by Fred McMillin
for March 20, 1998

Winery of the Week

The Benedictine Scene

Because tomorrow is the Feast of St. Benedict, we explore his wine legacy today.

Photo: The original Pot-stills have undergone practically no changes in over 100 years.


The monks brought their leader, the future St. Benedict, a glass of wine containing POISON!

The Rest of the Story

Yes, the founder of the first monastery (near Rome) was so strict that his monks tried to poison him. Legend says the glass shattered when he made the Sign of the Cross just before putting it to his lips.

Nevertheless, the Benedictine order of monks grew rapidly. The Roman Empire was collapsing during St. Benedict's lifetime (b.480 A.D., d.543 A.D.), so the black-robed Benedictines preserved the knowledge of winemaking during the subsequent turmoil of the Dark Ages. In fact, for 500 years they were the sole order of monks in existence. Most of the barbarians left them alone, fearing them as miracle-workers and magicians. Later, about 1500 A.D. , one of those Benedictine monks, Bernardo Vincelli, living in Normandy, France, found many exotic herbs and spices arriving in nearby ports. He perfected a secret herbal remedy with healing powers, which was made by the Order for several centuries at the town of Fecamp. THEN THE FORMULA WAS LOST, destroyed when the monastery was burned in 1789 during the French Revolution.

Seventy years later Alexandre Le Grand, son of a Fecamp wine merchant, found an old manuscript. After considerable decoding, he reconstructed the 27-herb-and-spice formula so well that it is still used today. It is produced on the site of the original abbey, and is the liqueur we know as Benedictine.

Another 70 years and in 1937 at N.Y.'s 21 Club a bartender mixed Benedictine with Brandy and the liqueur B&B was born...soon to be produced at the Fecamp facility in France. For availability, phone Laura Baddish in NYC at (212) 867-6400.

Postcript -Name the Sommelier

The lay brother who handled St. Benedict's "two large wooden flasks of wine" was appropriately named "Exhilaratus." Important Reference: "Monks and Wine" by D. Seward.


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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