Several years ago, I had the opportunity to chat with a woman of Gullah heritage. I told her I recently opened a winery on the Island and that I came from an Italian family with a long tradition of home winemaking. She told me that home winemaking was a part of her tradition, too. I gave her a bottle of wine and we parted ways. The next day, I found a mason jar filled with dark liquid on the doorstep of the winery, its only identifier the words “Elderberry Wine” handwritten on a piece of masking tape.
I needed to put that mason jar into context. As a recent Northern transplant, I had never even heard of the word Gullah and that mason jar certainly sparked my interest. I was familiar with Elderberry Wine, but I had never tasted it. This one was well-crafted, rich and fruity, and could have easily passed for a young, unoaked Spanish wine.
Technically, wine can be made from virtually any fruit or vegetable, including onions. The trick is to know what makes the best wines and how to master the fickle craft. As I learned more about the Gullah culture, I understood why this wine was so good.
Hilton Head is one of the Sea Islands, a chain of tidal and barrier islands on the Southeastern Atlantic coast along South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Mostly inhabited by the descendants of slaves, these islands were only reachable by boat for almost 100 years after the Civil War.
Because of the Gullah’s rich cultural heritage of hard work and commitment to community, they flourished in such isolation. The soil was rich for farming, the seas and marshes teamed with fish and shellfish and wild-fruit trees abounded.
In her book, “Cooking the Gullah Way Morning Noon and Night,” Sallie Ann Robinson describes her parents’ homemade wine: “it was with southern love and a kind of wild southern feeling.” She provides the recipes for several different fruit wines and includes her memories surrounding their making. Most of the wines were made from wild grown fruit trees, such as roadside blackberries, wild plums and elderberries.
Her recipes all include the most important factors in good home wine- making: the hard work of picking and preparing the ripest wild-grown fruits, the discipline needed to sterilize and sanitize at every step, and, most importantly, the patience needed to allow nature to take its course throughout the entire fermentation process.
As I learned more about the Gullah culture, which included taking the Hilton Head Island Gullah Heritage Trail Tour, the more I appreciated that jar of Elderberry Wine. If you would like to learn more about Gullah heritage on Hilton Head Island, I recommend you go to gullaheritage.com and book a tour.
Written by Georgene Mortimer, owner of Island Winery on Cardinal Road. The perfect bottle of handcrafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Road. Complimentary tastings, wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday, 12-4 p.m. For more information, call (843) 842-3141 or go to islandwinery.com.