Home > History of Wine > “Grapes Very Fair and Excellent Good”: The First Known Vintage in the Colony of Virginia

“Grapes Very Fair and Excellent Good”: The First Known Vintage in the Colony of Virginia

“Grapes Very Fair and Excellent Good”: The First Known Vintage in the Colony of Virginia

The seventeenth century history of English colonial winemaking in America is traditionally begun by describing Jamestown, Virginia. Schoonmaker begins with Lord De la Warr’s 1616 letter to the London Company requesting “vinearoons.”[i] Thomas Pinney advances from Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke colony of 1587 to Jamestown in 1607.[ii] Tyler Colman’s section Wine in the Colonies also begins with Jamestown in 1607 where he cites Pinney.[iii] Kliman mentions Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 followed by the Virginia Company’s winemaking efforts.[iv] Robinson mentions the Huguenots producing wine followed by Pilgrims dismayed by the locally produced musky wines.[v] Jamestown was not the only English colony in 1607 for there was also Popham Colony in what is now Maine. In this post I shall describe how in 1607 the Popham colonists found grapes and produced wine, which appears to be the earliest documented description of winemaking in the Colony of Virginia.

The London and Plymouth Companies

Captain John Smith participated in the colonization of Virginia through the Charter of the Virginia Company of London (London Company). This company was founded in 1606 by James I of England who simultaneously founded the Virginia Company of Plymouth (Plymouth Company). The Plymouth Company was granted an area of land from the 38th parallel to the 45th parallel with the London Company granted land from the 34th parallel to the 41st parallel. As the two territories overlapped it was stipulated that their colonies had to be at least 100 miles apart. These were the only two English Companies involved in colonizing Virginia at the time.

Virginia, Captain John Smith, 1606, Image from Wikipedia.

Virginia, Captain John Smith, 1606, Image from Wikipedia.

On December 20, 1606, the London Company set sail from Blackwall, London with the three ships Susan Constant, Discovery, and Godspeed under Captain Christopher Newport containing 144 colonists. They made landfall on April 26, 1607 at Cape Henry eventually settling on the site of Jamestown Island on May 15, 1607. Over the first few months approximately half of the colonists died from sickness and attacks. They worked at building a fort as well as hunting and trading for food.

Fort St George, John Hunt, 1607, Image from Wikipedia.

Fort St George, John Hunt, 1607, Image from Wikipedia.

The first Plymouth Company ship set sail in August 1606 but was captured by the Spanish. On May 31, 1607 the two ships Gift of God and Mary and John set sail with 120 colonists. The colony leader George Popham sailed aboard the first ship and Captain Robert Davies on the second. The Gift of God arrived at the mouth of the Sagadahoc River on August 13, 1607, in what was then called northern Virginia and is now called Maine. The Godspeed arrived three days later. On Wednesday, August 19, 1607, they chose the location for their plantation and the next day begin to fortify it. For the first few months all hands labored at building Fort Saint George and a storehouse but there were also occasional trips for trading and exploring.

The Popham Colonist Had Access to Grapes for Winemaking

On September 23, 1607, Captain Robert Davies joined Captain Gilbert and 18 others on a journey towards the head of the Sagadehock River. On September 25, 1607, they found a low and flat island around which the water ran swiftly. In the island they “found great store of grapes, exceeding good and sweet, of two sorts, both red, but the one of them is a marvelous deep red. By both the sides of this river the grapes grow in abundance…” They all went ashore. [vi]

In Purchas his Pilgrimage, published in 1613, Purchas writes of the “Plantation in the River Sagadahoc” that “They found the country stored with Grapes white and red, good Hops…”[vii]

The Popham Colonists Had Enough Time to Make Wine Before Robert Davies Return to London

Captain Robert Davies firsthand account ends on the September 27, 1607. Strachey’s addition has Robert Davies returning to the fort on September 29, 1607, and his departure for England some unspecified time after the October 6, 1607. On October 8, 1607, colonist John Hunt drew a map of the fort with its buildings. That day Robert Davies returned to England aboard The Mary and John.[viii] If Robert Davies did leave on October 8, 1607, then there were eight full days upon returning to the fort prior to his departure.

Printed in 1622 His Majesties Gracious Letter to the Earle of South-Hampton specifically describes how to setup silkworks and plant vines in Virginia.[ix] In section 8. How to make Wine, and how to know when the Grapes are fully ripe there are specific instructions on making wine. From ripe grapes it would take five or six days for fermentation to complete but longer would result in a very red wine. After drawing out this wine the greener, trodden grapes could be added to the husks and skins then fermented for seven or eight days. This would make a “meane small Wine for the household.” If one tenth of a part of water was added to the grapes which were fermented for five or six days a “prettie small Wine for the servants or household” could be made. Section 9. Observations touching the wild Vine, that growth in Virginia, and how to make Wine of the same we find specific instructions for making Virginian wine. This involves adding water to the grape or boiling hard grapes then fermenting for five or six days or so long as required to be fit to drink. The wine could then be drawn and used.

