torino and Jenever
The Wine: Terre Sparse “Rarissimo”, Italy
“Rarissimo”, as in “very rare”. The grape, Uva Rara, is literally “rare grape”. Plantings of it are not so rare, but it is more unique for the grape to be as a single varietal. The “Rarissimo” is a Rosato of hand-harvested Uva Rara, fermented by native yeast. Light raspberry and bitter walnut, with a touch of zest.
Terre Sparse winery is found in Italy’s Piedmont region, within metropolitan Torino — roughly 50 km from the city’s center. Ah, Torino, what a magical city! What makes it so? Many things, actually, but the city is “known” to occupy a point on the infamous Triangle of Black Magic (Torino, London, San Francisco) AND the Triangle of White Magic (Torino, Prague, Lyon)! Though intriguing, that is not our main interest in this city. Nor is it its spectacular setting between the Alps and some of Italy’s most beautiful vineyards. No, it isn’t even Torino’s position as the home of Gianduja, Fiat, the Slow Foods movement’s Salone del Gusto, or Eataly. To be sure, the city has far more charms than we can mention here. But, the aspect of Torino that is of greatest relevance to colonists of North America? Vermouth. If Piedmont is the Kingdom of Vermouth, then Torino is its capital.
Historically, Torino was the (second, after Chambery, France) capital of the Duchy of Savoy, which occupied the modern French region of Savoy (Savoie and Haute Savoie) and the Italian Piemonte. The terrain of this area is perhaps exemplified by the fact that regions formerly encompassed by the Duchy have now hosted 3 Winter Olympiads — Chamonix (the 1st!) in 1924, Albertville in 1992, and Torino in 2006. Both Torino and Chambery — the 2 capitals of the Duchy of Savoy — are ineluctably linked with Vermouth production. But, the Savoy did not invent the drink. Vermouth, at its most basic, is wine fortified with roots and herbs. It is not a Savoy invention. Rather they adopted — and later adapted- the traditional German and Hungarian wormwood-flavored wines and crafted them in their own styles. It was in Savoy that Vermouth as we know it came to be developed and commercially produced. Torino gave us Cinzano (1757), Carpano (1786), Martini & Rossi (1863), while Chambery provided Dolin (1821).
How to explain the popularity of Vermouth within the Savoy Kingdom? Well, maybe it does go back that White Magic/Black Magic association. The history of vermouth is linked to medicinal “cures” (dare we say, “potions”!).
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Vermouth was a boon to wine-commerce as long journeys didn’t compromise it in the same way they did un-fortified wines. It was through such mercantile exchange that Vermouth found its way to America and its second home, the martini cocktail. The original “martini” was concocted of vermouth and gin.
Still, how does this get us back to the early colonists? Well, gin is evolved from the juniper-flavored spirit, jenever. Jenever was fashionable in 17th-century Amsterdam — where our “Pilgrims” first arrived after these Separatists fled religious persecution in England. There is no record of Jenever having been transported on the Mayflower, but my guess is that there was at least one flask…
The Age of Exploration and Rum
The Wine: Silvio Carta Vernaccia Valle del Tirso, Italy
Made with 100% Vernaccia that is hand-harvested, native-yeast fermented, and aged in chestnut casks. The wine is oxidized in style, and drinks a bit like a fino or manzanilla sherry. The fruits are riper, however, and the effect is thrilling. Drink it!
Silvio Carta and his namesake winery live on the island of Sardinia, in the region of Oristano. In the 18th century, Sardinia was joined with the Duchy of Savoy to create the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, with Torino retained as the capital. It is this kingdom that was the forerunner of the modern state of Italy. Prior to its inclusion into the Duchy of Savoy, from the 15th century, Sardinia was fully under control of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, whose rightful heir, Ferdinand II, married Isabel of Castille.
During this same century, the Age of Exploration emerged as governments were funding large-scale, long-distance, maritime exploration, in part for mercantile advantage. (Now) Queen Isabel of Spain — she of the Spanish Inquisition reputation —supported such discovery by funding numerous expeditions, including the 1492 trip of Christopher Columbus. Later, the Italian Amerigo Vespucci joined the Spanish explorers on those missions to find a western route to Asia. For discovering that the continents reached by Columbus (first) then Vespucci were not part of Asia, the latter was rewarded with eponyms, giving us North and South America. Ultimately, the Italian Vespucci was granted Spanish citizenship for his work toward overseas acquisitions for the Crown.
