ph. Davide d'Amico
Long considered by many consumers as, at best, cooking wine or grandma’s secret tipple, Marsala, the famous Sicilian fortified wine, is finally undergoing a ‘renaissance.’ Perfect for starting or finishing a meal, Marsala can be served chilled as an aperitif or at room temperature with dessert or cake. At its finest, Marsala is dry or off-dry and, whether aged in wooden barrels or through the solera process (fractional aging), its colours, flavours and aromas, much like the island it comes from, are complex. Sicily, with its perfect climate and volcanic soil, has been growing grapes and producing wine since ancient Greek and Roman times, but it was two Englishmen and an Italian who put Marsala on the map outside its insular confines.
In 1773, blown off course in a storm, English trader John Woodhouse (1748–1826) took shelter in Marsala, a small town about 30 kilometres from Trapani and the port where Garibaldi would, in 1860, land with his 1,000 troops. There he tasted the local wine, called Vino Perpetua (Perpetuum), which was aged in wood for decades, with only a portion siphoned off and bottled, the casks topped up with new must. He soon realised he had stumbled on a highly profitable competitor for Madeira wine, then so popular in England. He knew that if it were fortified, it would not only travel better by sea but be a much cheaper alternative than its Portuguese rival. So he bought an old tannery in the town and converted it into a winery, the Baglio Woodhouse. His business flourished so much that, in 1800, he signed a lucrative convention with Horatio Nelson to supply his ships with Marsala.
Woodhouse’s gold mine could not fail to attract others. Among them was Benjamin Ingham (1784–1861) who arrived in Sicily in 1806 at age 22. He was there to represent his family’s firm, cloth merchants from Leeds, but he was also on the lookout for trading interests of his own. In 1812, to Woodhouse’s fury, Ingham set up a winery just down the road from his. The newcomer was quick not only to introduce agricultural and oenological innovations but also to open up new markets for Marsala in Europe and the Americas. By the 1830s and 1840s, Ingham had become the wealthiest man in Sicily—by then importing and exporting, along with Marsala, olive oil, citrus fruit and sulphur, using his own fleet of ships to transport the merchandise.
The third of the ‘Marsala kings’ was a Sicilian, Vincenzo Florio (1799–1868), who was simultaneously Ingham’s adversary in the wine business and associate in other money-making ventures, among them the Anglo-Sicilian Sulphur Company. In 1832, he purchased the land between Woodhouse’s and Ingham’s wineries and opened his own winery, which, after a difficult start, focused on the excellence of the product. He, too, invested in shipping to transport his wine.
All three men—Woodhouse, Ingham and Florio—became very rich. But only Ingham became a full-scale tycoon. A parsimonious, ruthless and irascible man who had been jilted twice in his younger days, Ingham waited until middle age and after 15 years of cohabitation to marry Alessandra Spadafora, Duchess of Santa Rosalia, a frisky, widowed, sharp-tongued mother of four who was nearly six years his senior. She introduced him into the top echelon of Sicilian society, whose respect Ingham elicited by lending money (at seven percent interest), and he was made baron of Manchi and Scala. Suspicious of anyone except his own family, he built an entrepreneurial dynasty with the help of five of his nephews, three of whom died whilst working for him. To ensure that his wife’s sons would not benefit from his trade, he had her sign a prenuptial agreement excluding her and them from any inheritance of his.
In the 1850s, with the help of a member of a New York firm of wine sellers who imported his wine and acted as his investment agent, Ingham poured the profits he made in America into that young country’s booming new economy. He bought up stocks in canal and railway companies and soon owned prime real estate in Manhattan and farmland in Michigan. He also had shares in railway companies across Europe as well as several properties in Paris and innumerable interests in England. In fact, when he died at 76, probably of a heart attack, at his Palermo mansion on March 4, 1861, no will could be found, but his estimated fortune was about £12 million pounds sterling, £8 million pounds in his Italian estate alone. This was a staggering sum of money in 1861, the equivalent of about £26.1 billion today, making him the greatest magnate England had yet known.
Neither Ingham’s wealth nor Woodhouse’s pioneering effort was able to keep their names attached to the product, however. With an annual production of some 50,000 gallons, trade in Marsala peaked around 1870. Tastes were changing. Then, in the early 1900s, a phylloxera epidemic decimated Europe’s vineyards and production of Marsala dramatically declined. In 1927, under Mussolini’s nationalisation policy, the Woodhouse and Ingham wineries were merged with Florio and Co., which had itself been taken over in 1924 by Cinzano. Since 2001, the historic label of Florio, like those of Corvo and Duca di Salaparuta, has been part of the Illva Saronno Holding.