Buried in the moldy caves of wine lore and legend, an unnamed California vintner, feeling very confident of his wine, supposedly posted this sign at the door of his tasting room, "Genuine California Burgundy. Beware of French imitations." True or not, it's a lovely bon mot! Even more, the annals of wine literature are filled to the brim with similar stories and legends. Who and what to believe? In wine lore and legend, not knowing is half the fun.
Cherry picking the odd bits of wine lore and legend, some that blur the line between fact and fiction, can be fun indeed, since the bits supply the wine lover with a deeper understanding about their beverage of choice. And these gems of wine trivia are great conversation stimulators in wine bars and wine parties.
So, settle back and enjoy a virtual tour of the world of wine, with tongue-in-cheek stops along the way to discover how folks everywhere have integrated wine into their customs and daily lives. The tour starts in California and heads east.
Being a relatively young wine region, California is not rich with wine lore or legend, unless you consider Louis M. Martini's pithy quip about the marriage of oak and wine, "If you want oak, chew on a plank." About the time Martini summed it up for wine lovers everywhere who were fed up with oak, oak and more oak, along came the phenomenon of Pop Wines, the fizzy-fruity drink that pre-dated Coolers. No matter whether you ever popped for a Pop Wine (tell the truth!), they merit a page in California wine history, if for no other reason then for the tale of their interesting, though controversial, origins.
One legend goes that in the 1950s, Gallo salesmen discovered that liquor stores in Oakland, California were catering to certain customer demands by attaching envelopes of lemon Kool-Aid to bottles of white wine. Supposedly Gallo borrowed the idea and created the citrus-flavored Thunderbird. Then, in 1969, Gallo put some real pop into Pop Wines with the release of Boone's Farm Apple.
Another version, supposedly a few years later, had United Vintners searching for a new wine product that would attract a younger legal-age drinker away from soft drinks. UV sales people were beating the hot asphalt of Los Angeles when they saw a group of young men playing basketball. To slake their growing thirsts, the hoopsters concocted "Shake 'em Up," a chilled mixture of fruit juice fortified with a little grain alcohol. The idea clicked, spawning Bali Hai and Annie Green Springs.
It wasn't long before other Pop Wines joined the already crowded market with such high octane (18-21% alcohol) flavored fizzy drinks as Richards Wild Irish Rose, Gypsy Rose, Night Train, Silver Satin and Hombre.
Further back in American wine lore, long before interest in West Coast wine took off, the story of American wine became closely associated with the founding of the American Colonies. Virginia Dare, the oldest wine brand in the United States, was named after the first child born of English parents in America. Virginia Dare wine was first made from a muscadine grape called Scuppernong, a native variety that is still grown in the south. Originally called "Minnehaha" for the white and "Pocahontas" for the red, Virginia Dare became the first commercial wine to sell after repeal of Prohibition in 1933. It wasn't long before millions of Americans were humming along with the first singing commercial ever broadcast for wine -- "Say it again, Virginia Dare, it's such a delicious wine."
Across the Atlantic, the wine-loving English were stamping out some local wine legends. Consider the cork flogger. In today's racy jargon, one might think of a flogger as a kinky wine drinker who gets perverse pleasure from spanking a cork. For the English, a cork flogger was a flat piece of hard wood with a handle that was used to ram a cork home flush with the top of the bottle. The corker was the flogger and the cork and bottle, the floggee.
If you don't buy the flogger story then try on this one about a slider. Before cork and paper coasters came along, or even the silver coaster used to keep the wine stains off the mahogany, there was the bottle slider, most often used in an after-dinner men-only ritual called passing the Port. Once the ladies retired from the table, off came the cloth and the host brought out his best bottle of Port, took the first nip, then set the bottle on the coaster and with a crook-shaped pusher slid the bottle to his left and so on around the table, starting a tradition called Passing the Port. Going to the right was considered bad luck.
Lord Chesterfield, a cynical English nobleman, relished the pleasures of privileged life, as a corker and slider of a different stripe. Lord Chesterfield, poor chap, suffered from the gout, as a consequence of high living. It seems that Chesterfield's wine merchant insisted that he had a Sherry that would cure the gout. His Nibs resisted at first, but the persistent merchant sent over a bottle. Chesterfield's reply to this friendly gesture: "Sir, I have tried your Sherry and prefer the gout."
