Home > History of Wine > General George Washington’s Curious Case of Constantia Wine

General George Washington’s Curious Case of Constantia Wine


Robert Morris was a wealthy merchant who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution along with a major financier of the Continental Army.  In 1757, he and his business partner Thomas Willing established a successful international business dealing in shipping, real estate, and slavery.  Mr. Morris was a delegate to both Continental Congresses and a member of the Secret Committee of Correspondence.  The committee had the authority to set up an international trade system to procure arms and other goods.[1]  On September 12, 1776 Mr. Morris wrote a letter to Silas Deane, Esquire informing him that the Dutch islands, “at Curracoa M. Isaac Gouverneur will receive & forward Goods for us.”[2]  Isaac Gouverneur was a merchant on the Island of Curacao, located just north of Venezuela, who was appointed Commissary General of the army in the West Indies.

Curacao, Thomas Jefferys, 1775.  Image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

Curacao, Thomas Jefferys, 1775. Image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

Though Mr. Morris and General George Washington corresponded on military matters they appear to have developed a relationship.  On December 30, 1776, Mr. Morris sent a quarter-cask of wine to General George Washington, “Hearing that you are in Want of a Qr Cask of Wine I have procured a good one which Mr Commissary Wharton will send up.”[3]  On January 1, 1777 General George Washington wrote a letter to the Executive Committee of the Continental Congress taking care to include the post script, “My best thanks to Mr Morris for procuring the Qr Cask Wine, which is not yet got to hand.”[4]

A glass wine bottle, marked 'CON STANTIA WYN', South Africa 18th/19th Century. Image from The Spring Classic Sale, Stockholm 574 Bukowskis Market.

A glass wine bottle, marked ‘CON STANTIA WYN’, South Africa 18th/19th Century. Image from The Spring Classic Sale, Stockholm 574 Bukowskis Market.

In December 1777 General George Washington’s army encamped at Valley Forge.  In February 1778, Isaac Gouverneur sent a case of Constantia wine to Mr. Morris with instructions that the wine was to be given to General George Washington.

Dear Sir                        Manheim in Pensylva May 9th 1778

I was honoured with yours of the 27th Ulto which needs no reply, I also rec’d your answer to what I had wrote respecting Colo. Armand & did not think it necessary to trouble you further on that Subject.

In a letter from my Friend Isaac Governeur Esqr. dated Curracoa 11th Feby 1778, which reached me a few days since, is the following paragraph “there is also a small Box Containing one dozn Bottles of Constantia Wine, its made at the Cape of Good Hope is an excellent Stomatick & very refreshing when fatigued its directed to his Excelly Genl Washington & begs his acceptance hopeing he will pardon the Freedom.”

I believe this Box has been landed in North Carolina under the care of Jos. Hewes Esqr. and I will desire him to send it forward by the first safe Conveyance—when I congratulated your Excelly on the great good News lately received from France, you will not expect me to express my Feelings, was I in your Company my Countenance might shew, but my pen cannot express them. Most sincerely do I give you joy, Our Independance is undoubtedly Secured, our Country must be Free & to compleat this Work I most ardently pray, that Victory may be your Handmaid the ensuing Campaign. With the most perfect esteem I remain Your Excellys Obedient hble servt
Robt Morris [5]

Robert Morris was able to trade in wine for in March, 1778 he received at least two letters requesting wine.  That of Chaplain Henry Miller of Colonel Stewart’s Regiment requesting, “enough wine to administer Communion to the members.” [6]   The request of Colonel Matthias Slough was a bit more pressing, “It is with concern indeed I have to mention to you that I have at length found the bottom of my Wine Pipe, so that I have not a drop left to give to my friend.”[7]  Later that spring General George Washington received the case of Constantia wine and wrote a letter thanking both Mr. Morris and Mr. Gouverneur.  I can find no other references to these bottles of Constantia wine.

Valley-forge, May 25, 1778.
Dear Sir

Your favor of the 9th Inst informed me of the acceptable present which your friend Mr Governeur( of Curracoa) was pleased to intend for me and for which he will through you accept my sincere thanks these are also due to you my good sir, for the kind Communication of the matter, and for the trouble you have had in ordering the Wine forward.