Columbus’ first journey brought him to the “West Indies” — aka the Caribbean. Vespucci, too, made landfall there (well, in Guyana). It was in the Caribbean, on sugar plantations, that rum was commercially developed, reaching the North American colonies later in the 17th century. Barbados, in particular, was an early source of rum in America. Barbados and Jamaica — another producer of rum — were initially in Spanish hands, but were taken over by the Brits in the late-17th century. A century later, their heavy taxation on molasses (a sugar-cane by-product) from non-British isles helped spur smuggling of molasses to meet the craze for rum distilleries in the colonies, of which it is said 4.8 million gallons were produced annually from 140 distilleries there.
By that time, Sardinia was back in “Italian” hands (of the Duchy of Savoy), though Spanish-wine influences are seemingly still evident in the wines of Oristano, Sardinia. On the other hand, the Italian Amerigo Vespucci — with the aid of Spanish fortunes — helped lay the groundwork for the most-widespread spirit in the early colonies: rum.
Johnny Appleseed and Cider
The wine: Billsboro Pinot Gris, New York
This wine is made with 100% Pinot Gris grapes grown at the Hazlitt family’s Sawmill Creek Vineyard. The wine (made by the Aliperti family) is full-bodied, creamy, and delicious. It is chock full of pears and apples, and also melon and peach. It has all the acid needed for a tasty wine with great mouth-feel.
Sawmill Creek farm dates at least to the early 19th century, and is located on the southern end of Seneca Lake, on its eastern shore. But the Billsboro winery is located further north in Geneva, on the lake’s western shore. Geneva is also home to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) National Apple Collection.
That collection houses the gene pool of the nation’s apples — as well as from other countries. Among the American varieties are those that stemmed from some of the earliest, seeded apple-plantings in the New World; these were planted by Johnny Appleseed in the early 18th century. Johnny Appleseed — neé John Chapman — did not sow the first seeds, nor did he plant the first tree. Colonists arriving in the New World in the 17th century quickly realized that the flora and fauna were not the same as back in ol’ England. Apples — prevalent in several, cultivated varieties back home — were limited solely to the wild crab apple. Brits loved their apples, particularly for cider which, unlike beer, could be made without heat (and thus expensive wood). Crab apples do not really make for good eating, but they can make for good drinking. Nonetheless, perhaps craving their British cider, the first apple-cultivar was planted within a few years arrival at the Plymouth colony.
The real spread of the seemingly all-american apple, however, was the doing of Johnny Appleseed. He roamed across the land planting nurseries (which he tended and from which he profited) as he went. By propagating apple seeds in his direct effort to spread apple orchards across the country, Chapman unwittingly gave rise to many of our most famous apples. Trees grown from seeds, rather than from grafts from other trees, show a lot of variability in the flavor and physical characteristics of the fruit. But, since Johnny Appleseed was spreading the love for apple drinking (not eating), such variability was welcomed.
Early settlers (and pilgrims!) were pressing apples for cider quite early in their colonization. Some of these have made their way to Geneva (NY) — by way of their DNA — where a great, Billsboro Pinot Gris also awaits!
The German Connection
The Wine: Ranchelle Millocchio Rosso, Italy
This red is blended from: Alicante, Ciliegiolo, Barbera, Bonamico, Cannaiolo, Mammolo, Sangiovese, Malvasia Nera, Pugnitello — fermented separately with native yeast. The blended wine ages 10 months in oak. The result is super aromatic of cherry and wild herbs, with a bit of dusty mineral.
Ranchelle — owned and operated by German ex-pat Christoph Fischer — finds its home in the Tuscan Maremma, in Manciano. Manciano is roughly half way between Rome and Florence, west of the Via Cassia. Pope Leo X must have used that road between Florence and Rome, between the place of his birth and the seat of his papacy. Who was Pope Leo X? He was pope during the tumultuous, early-16th century — when Martin Luther’s “95 theses” were displayed on the doors of Wittenberg Castle.
Martin Luther was a German monk and theologian who came to question the Roman Catholic Church — of which he was part. Part of his many studies took him to Rome, which he may have reached via the Via Francigena, the popular route for pilgrims of the monastic sort. Luther was not impressed with Rome, nor its spiritual leader, Pope Leo X. His increasing criticism of the Church’s teachings, as well as his disappointment with all-things-Rome, led to his infamous “95 theses” in 1517. Importantly, he took strong umbrage with the sale of “indulgences”, whereby the absolution of sin could be purchased. Luther was not only against the sale of indulgences, but was also of the belief that no intervention — save the divine — could remit a sin. Pope Leo X was especially critical of Luther’s theses, as this member of the Medici family was a major proponent of- and beneficiary of- their sale. How do you think St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt?
