Lewes, DE

Unearthing Wine History In Lewes, DE



Photo: Joe Roberts

Given that wine has been with mankind since, well, nearly the dawn of mankind, its thousands of years of history have left many artifacts for us modern folk to discover. Whenever one of these artifacts is unearthed, we learn something new not just about our favorite adult beverage, but about how our ancestors lived, drank, worshiped, loved, worked, and even how they might have thought, hoped, and dreamed.

When you think about it, wine is really a treasure trove of insights into the historic human condition. Consider this: we’ve found evidence of winemaking, wine consumption, and even rituals related to wine (such as dancing) that date as far back as eight thousand years. The term “remarkable” doesn’t even begin to describe finds like that. Somehow, miraculously, these portholes into wine’s past - and, by extension, into our past - have survived the ravages of time for us to discover.

One of the wine world’s such interesting and insightful artifacts was found quite by accident, just off the shoreline of humble little Lewes, Delaware. And man, it feels really odd to write that, because I grew up in Delaware, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it state that most people just sort of briefly see the northern top of when driving on Interstate 95. Delaware is famous - and I use that term loosely - for two things: being the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, and having laws that are notoriously beneficial to large corporations, which promotes many of those businesses into establishing their U.S. headquarters there.

Anyway, little ol’ Delaware once found itself firmly and unexpectedly in the wine artifact spotlight, in a way that bridged two different nations, hundreds of years, and thousands of miles.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to take an annual trek to the Lewes area, courtesy of some of Earth’s Greatest Neighbors, who allow me to haul many of my family members to their Lewes beach condo during the Summer months. And it’s there (in Lewes, not in the condo) that a small but wonderfully geeky wine artifact is on display, at the charming Zwaanendael Museum.

Zwaanendae’s focus is not wine, of course; it’s primarily the history of an ill-fated Dutch settlement, Swanendael, one of the first to such settlements to touch North American shores back in 1631 (they gave up on the spot not too much later, as the Native American population didn’t exactly receive the Dutch trespassers with open arms). Fortunately for us, it also focuses on displaying artifacts from nearby shipwrecks.

In 2004, dredging in the Roosevelt Inlet unearthed (and, ok, probably more or less destroyed) a shipwreck of a British merchant vessel loaded with international cargo bound for the then-colony of Philadelphia (the ship was almost undoubtedly British, given that it contained cargo from China, Europe, and South Africa, and all such legal commerce bound for the colonies had to go through Britain at the time).


Photo: Joe Roberts

Here are a few details on the wreck itself, as reported by Atlas Obscura:

“The mere existence of the wreck was relatively unknown to locals until 2004, when it was uncovered during a dredging operation near the inlet, off the coast of Lewes. It wasn’t until 2006 that underwater archaeologists determined the dormant ship was most likely a European commercial vessel that had run aground sometime in the 1770s, making it a fascinating relic of colonial America’s journey to independence.
Though the remains are in a surprisingly well-preserved state, only a small portion of the hull is intact. Still, archaeologists were able to determine that the ship sank offshore in March of 1772 (now near the current inlet, which didn’t exist then). The ship’s name was the Severn, captained by Jonathan Hawthorn, and all crew survived. It was a British merchant ship, heading to an anchorage in the Broadkill River when it ran aground on a sandbar. It carried goods from Britain, Holland, Germany, South Africa, and China. Thousands of artifacts were collected from the dredge spoils on Lewes Beach, and many were given to archeologists. Some artifacts are still found occasionally along Lewes Beach between the Yacht Club and Children’s Beach Home.”

Among the (literal) tidbits found from that wreck was a bottle fragment bearing the inscription “Constantia Wyn;” in other words, a seal of wine from South Africa’s Groot Constantia. As it turns out, it is the oldest such seal yet discovered.

When I saw it, my wine geek radar went spastic.I braved some pretty severe back pain to visit Constantia in South Africa back in 2013, and I loved the wines; so it was a real treat to see this tiny piece of their history, dating back to the mid 1700s. Think of its geek-worthiness this way: when this wine was meant to be enjoyed, it was likely the time of the Seven Years’ War and The Great Fire of Boston.


Photo: Joe Roberts

In 2005, Constantia commemorated the discovery with a special release that reproduced the glass bottle style from which the seal fragment likely cameGrand Constance – for its dessert wine, which is still made in very much the same manner as the nectar that was once in that ill-fated, original bottle found in the wreck. The commemorative bottle shape is still in use (though you’re unlikely to find it in stock at any of the local Lewes, DE liquor stores, if my experience is any indication… not that I need yet another bottle of wine in my cellar, mind you).

In the time since visiting the museum in Lewes and stumbling upon that artifact, I’ve often wondered for whom that bottle was meant, and how she or he might have reacted to its loss so close to shore. Or, if they even knew they were supposed to receive it at all. Given how good that wine is, and how beloved it was even among royalty at the time it was shipped, I’m reasonably certain that there were some colorful words expressed if the knowledge of its ultimate fate ever got back to the mainland...


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a.k.a. Joe Roberts. Dad, wine-writer-guy, wine critic, wine competition judge, author, bassist, free-thinker, & occasional hiney-shaker. Opening up highly-pressurized cans of whoop-a** on the wine industry since 2007. Joe is a Certified Specialist of Wine, and the author of Wine Taster’s Guide: Drink and Learn with 30 Wine Tastings.

Downingtown, PA

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