I rejoice most sincerely with you on the glorious change in our prospects, Calmness and serenity, seems likely to succeed in some measure, those dark and tempestuous clouds which at times appeared ready to overwhelm us, The game, whether well or ill played hitherto, seems now to be verging fast to a favourable issue, and cannot I think be lost, unless we throw it away by too much supineness on the one hand, or impetuosity on the other, God forbid that either of these should happen at a time when we seem to be upon the point of reaping the fruits of our toil and labour, A stroke, and reverse, under such circumstances would be doubly distressing.

My best respects in which Mrs. Washington joins, are offered to your Lady, & with sincere thanks for your kind wishes, I remain

Dr Sir

Yr Most Obed’t Serv’t

Geo Washington. [8]

Constantia wine has its origins in 1685 when the Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, established his famous vineyard.  By 1709 he had planted some 70,000 vines.  Simon van der Stel died in 1712.  In 1716 the estate was split into three: the original homestead Groot Constantia, de Hoop op Constantia or Klein Constantia (Little Constantia), and Brevliet.  Johannes Colyn ran the two Constantia vineyards simultaneously and with great success.  The Dutch East India Company eventually took notice of this product from their colonies.  In 1761 agreements were made between the Company and Jacobus van der Spuy, owner of Little Constantia, and Lambert Myburgh, owner of Constantia.  They were to sell to the Company two-thirds of all the red and white wine produced.  For Little Constantia the price was set at 31l. 5s. per legger of red white and 15l. 12s. 6.d for white wine.  The remaining one-third of the wine could be sold to whomever at any price.  Between 1772 and 1780 Cape wine was sent every year to the Netherlands. During this period annual exports averaged 15 leggers of Constantia wine and 93 leggers of common wine.[9]  In 1777 there was a severe drought preventing the export of any wheat but some Constantia wine was still sent.

The Dutch Coloony of the Cape of Good Hope. Louis Delarochette, 1795. Image from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

The Dutch Coloony of the Cape of Good Hope. Louis Delarochette, 1795. Image from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

In 1771 Bernardin de Saint-Pierre visited the cellar and vineyard of Constance (Constantia).  In the cellar he saw 30 regularly spaced casks called alverames.  Each one contained about 90 pints of wine.  A typical vintage produced 200 casks.  The red wine sold for 35 piastres per alverame and the white wine for 30 piastres.  Bernadin de Saint-Pierre was informed that a portion of the wine was sold to the Company.  The vineyard was planted with Muscadine trained as bush-vines and some other varietal.  The fruit was harvested when the berries were half-preserved by the sun.  The other varietal was very sweet and used to produce an extravagantly priced cordial, presumably Constantia.  Bernadin de Saint-Pierre notes that Little Constance has the same vineyard stocks and farming practices but it had deteriorated.  The wine was inferior and sold for 12 piastres per alverame. [10]  Lieutenant James Cook had the same impression in April 1771. [11] Writing in April 1772, Andrew Sparrman notes that white Constantia was made at Little Constantia and red Constantia was produced at Constantia.  Of the total production of white and red Constantia the Company kept one-third.  There were 90 figgars of white Constantia produced annually as compared to 60 figgars of red Constantia.  A figgar is approximately 600 French pints.  The red Constantia was the most expensive selling at 60 rixdollars per half awin with the white Constantia cheaper.  Common white wine cost 10-70 rixdollars per figgar.  He goes on to note that the “genuine Constantia wine is undeniably a very racy and delicate desert wine, and has something peculiarly agreeable in the flavour of it…the fact is, that the genuine wine can only be produced by certain particular soils.”[12]

By 1778 the Constantia vineyard had fallen into disrepair.  Hendrik Cloete focused on capital investment and energy into improving the estate and the wine.  Francois Le Vaillant visited the vineyards of Constantia between 1781 and 1784.  He notes that Mr. Cloete was an owner.  A demi-haam of 80 bottles sold for 35-40 piastres but by his departure they sold for more than 100 piastres per demi-haam.  Whether it was the disruption from the Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) or the rise in quality is not specified.  I suspect it was the former for Hendrik Cloete wrote that no Constantia wine was sent in 1782 due to the war.[13]  Francois Le Vaillant continued that in the last seven or eight years the wines of Little Constantia had finally equalled that of Constantia and most recently had surpassed it.  The wines of Little Constantia reached the best prices at the Company sales.  As the two vineyards were only separated by a hedge  it was the management that distinguished the wines.

