Florio, Woodhouse, Nelson, & Whitaker
Even a brief history of Marsala would not be complete without mentioning John Woodhouse and Vincenzo Florio. Woodhouse landed at Marsala in 1773, and 'discovered' that the local wine produced in the area, and aged in wooden barrels, tasted similar to the Portuguese "Porto." Eventually, this fortified wine found such success in England that he returned to Sicily in 1796, and became a pioneer in the mass production and commercialization of Marsala wine.
The legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of the Nile, spent a great deal of time in the northwest region of Sicily, between Palermo and Marsala. It was he who introduced Marsala wine to the British Navy as an alternative to Port, and even suggested a regimen of one glass per day.
Joseph Whitaker, a young English entrepreneur and archaeologist, inherited a vast vineyard in Marsala, upon which he founded a "baglio," or typical Sicilian wine estate. From this baglio, Whitaker made a fortune exporting wine to the U.S. and England around the turn of the 19th century. In his later years, Whitaker is known to have bought the island of Mozia, where he founded an archaeological museum and published important studies of Tunisian birds. However, his influence on Marsala's development and economy, even today, cannot be overstated.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Vincenzo Florio, an entrepreneur from Palermo, purchased the Woodhouse wine industry and set out to create his very own vintage, with a more exclusive breed of grapes. During that time, often referred to as la belle epoque, the Florio family were considered one the richest of Italy. They also owned one of the first tuna canneries, from the tonnare (fisheries) of the Egadi Islands, as well as a large fishing vessel that was one of the first to take tuna from Marsala across the Atlantic to New York. Although the family retired from industry after World War I, their name remains one of the largest and most recognizable in Marsala wine production.
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