Lowcountry Rice Wine Edges Toward a Revival

Carolina Gold, South Carolina's prized heirloom rice, is being revived in restaurants and kitchens around the South. But what about the long-extinct tradition of making wine from it? Hanna Raskin on the first attempts to revive Carolina Gold rice wine.

carolina gold rice field

Carolina Gold rice, a lost-and-found Southern food, has come to stand for all that’s true and good about pre-industrial flavors. So venerated is it in contemporary Lowcountry cooking that James Beard award winning Charleston chef Sean Brock famously scooped it into a bowl and included it on a $75 tasting menu. Uptown at The Ordinary, fellow Beard winner Mike Lata turned the rice into pudding and served it after lobster.

But in the days when Carolina Gold was central to the economies of South Carolina and Georgia, creating enormous fortunes for landholders and shaping a slave trade that would forever scar two continents, the long-grain rice wasn’t treated so fastidiously. It was served three times a day in 18th-century plantation households in the form of breads, waffles, soups, fritters, bean salads and seafood stews. Enslaved Africans grew Carolina Gold in their subsistence gardens, using the nutty, chewy rice to pad dishes of trapped game, fish and entrails salvaged from hog butchering sessions.

They also subjected the rice to the same treatment that’s been afforded every grain known to man: They turned it into alcohol.

Almost nothing is known about the production methods of South Carolina rice wine—there’s little to no documented history of the stuff, and to cap off the obscurity, the crop itself eventually fell out of favor. When Carolina Gold edged toward extinction in the early-20th century, a victim of crossbreeding and the rage for new, modern rice varieties, Carolina Gold rice wine disappeared along with it. The legendary drink survived only as the inspiration for rice wine spirituals, sacred songs still remembered in remote crooks along the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, which roughly parallels Interstate 95 from Wilmington, N.C. to Jacksonville, Florida.

But last month, Merle Shepard, a Clemson University entomologist and vice-president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation—which supports the repatriation of Carolina Gold and other heirloom grains—came into about 36 bottles of newly made Carolina Gold rice wine. “This may be the first of its kind,” he wrote in an exclamation point-laden e-mail sent to fellow board members.

Just as in the 19th century, this rice wine was produced in a make-do spirit (re: by an unlicensed party), cut with Concord grape juice and aged for about six months. And because federal agents can’t always be charmed by historical significance into bending the law, Shepard doesn’t want to publicly disclose who produced the wine. If the experimental batch impresses the right people, though, he foresees a future of successful commercial sales based upon Carolina Gold’s recent revival.

Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills—the Columbia, S.C.-based company that led the charge to return Carolina Gold, amongst other grains, from a few saved seeds to a viable crop—emphasizes that wine isn’t the only rice-based spirit on the horizon. Since planting his first Carolina Gold rice fields in 1998, Roberts (who created the foundation) has dreamed of jumpstarting a robust culinary culture with rice at its core. He wants to drink not only Carolina Gold rice wine, but Carolina Gold rice beer and Carolina Gold rice whiskey.

While half a dozen brewers across the country have started fooling around with sake (Japan’s legendary rice-based wine), only one operation—Austin-based Texas Sake whose Whooping Crane wine medaled twice in competition—announced plans to use locally grown rice, but personal health issues forced the company’s closure in June.

Could Carolina Gold rice provide the push needed to establish a U.S. rice wine industry? Sonoko Sakai, a Japanese food culture advocate and cooking instructor, who first poured the wine for sake experts in Los Angeles, says her peers weren’t persuaded.

Sakai points out that the rice prized for sake production in Japan isn’t everyday eating rice, so using Carolina gold rice for wine may be at odds with the goal of mainstreaming the glorified grain. It’s also difficult to judge its suitability for wine without testing different levels of polishing, or the milling down of rice husks that determines sake classification; “that changes the whole equation,” Sakai says. She also suggests taking the grape juice out of the blend. “That threw us off, because you don’t really taste the rice,” she says. “It’s like bad plum wine. But it’s fun; it’s exciting. I just think more experimentation is necessary.”

University of South Carolina professor David Shields, who functions as the Watson to Roberts’ Holmes, says the taste of antebellum Carolina Gold rice wine isn’t addressed by historical record. “But we know what it looked like,” he said at the tasting of the faintly straw-colored, clear wine. “It looked like this,” he said referring to Shepard’s bottles.

Having grown up in Japan, Shields is a longtime sake aficionado: He collects sake cups, and when work takes him to big cities, he plots his itineraries around sake shop visits. So it makes sense for Shields to structure his expectation around the world’s most enduring rice wine tradition, even if sake’s defining koji mold never touches Carolina Gold grains. The cross-cultural treatment is an enduring reflection of the restless conditions that defined the Lowcountry’s heyday, when ships bound for Europe were pulling out of Charleston harbor daily to make way for schooners laden with Indian spices and Portuguese madeira.

Today, without tasting notes or recipes to guide them, the Carolina Gold rice team can’t exactly replicate the region’s original rice wines in the way that, say, crème de violette and Navy-strength gin have been conjured for the current century. But in the process of playing with flavors, much as the first Carolina Gold rice growers did, they’re forcefully demonstrating the value of an heirloom grain and connecting with the past in a way that brings to life an almost-lost Southern tradition.