The Fox, the Hound & a Bottle of Port

The ritual of toasting with port before a fox hunt dates back to the 17th century and remains an integral part of the modern-day sport. Lora Smith joins a hunt at Tennessee's Blackberry Farm to examine the tradition's roots, as well as the connection between the art of the hunt and the allure of wine.

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On the morning of the hunt our group is treated to one of the first warm days after a particularly harsh winter. Members of the Tennessee Valley Hunt and guests from Blackberry Farm, a luxury hotel in Walland, Tennessee are gathered in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains for the final fox hunt of the season.

Riders wearing tailored red coats, white pants and black equestrian boots are mounted on impeccably groomed quarter horses and thoroughbreds. Anxious hounds dart back and forth in a cluster of amber camouflage. A relaxed morning that began with wine toasts at breakfast several hours ago is now tightening to focus in on the adrenaline rush about to take place. The hounds have their noses to the ground and the horses ears are perked in anticipation as they snort and dance side to side. The crowd’s murmuring hum is punctuated by nervous laughs.

The day’s adventure officially begins with a traditional stirrup cup toast of port, so named for the pewter cup it’s sometimes served in and because riders toast while in their stirrups. It’s a parting tipple with roots in the British Isles where travelers embarking on a long journey were offered “one for the road” as a blessing and farewell. That the hunt and port share an intertwined history seems fitting for a process and sport both defined by meticulous preparation and the element of surprise.

Blackberry’s staff serves two-ounce pours of Niepoort tawny on sterling silver trays that sparkle in the sunlight as they pass through the crowd and are lifted up high to riders. Maybe it’s the port getting to my head, but it’s increasingly hard to decipher whether the mounted rider next to me framed by an Appalachian cantilever barn is surreal, or a perfectly natural sight for an East Tennessee morning. And after tasting my own stirrup cup full of port I’m reconsidering the adage “there are those that ride to hunt and those that hunt to ride,” to include a third category more fitting of me, “those that ride and hunt to drink.”

A kinship is formed in my mind between the huntsman and the winemaker in their practice and patience. Both are driven by season and cycle, have a close relationship to the land and are constantly tracking every clue the natural world will give them. Their meticulous process and preparation is bottled into one event, but once that event is opened, it’s the element of unpredictability and surprise that most delights us. The cork is popped. The horn is sounded. And we’re off.

Among the cheers, pleasantries and smiles, the reality of the hunt is looming. Even though I am trailing behind on foot with a walking party of spectators, I am suddenly terrified for the riders.  The lush port is no longer a luxury—it’s required courage for what is coming next. “Part of the reason for having the opening toast is to fortify,” says Blackberry sommelier Andy Chabot. “It makes you a little less nervous to get on a powerful beast and run at breakneck speeds across fields.”

The day before, I attended a seminar for new riders hosted at Blackberry where I crammed facts about the history, sportsmanship and etiquette of fox hunting and sampled port. I learned that a “view halloa” and “whoop” are types of yells used to communicate the action between riders during the hunt and that that the emphasis of the sport is on the chase. A fox is put “to ground” meaning that it is chased back to its den where it escapes.

In the casual swapping of stories between newbies and veteran riders, I am alarmed by the number of mentions of broken bones, black eyes and the occasional lost tooth. The white tucked stock wrapped around the rider’s neck and secured with a stock pin, I’m told, can quickly double as a sling or tourniquet in the event of a rider being thrown for a horse. The athleticism and bravery required of the hunter is more linebacker and less genteel dandy prancing about on a high-strung pony.

But I still wasn’t prepared for the rush I got after the port glasses are collected and the opening horn was sounded. Exhilarating and intoxicating I immediately understood why Carla Hawkinson—Blackberry Farm’s Equestrian Program Manager and the Master of Foxhounds for the Tennessee Valley Hunt—assured me that the hunt, like port, “gets in your blood.”

Port’s role in the ritual of fox hunting is traceable to England’s declaration of war on France in 1678. A failed diplomatic relationship meant a shortage of wine for the Brits. Having longstanding alliances with Portugal, the English helped established trading companies in Oporto to ship fortified wines from the Douro Valley winemaking region. In 1703, the passing of the Methuen Treaty allowed the import of port at a low duty, further solidifying its role in English wine culture. Throughout the 18th century, port would continue to fill supply gaps during embargoes, building wealth for the two countries. In fact, port became so popular that during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, French and Spanish forces strategically invaded the Douro winemaking region to deliver a blow to England’s trade interests and hurt the economies of both countries.

Fox hunting remained a staple of rural culture in England for centuries, but in 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair banned hunting with dogs after receiving considerable pressure from animal welfare groups. However, traditional hunts continue both legally, with the provision that the hounds follow an artificial scent, and in some cases illegally with passionate sportsman unwilling to give up their long-held tradition.

Fox hunting made its way to America in the colonial era with the earliest record of English hounds being imported to the U.S. dating to 1650. By the early 1700s, fox hunting was gaining in popularity among the aristocracy in Virginia, Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic colonies. George Washington was an avid fox hunter and wrote warmly about the sport in his diaries. The sport remains popular throughout the Southeast with hunting clubs in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, among others. While port is still upheld as the traditional drink of the hunt, through story and film I found that the contents of the fox hunter’s flask, a sanctioned piece of apparel, are sometimes replaced with local moonshine or whiskey. Whatever it takes to fortify the spirit and keep riders warm during a season that spans from early fall to the last days of winter.

During the day’s hike, following the sounds of hounds, galloping hoofs and horns, a kinship is formed in my mind between the huntsman and the winemaker in their practice and patience. Both are driven by season and cycle, have a close relationship to the land and are constantly tracking every clue the natural world will give them. Their meticulous process and preparation is bottled into one event, but once that event is opened, it’s the element of unpredictability and surprise that most delights us. The cork is popped. The horn is sounded. And we’re off, letting go on a sensory journey, chasing after something as elusive and beautiful as terroir.

The last hunt of the season saw no fox going to ground. But the hounds did pursue their quarry that sent the experienced riders galloping to the highest peak of the mountain and back down again. It was enough excitement to ensure good hunting stories would be swapped at the season’s closing dinner held at the Barn at Blackberry Farm later that evening.

While glasses of wine clinked among newly bonded friends in celebration, the Club’s Professional Huntsman walked alone through the dimming Tennessee hills calling the hounds back home in preparation for next season.

A Foxhunter’s Toast
by Carla Hawkinson, Master of Foxhounds

To endless years of hounds’ sweet cry
To thundering hooves, and foxes sly.
We raise a glass to the life we love
For grass below and sky above.
To friendships forged on ridge and valley
When going is deep, yet hounds still rally.
To outreach hands, when we meet the earth,
To reckless laughter, wind and turf.
To the horn that calls us all back home
To aching muscles, weary bone.
God bless this hunt and every friend
May hounds run ever o’er this land…

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