If the colonists fermented the grapes right away and this took five to six days to complete then there were at least two to three days for Robert Davies and others to taste the wine. They found red grape varieties so it would be possible to make a claret.

The Popham Colonists Made Wine

Captain Robert Davies arrived in London on December 01, 1607. Sir Ferdinando Gorges promptly wrote a letter to the Earl of Salisbury. In it he wrote, “This present day here is arrived one of our ships out of the parts of Virginia… grapes very fair and excellent good, whereof they have already made wine, much like to the claret wine that comes out of France…”[x] Of interest, but of no consequence, is the description “excellent good” which is similar to Robert Davies description “exceeding good.”

Sir Ferdinando Gorges is referring to the Popham Colony and not Jamestown

Sir Ferdinando Gorges wrote of the ship leaving Virginia. At the time Virginia consisted of the entire east coast from the 34th parallel to the 48th parallel. So identification of Virginia is not limited to what is now the present state of Virginia but includes what is now the present state of Maine, where the Popham Colony was located.

It is accepted that Sir Ferdinando Gorges was a stockholder in the Plymouth Company. His involvement is documented such as in the first attempt by the Plymouth Company. This involved sending the ship Richard under the direction of Captain Henry Challons. Instead of heading north he took a southern route towards the Canary Islands and was captured by the Spanish. In the letter from Nevill Davis to Sir John Popham, Lord Chief Justice, dated February 4, 1607, it is noted that “Sir Ferdinando Gorges and other gentleman” sent the ship. On March 20, 1607, Sir Ferdinando Gorges wrote to the Earl of Salisbury concerning their plantation and how he has “sent two ships from Tapsome for supplies…”. These are presumably the Mary and John and the Gift of God.

The Mary and John departed Popham Colony on October 8, 1607, arriving in London on 01 December 1607.[xi] This clearly matches the arrival date in Sir Ferdinando Gorges letter. The Gift of God departed Popham Colony with half of the colonists on December 16, 1607, so it did not arrive until 1608. In terms of the London Company, Captain Christopher Newport departed Jamestown in the Susan Constant along with the Godspeed June 22, 1607 and arrived in London July 29, 1607. He subsequently departed London October 8, 1607 returning to Jamestown on January 8, 1608 with the First Supply missions consisting of the ships John and Francis and the Phoenix. Thus the Jamestown ship schedules do not match the arrival described in Sir Ferdinando Gorges letter.

When Wine Was Made in Jamestown

Pinney writes of an Irish sailor, Francis Magnel, who made the first voyage to Jamestown having sampled wine made there and of a Robert Johnson who wrote of the Jamestown settlers sending wine to London before 1609. But it is Captain John Smith who is his authority for the colonists having made wine during these first years at Jamestown. These men describe the vines, grapes, and wine during the early years of Jamestown.

In George Percy’s Discourse he describes on May 12, 1607, finding a point of land named Archers Hope where “There are also great store of Vines in bignesse of mans thigh, running up to the tops of the Trees in great abundance.”[xii] He noted more vines on May 20, 1607 as well as June 15, 1607, when the triangular fort was completed. Phinney writes that an Irish sailor “sampled one or two of the wines produced and found them very similar to the Spanish Alicante, but this is probably an Irish fantasy rather than a sober report.” He then cites Francis Magnel’s Relation of the First Voyage and Beginnings of the Jamestown Colony published July 1610 as found in Philip L. Barbour’s The Jamestown Voyages under the First Charter, 1606-1609 on page 153. Now I do not yet have a copy of this book.

In Wingfield’s Discourse he notes around July 7, 1607, “the common store of oyle, vinegar, sack, & aquavite all spent, saving twoe gallons of each: the sack reserve for the Communion Table…”[xvi] Though he mentions the wine they drank, Sack, there is no other mention of wine.

Robert Johnson published Nova Britannia in London in 1609. In it he writes “We doubt not but to make there in a few yeares store of good wines, as any from the Canaries, by replanting and making tame the Vines that naturally grow there in great abundance, onely send men of skill to doe it, and Coopers to make caskes, and hoopes for that and all other uses, for which there is woode enough at hand.”[xvii] Despite the potential of making wine in the future, there is no mention of having yet made wine. In London in 1612 the second part was published The New Life of Virginea. In here he describes how “some few hundres of our men were left there by Captaine Newport” and they “built a Church and many houses together, which they named James Towne” and “they planted orange trees, corne, and sundrie kindes of seeds, they made Sope ashes and Tar, with some Sturgeon and Caveare, and of each of these they sent us small quantities, with store of Sassafrasse, and some wine of those countrie grapes for a trial.”[xviii] Purchas in Pilgrimage writes “they had built a Church and many houses” and “some quantitie of many commodities, as Furres, Dies, Mineralls, Sassafrasse, Sturgeon, and other things sent hither, in testimonie of their industry and successe.” Purchas does not mention wine nor grapes. These samples arrived in England before the fleet departed in June 1609.

