Dennis Marek: Learn history from a bottle of wine

October 13, 2018

I have learned over the years to enjoy a dark red wine. I prefer some of the French reds from the Bordeaux area of southern France, but then again the cost of those imported beauties does drive one home to Napa Valley, or in search of Italian bottlers, and Chilean vineyards for more affordable prices.

I have had to sort through a variety of red wines over the years: Syrah, Burgundy, and Bordeaux from France. Malbec from Argentina. Cabernet Sauvignon originally from France but from many countries now. A real favorite of mine, Cabernet Franc, comes from the Ontario province of Canada. One cannot forget a Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Berbera, or Sangiovece from various countries on occasion.

As I watch the wine shelves for new or at least different choices, I have run across some interesting names as well as interesting wines. Take for example Ménage a Trois. While the name conjures up some rather unusual sexual images, this dry red wine is a tasty bargain. Others have names, from the founders or vintners who developed the wine. Jordan, Joel Gott, and Josh are all smooth Cabernet Sauvignons. Even Paul Newman’s winery has a red wine on the market.

But one day I ran across a most unusual name for a wine vineyard, 19 Crimes. I actually tasted it at a friend’s house and enjoyed this Cabernet Sauvignon. What an unusual name. I inquired why a wine would be from such a named vineyard. The result was a story as interesting as its taste. While there is some disagreement with the full background of the name for this vineyard, the story led me to the study of history as much as wine culture. This wine is grown and made in Australia.

In the middle of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, urbanization was in full swing. Population was growing and while there was a need for workers, social services were nonexistent. The number of urban poor skyrocketed as did crime. Courts and prisons were overloaded with these numerous offenders. There were only a dozen superior court judges in the country for literally thousands of criminal cases.

While capital punishment was quite common for the more serious offenses, social opposition to such punishment was on the rise after the bloody Elizabethan Age. Something had to be done with the problem in that many of those convicted were sentenced to death.

Convict transportation out of England was seen as a way to curb this growing problem by reducing the prison population. In the late 18th century a husband and wife, Henry and Susannah Kable, were sentenced to death, but a jailer in charge of their care before execution begged for their lives. He raised enough support for them that a number of people donated a variety of goods for a new life somewhere else if they were to be deported rather than executed.

The country of choice to receive them was the struggling British territory of Australia. Later, there were numerous crimes that qualified a prisoner for deportation to Australia rather than prison, and eventually there became a recognized list of eligible crimes for this alternate punishment. Nineteen in fact.

Some of the 19 crimes included theft above one shilling, buying or selling stolen goods, stealing certain metals, stealing postage stamps, bigamy, assault, counterfeiting, grave robbing, stealing roots or trees, and even stealing fish from public ponds.

These transported convicts were not really free and were often assigned to a master. While not imprisoned, they had few property rights. They often worked for the government of Australia but would later be assigned to private industry. The hope was to more quickly build the Australian economy.

On occasion, a prisoner was granted a pardon, but this did not allow a return to England, merely a freer state to engage in one’s own business and freedom of living where one wanted in Australia. On the other hand, prisoners who committed more crimes could be deported to outer islands which were more like prison camps.

Over time, this all came to change. Prisoners fought this deportation as cruel and unusual punishment citing brutal treatment by employers and the stealing of their few possessions by the masters. However this “freedom” did allow a condemned person to escape the ultimate punishment and populate the newest possession of the British Empire.

The founders of the 19 Crimes winery lay claim to a connection with this method of dealing with crime and an alleged connection with one notorious criminal, Ned Kelly, who actually did work in the same area where the winery was started, but there may be more myth to this claim than reality.

While the story goes on for centuries, one company chose to make the most of a questionable situation and start a winery with this most unusual name. The wine is quite good and the story even better. So even if some of the foregoing is more fiction than total fact, it did cause me to research the name and the discovery of a most interesting time in Australian history. So don’t let your mother tell you drinking wine cannot lead to anything positive.

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