It is possible but unlikely that General George Washington was familiar with Constantia wine for it appears to be an uncommon wine.  There is no mention of Constantia wine in The Pennsylvania Gazette  though Commander James Child sold Cape wine in 1750.[14] I find no mention of Constantia wine nor Cape wine in the index of the Virginia Gazette for 1736-1780.[15]  There is one 18th century instance of Constantia wine being transported to Philadelphia.  In May 1774 the British merchant ship Severn heading from Bristol to Philadelphia sank off the coast of Delaware.  Discovered in 2004, the wreckage contained wine bottle fragments including the glass seal bearing “CON STANTIA WYN …”.  A complete bottle with a similar seal “CON  STANTIA WYN” was found in the 1940s by a diver exploring off of Stockholm.  Upon his death the bottle was bequeathed to the Historical Musem of Wine and Spirits in Stockholm where it was dated to the 1790s.  Both of these bottles have been attributed to Groot Constantia.  Constantia wine was available in London during this period.  In November 1779 Mr. Skinner auctioned off  “SEVEN CASKS of excellent CONSTANTIA WINE…of Captain CHARLES MEARS, a Bankrupt, late Commander of the Egmont East-Indiaman.” [16]  Sixteen years later in March 1795, Messrs. Greenwoods sold it by the bottle.  They had gotten hold of a small consignment imported in 1789 and 1790 by a gentleman from the East-Indies.[17]  It is possible that some Constantia wine made it to the American Colonies by way of English ship.  There is no evidence that Thomas Jefferson ever purchased or drank Constantia though he mentioned Cape wine in 1788.[18]  How the case of Constantia wine got to Curacao is a mystery.  The wine was sent from the Cape to the Netherlands in casks for sale so it is possible the wine was bottled in Europe. It is likely it followed the route of a Dutch East India ship from the Cape of Good Hope to the Netherlands followed by a Dutch West India ship to Curacao.  Or perhaps some other merchant ship.

The case of wine sent to General George Washington was simply identified as “Constantia Wyne”.  The early writers were careful to distinguish between Constantia and Little Constantia as the two true sources of Constantia wine.  At first inspection it appears that General George Washington may have received a case of Constantia wine from Constantia.  However, this may not be the case.  In 1772, Andrew Sparrman notes that the quantities of Constantia wine consumed in Europe exceeded what was produced by the two estates and that even in the Cape one had to be careful about drinking the true wine.  David Collins noted that in 1787  the only wine they could taste in bottle was Constantia wine.  He found it had “a very fine, rich, and pleasant flavour, and is an excellent cordial” but much of what is sold under the name was never made from the Constantia vineyards.[19]  A clue lives with Johan Splinter Stavorinus, Esquire who visited Constantia and Little Constantia in 1774.  He writes that the Company maintained the exclusive right to sell the Constantia wine and also use the name.  In response people sold an inferior wine known as “maag or stomach wine”. [20]  Hendrik Cloete writes in 1789 that as of 1780 the sellers of maagwijn (stomach wine) after selling one leaguers of wine to the Company, could sell the rest at any price whereas that of Constantia and Little Constantia were limited to a fixed price.[21]  Hendrik Cloete also notes that there was a great difference between stomach-wine and Constantia wine.[22]

Isaac Gouvernour describes the Constantia wine as “an Excellent Stomachick and Very Refreshing when Fatigued.”  Stomachicks originated in the mid 17th century as an agent to improve digestion and increase appetite.  In 1676 a type of green apple cider was recommended as a “stomach wine”. [23]  Stomach wine continues to appear in publication throughout the 18th century, such as an aid in withdrawing from a course of opium [24] or a diet-drink for chronic cases [25].  The recommended stomach wines were comprised of cider, wine, infusions with wine, and compositions with wine made over many days.  It seems likely then that Constantia wine received by General George Washington was not true Constantia but the lesser sort. It was recommended as a stomachick by Isaac Gouvernour because he had sent on stomach wine which was the common name for the inferior wine not sourced from the two Constantia vineyards.