Captain John Smith was located in Jamestown from 1607 through October 1609 when he returned to England. Over the years he published several books about Jamestown and Virginia. The first publication of his work, unbeknownst to him, occurred while he was still in Jamestown. This was his letter to the Virginia Company which was published in London in August 1608 under the title A True Relation.[xix] He describes Captain Christopher Newport’s departure for England on June 22, 1607, having left provisions for 13 or 14 weeks. He notes their “hard dealings of our President” and though they had a great store of Sturgeon the President kept “the Sack, Aquatie, and other preservatives for our health” for the consumption of himself and his associates. By September 10, 1607, 46 men had died and their “tents were rotten and our Cabins worse than naught.” He continues to chronicle their sickness, troubles, explorations, and in great detail, their food. He notes how many bushels of corn he returns with as well as describing the birds, fowl, and deer they eat. Captain Newport eventually returns to their great joy then departs April 10, 1608. His letter chronicles several more weeks before it ends, concluding that everyone was in good health, content, and in peace with the Indians. The letter returned to England aboard the Phoenix which departed Jamestown June 2, 1608. There is no mention of making wine in the letter.

Upon his return to England Captain John Smith subsequently published accounts of his voyage to Virginia. In 1612 he published Map of Virginia, in 1624 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, and in 1630 The True Travels. In it he describes vines, grapes, and wine in the section titled Of such things which are natural in Virginia and how they use them. It is in these publications where we find his famous description, “Of vines great abundance in many parts that climbe the toppes of the highest trees in some places, but these bear but few grapes. Except by the Rivers & savage habitations, where they are not overshadowed from the sunne, they are covered with fruit, though never pruined nor manured. Of those hedge grapes we made neere twentie gallons of wine, which was like our French Brittish wine, but certainly they would prove good were they well manured. There is another sort of grape neere as great as a Cherry, this they call Messamins, they be fatte, and the juyce thicke. Neither doth the the taste so well please when they are made in wine.”[xx] The 17th century printings of his book begin with the date 1606 due to the legal year in England beginning on March 25 or Lady Day. This continued up until 1752. Thus contemporary printings reflect the earliest year as 1607 with the general range of years as 1607-1609. This reflects not only the years in which John Smith lived in Jamestown but also the fact that his descriptions are not chronological and at times seasonal in nature.

In Purchas Pilgrimage he writes of Master Thomas Hariot who “described the commodities which Water and Earth yield” such as the “Turpentine, Sassafras, Cedar, Grapes, Oyle,…” Though he mentions grapes I find no mention of wine nor wine-making.


The Popham colonist found an abundant source of red grapes on September 25, 1607. Sir Ferdinando Gorges wrote a letter to the Earl of Salisbury on December 01, 1607, stating the colonists had made wine. The first published accounts of the Jamestown colonists making wine occurred by Francis Magnell’s Relation of the First Voyage and Beginnings of the Jamestown Colony published 1610, followed by Robert Johnson in The New Life of Virginea and Captain John Smith in Map of Virginia both of which were published in 1612. This appears to make the vinuous efforts of the Popham Colony the first documented vintage in the Colony of Virginia.

[i] Schoonmaker, Frank and Marvel, Tom. American Wines. Quinn & Boden Co, New Jersey, 1941.

[ii] Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in American, Vol. 1. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987.

[iii] Colman, Tyler. Wine Politics. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008.

[iv] Kliman, Todd. The Wild Vine. Kindle Edition, Clarkson Potter, 2010.

[v] Robinson, Jancis. American Wine. University of California Press, 2013. I have not finished reading this book so it is possible the Popham Colony is addressed later in the book.

[vi] Decoasta, Rev B. F. A Relation of A Voyage to Sagadahoc. John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, 1880. And Thayer, Rev. Henry O. The Sagadahoc Colony. Stephen Berry, Portland, 1892.

[vii] Purchas. Purchas His Pilgrimage. London, 1613.

[viii] Hume, Ivor Noel. Something from the Cellar. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, 2005.

[ix] Bonoeil, John. His Majesties Letter to the Earle of South-Hampton. Felix Kyngston, London, 1622.

[x] ‘Cecil Papers: December 1607, 1-15’, Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 19: 1607 (1965), pp. 351-383. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=112379&strquery=virginia wine gorges 1607 Date accessed: 24 April 2013

[xi] Rice, Douglas Walthew. The Life and Achievements of Sir John Popham, 1531-1607. Associated University Presses, 2005.

[xii] http://www.americanjourneys.org/pdf/AJ-073.pdf , accessed 25 April 2013.

[xiii] Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes, Vol XVIII. James MacLehose and Sons, Glasgow, 1906.

[xvi] Hart, Albert Bushnell. The Founding of Jamestown. 1907.

[xvii] Johnson, Robert. Nova Britannia , 1609 in Peter Force Tracts Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America. Vol. 1. Washington, DC, 1836.

[xviii] Johnson, Robert. The New Life of Virginea, 1612 in Peter Force Tracts Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America. Vol. 1. Washington, DC, 1836.

[xx] Smith, Captain John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. Edward Blackmore, 1632.

Categories: History of Wine Tags:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: