Carrboro author blends his love of wine and history

Jul. 25, 2013 @ 10:48 AM

“What is a claret jug?”
It is the British Open’s Championship Cup that Phil Mickelson earned last weekend. This lovely silver jug was designed to hold and pour claret, a French red wine from Bordeaux and a longtime favorite of many Britons.
Our towns have a connection to claret thanks to a new book, “The Politics of Wine in Britain: A New Cultural History,” by Charles (“Chad”) Ludington, who grew up in Chapel Hill and lives in Carrboro. He earned his way through graduate school working in wine shops. Now he teaches history at N.C. State.
If you think it is a stretch to connect particular varieties of wine with political movements, you are not alone. Ludington agrees, “It seems a losing political argument to suggest that the fate of a nation rests upon the type of wine its subjects drink, yet, that was precisely the claim of both Tories and Whigs.”
This difference of opinion between these two major British political parties centered on claret as early as 1649 when King Charles I was beheaded.
As Charles prepared for his execution, he consumed only wine and bread “a symbol of his own Christ-like martyrdom -- no doubt intended to be seen by the regicide soldiers who were guarding him,” Ludington writes.
“The symbolism of Charles's last repast … was that the wine was distinctly Royalist,” Ludington continued. “That Charles drank claret and not some other wine was also prescient, because as a product of France, claret would soon become the most Royalist wine of all. In fact, the period from the Civil War to 1681 witnessed intense politicization of wine and wine drinking, a politicization that was to last for the next two centuries.”
During most of this time the Royalists, or Tories as they came to be known, promoted claret, arguing that that France produced the best and least expensive wines and that unreasonable tariffs on claret was counterproductive and encouraged fraud and smuggling.
But, “Whigs argued instead, that if free trade with France was allowed, the English liked French wine so much that they would sink their own economy and enrich the kingdom of France, which Whigs passionately believed posed an existential threat to England's mixed Constitutional government,” Ludington explains.
As an alternative, Whigs supported the consumption of Portuguese red wines that came to be known as port.
It is hard to imagine such a serious division between our political parties based on the preferences of alcoholic beverages. But there was a time when Coors Beer was a no-no for Democrats. Back then, at a state Democratic Party function, the top party executive saw that someone had set up a Coors beer keg. The executive hurriedly found a Budweiser tap and placed it on the Coors keg, just in time to conceal the presence of “enemy beer.”
There is much more to Ludington’s story than the Whigs’ port and Tories’ claret: Smuggling, drunken kings and prime ministers, intrigue between Britain and France, business histories, the drinking habits of clergy, and much more.
These are well-told stories brought to life by a local author who loves his wine and his history.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. The next program is a rebroadcast. The guest is the late John Hope Franklin, author of “Mirror to America.”