Passing the Port has become as familiar a part of wine speak as has the use of the word "plonk" for any wine that doesn't measure up. But how did such an odd word get started? According to one theory, the name "plonk" came from the mating call of frogs on the Swan River in Western Australia. Another version says that in the late 17th century, a Liverpool wine merchant and his sons discovered that monks in Portugal were fortifying their wine with grape spirits creating a delicious slightly sweet wine they called Port. Preferring Port and distaining imported wine from Spain and Italy, English wine merchants called the latter "plonk," a not-so-endearing term that survives today.
While the English can tally an impressive list of wine legends, few can hold a cork flogger to the Europeans. One old belief holds that the custom of the host taking the first sip of a wine dates from medieval times when the host was often accused of trying to poison his enemy. So, the host would first sip a little of the wine to prove to his guests that murder was not on his mind.
Mead, the alcoholic beverage fermented from honey, was thought by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors to be a strong aphrodisiac, a sort of 5th century Viagra. After a wedding, the bride would be sent off to bed while the men filled the hapless groom with mead until he was drunk. Revelers would then carry the poor fellow to the bridal bed and place him by his bride's side. It was believed that under the sensual power of mead, the new groom would sire a son that night. History doesn't show the results of such a practice, but it is believed that our present use of the word "honeymoon" is derived from the ritual.
Madame la Pompadour's bee-stung lips probably never touched mead, but the lady was more then a little fond of Champagne. Today, ardent Champagne drinkers prefer their bubbly in a flute or tulip-shaped glass, but Pompadour, supposedly after opining, "Champagne is the only drink that leaves you beautiful after having drunk deeply," allowed a new saucer-shaped glass, called the coupe, to be molded from her breast. Another version of the coupe conundrum has the glass being molded from the breast of Marie-Antoinette. In fact, at least two copies of the famous Sévres porcelain coupe, ala Marie, survive to this day.
And to confuse things even more, there is a tale in Greek mythology that, under Apollo's guidance, Paris fashioned a metal cup from the breast of Helen, while the princes of Greece were gathered drinking to the beauty's honor. When the cup was cast, Apollo handed it to each suitor and they drank deeply, thus experiencing the illusion of drinking from the breast of the daughter of Jupiter and Leda. Hmm, I wonder if Apollo used a coupe slider?
Not to be left out of the wine legend game, the Italians have a couple of molto grande whoppers. On the volcanic plains of Campania outside Naples, there is a wine called Lacryma Christi--the Tears of Christ. How did the wine get such a dramatic name? It depends on who in Campania you ask. One version holds that when the Lord cast Lucifer out of heaven, Lucifer grabbed a piece of heaven and took it along. Where he fell became the bay of Naples. When the Lord noticed that a chunk of heaven was missing, he wept and his tears fell on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius causing the first grapevines to grow on earth.
Centuries later, in the year 1110, the German Bishop Johannes Fugger was on his way from Augsburg to Rome for the coronation of King Henry V. Bishop Fugger traveled with his servant, Martin, whose main task was to scout the villages ahead for an inn that served the best wine. "Mark the word 'Est!' on the door of any inn where the wine is good," the bishop ordered Martin.
When the Fugger entourage came to Montefiascone, a small hilltop town overlooking Lake Bolsano, about 50 miles north of Rome, a treasure awaited them. Upon the discovery of an inn with excellent wine, Martin raced back to the bishop and breathlessly told his master. Once at the inn, Bishop Fugger saw "Est! Est!! Est!!!" chalked on the inn door. The Bishop sent his retinue to Rome, but he and Martin stayed on tasting the wines of Montefiascone, until the bishop tippled himself to death. Martin, still the faithful servant, wrote this epitaph: "On account of too much Est Est Est, my master died here." Although Est cubed is made today from Trebbiano and Malvasia, it is believed that Fugger's favorite wine was a Moscato.
And so it goes. Caves are still being dug, wine is still being made and wine lore is being passed from one generation to the next. To that, I lift my glass for a toast, or maybe slide it to my left.