Anyway, the pope was not keen to recognize Luther’s demands, and the uproar ultimately resulted in the Protestant Reformation. This was a key fundament of the (later) challenge to the British monarchy, whose stranglehold on religion was ultimately broken. A more proximate result was social and religious upheaval, and the persecution and exile of the British “separatists”: pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth rock in 1620.
The connection to pilgrims? Admittedly, a bit of a stretch! We can stretch the German connection — Ranchelle is owned and operated by German ex-pat, Christoph Fischer. We can stretch the numbers — the 95 billion grapes that go into the blend are as lengthy a list as Martin Luther’s 95 points… Really, this is just excellent wine, and if it had been available to early colonists, I would have recommended they drink it!
Cavaliers and Claret
The Wine: Brea Cabernet Sauvignon, California
The wine is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, sourced from 2 California AVAs: Lodi and Red Hills Lake County. Aged 24 months. It is a fuller-bodied wine with ripe, red raspberries and currants, plus some cedar and aromatic oils.
Brea is a project of Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars, an urban winery based in Berkeley CA. California was added to the union in 1850, before which it — with its Native American population — had been claimed for the Spanish crown. It was also Spaniards who brought the first grapes, planting the “Mission” grape at their missions in the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century that wine making became more popular and the first commercial wineries were established. Though Cabernet Sauvignon was not among the most popular grapes at the beginning of California’s wine fluorescence, Lodi — source for the Brea wine — made an early name for itself with the Cabs of Mondavi.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one part of the triumvirate — including Merlot and Cabernet Franc — composing Bordeaux. Bordeaux, as Claret, was ironically the wine of choice of the Brits that the separatists left behind on their journey to the Colonies. While the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth occurred in 1620, the social coding influencing their alcohol options begins prior to their departure from England in 1607. England (and Europe) of the 16th and 17th centuries was strongly divided through intertwined elements of class, challenges to existing political structure, and religious fervor and reform (epitomized by the Protestant Reformation and, a few decades later, Henry VIII making the monarchy the head of the reformed Church of England in order to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon).
The group that comprised the Pilgrims were “separatists”; their view of the reformation of the Church of England was that it was not extensive enough, and that the Church and monarchy were too entrenched to be modified to their liking and thus they must separate from it. There were reformers who did stay in England, such as the Puritans. The Puritans attempted to reform the church from within; ultimately, they resisted the monarchy and its allies (who were known as “Royalists”, or “Cavaliers”) and instead supported Parliament (as “Parliamentarians” or “Roundheads”) in the lead up to the English Civil War of the 1640’s. The very term, “Roundheads”, had its origin in the close-cropped haircut favored by the Puritans — who later grew ringlets in defiance of this pejorative term. Of more interest here than naming schemes is the persistent social coding that associated wine with Cavaliers, and beer (or nothing) with Roundheads. This was partly due to economics; wine was expensive and Royalists were often of the landed gentry who would benefit from the status quo. Wine imported into England in the early-mid 17th century was commonly of French origin — namely from Gascony and Bordeaux, the latter of which initiated a strong British partiality to Claret (red wine of Bordeaux). The wine cork was not yet in fashion, and wine was imported in hogsheads (large casks of anywhere between 50–79 gallons) and served in decanters at the (wealthier) table. Beer, on the other hand, was associated with Parliamentarians, who were more often members of less-monied and storied classes and groups. Beer was cheap; it was locally brewed both commercially and domestically, from inexpensive and readily-available ingredients. While these associations began as a reflection of then-current behavioral norms, they later became codified as a form of political identity — particularly amongst exiles, as known for such communities in the Netherlands (Keblusek 2004).
Newly arrived pilgrims would certainly have eschewed Claret, if available, and revolutionaries would have as well. But, by the time California became a state in 1850, the social codes ruling the Brits and the colonists likely would have been long forgotten. So drink your Claret or, in this case, drink your Cab!
Kublusek, M. 2004. “Wine for Comfort: Drinking and the Royalist Exile Experience 1642–1660″ in A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England, A. Smyth (ed). Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.