Guest post by Dawn Blume-Hawkes
Folklore has the unique capacity for revelation produced as it is in the stories of the common people, and told, interpreted, and retold over time. It contains a body of traditional, popular, often anecdotal knowledge about a particular subject. It is not difficult to conclude, that although much of folklore is enthralling, nobody knows for sure how much of any given tale is accurate.
One folkloric tale is particularly amusing. It’s peppered with curious incidents and eccentric characters, all against the backdrop of times long ago. What is unusual is that the entire story is woven around a single historic wine. The story is, of course, complete with some of those incredible conjectures that are lore “requisites.” but that’s good old quirky folklore for you.
There is a historic wine whose origin dates from the Middle Ages in Italy called Est! Est!! Est!!! Est is Latin for "it is" or loosely translated as “it’s here!” What a curious name for a wine!
Est! Est!! Est!!! is a wine created in Montefiascone, north of Rome around Lago di Bolsena (Lake Bolsena). This white wine is made from trebbiano and malvasia grapes, but that’s where the facts end and the folklore begins.
Around 1110 C.E., Bishop Johannes di Fugger was traveling from Augsburg to Rome for the coronation of Emperor Henry V. The German was a wine-lover and sent his quartermaster, Martin, a day’s journey ahead to find lodgings that would be suitable for the bishop and also served the best food and wine. Martin was instructed to write the word “Est” on the doors of the inns that measured up to these criteria, but primarily, those that had the finest wine. After arriving at the inn in Montefiascone, he inscribed it three times.
When the good bishop entered the small hilltop village of Montefiascone, overlooking Lake Bolsena, some sixty miles from Rome, he found Est! Est!! Est!!! written above the door of the establishment with the most outstanding wine. And it was true! The wine was so much to the bishop’s liking that he never made it to the coronation, staying in Montefiascone until the end of his days and drinking the fine wine of the town. And he is still there; his tomb can be seen in the Church of San Flaviano (built in1032 and enlarged in the 14th century), with Martin's (by some accounts) inscription.
Est Hic Jo. Defuk Dominus
Meus Mortuus Est'
On account of too much Est Est Est
my master Johannes di Fugger died here.
Who was the traveler? Was he a bishop, or as some accounts of the story identify him, a nobleman and epicurean by the name of Giovanni Defuk on his way to the coronation? Was the bishop (or nobleman) formerly a glutton and an alcoholic or did the wine so inspire and invigorate that it took him away from his duties in Rome?
It is understandable that Italian versions of names are inserted - di Fugger is Defuk and Giovanni replaces Johannes, (although keeping the original given names for each character might have prevented a lapse into “Dickensian” confusion). By some accounts, the name Johannes di Fugger is inscribed on his tombstone. Not having actually viewed the tombstone firsthand, I am not entirely convinced that “tombstones don’t lie.” Demonstrating this point is the disputed inscription: “Est Est Est/Died from too much Est/ May he rest in peace/My Lord Giovanni Defuk.” A bit different from a previous iteration: “On account of too much Est Est Est my master Johannes di Fugger died here’ and “Here lays my lord, as a result of too many Ests.”
In Defuk’s will, he left all his property to the town of Montefiascone with the stipulation that the local inhabitants, on the anniversary of his death, pour a barrel of Est! Est!! Est!!! wine over his tomb in celebration of the recognition he brought to their wine. This custom continued until the town’s bishop specified that instead of wasting the wine, it should go to the local seminary for the benefit of the young priests - which it does to this day.
Minus the original wine ritual, Defuk is still honored with a festival called Fiera del Vino. This festival takes place the ﬁrst ﬁfteen days of August. Hundreds of participants dress in traditional costume representing characters of the period including nobles, soldiers, public officials, pages, ﬂag bearers, and of course, Giovanni Defuk and his servant Martino, aka Martin.
Some observations: While both the names Martin and Martino appear in different accounts of the legend, in the scheme of things, these translational differences are minor. More importantly, what happened to Martin? He seems to simply drop out of the story at some point. If Martin was so inspired to write Est three times, was he also so taken with the wine that he stayed on, as did the bishop? Was it duty or devotion that bound him to his master? Some tellings of the tale say that Martin abruptly left the inn. Some accounts seem to point to the fact that he willingly remained to the end of his days. A sense of duty combined with the extraordinary qualities of the wine may very likely have been too much to resist. In support of this thesis, Martin seems to have written Defuk’s epitaph, and who could have written a more accurate memorial? Then again, perhaps someone else stood in as ghost writer.
Regarding Montefiascone’s bishop ordering that the yearly celebratory wine be given to the local seminary for the benefit of the young priests instead of being poured over di Fugger’s tomb: what exactly was that benefit to those young men of the cloth? Was it the restorative effects of wine in moderation or was it confined to the symbolic use for Holy Communion?
This folk tale, with all its glorious imperfections, shines a bright light on the mysterious and wonderful wine and its extraordinary properties. The yearly festival, Fiera del Vino, gave the town a cherished social event, the travelers, a new life and many hours of enjoyment, and the seminary, a benefit for its functionaries.
A remarkable result for a wine that was a pleasant, crisp uncomplicated beverage enjoyed by all. In the 1970s, the label “Est! Est!! Est!!!” became the ﬁrst wine to be registered under the Registro Nazionale (National Register) of white wines with the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) appellation.
The wine’s folklore has truly elevated it, branded by the catchy phrase, Est! Est!! Est!!! and indicating something that's really extraordinary.