[1] Secret Committee of Correspondence/ Committee for Foreign Affairs, 1775-1777. URL:http://history.state.gov/milestones/1776-1783/SecretCommittee Last Accessed: 03 July 2013.

[2] Collections of the New York Historical Society, Volume 19.  New York, 1886.

[3] To George Washington from Robert Morris, 30 December 1776. URL:http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0384 Last Accessed: 03 July 2013.

[4] From George Washington to the Executive Committee of the Continental Congress, 1 January 1777. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0395 Last Accessed: 03 July 2013.
[5] To George Washington from Robert Morris, 9 May 1778. URL:http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0078 Last Accessed: 03 July 2013 .
[6] Henkels, Stan V. The Confidential Correspondence of Robert Morris, the Great Financier of the Revolution. Catalogue No. 1183.  Philadelphia, 1917.
[7] Historical Papers and Addresses of the Lancaster County, Volume 24, No. 1.  The New Era Printing Company, Lancaster, 1920.
[8] From George Washington to Robert Morris, 25 May 1778. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0223 Last Accessed: 03 July 2013 .
[9] Theal, George McCall.  History of South Africa Under the Administration of the Dutch East India Company, Volume 2.  London, 1897.
[10] de Saint-Pierre, Bernardin.  A voyage to the Isle of Mauritius, the Isle of Bourbon, The Cape of Good-Hope, &c. London, 1775.
[11] Hawkesworth, John.  “Lieutenant Cook’s Voyage”, An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of his Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, Volume III. London, 1773
[12] Sparrman, Andrew. A voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 1. London, 1785.
[13] Le Vaillant, Francois.  Travel from the Cape of Good-Hope into the Interior Parts of Africa Volume 1. London, 1790
[14] Virginia Gazette. URL:http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/BrowseVG.cfm Last Accessed: 02 July 2013.
[15] The Pennsylvania Gazette; Date: 05-03-1750; Issue: 1116; Page: [4]; Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Early American Newspapers Series 2, 1758-1900 and Selected Historical Newspapers.
[16] Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England), Monday, November 15, 1779; Issue 15 836.
[17] Morning Post and Fashionable World (London, England), Saturday, March 7, 1795; Issue 7207.
[18] Constantia Wine. URL: http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/constantia-wine . Last accessed: 02 July 2013.
[19] Collins, David.  An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales.  London, 1798.
[20] Stavorinus, John Splinter.  Voyages to the East-Indies, Volume II.  London, 1798.
[21] Schutte, G.J. Hendrik Cloete, Groot Constantia and the VOC 1778-1799. Paarl, 2003.
[22] Leibbrandt, H. C. V. Precis of the archives of the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 1. Cape Town, 1905.
[23] The Royal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volume XI. London, 1676.
[24] Jones, John.  The Mysteries of Opium Revealed.  London, 1701.
[25] Quincy, John. Pharmacopoeia Officinalis Extemporanea. London, 1782.

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  1. July 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Fascinating stuff! Thank you for posting this!

  2. Joanne Gibson
    July 22, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Fascinating, thank you!
    However, I’ve been delving into the history of Constantia recently, and I wouldn’t be so quick to write off George Washington’s “Constantia wine” as a “stomach wine”. Born and raised in South Africa, where I make a living as a wine writer, I have only ever known the term “maagwyn” or “stomach wine” to have been used in a derogatory way (the suggestion by Stavorinus that producers CHOSE the term is highly unlikely, but I intend to investigate this further…).
    Personally, I can’t imagine that Isaac Gouverneur would have bothered with the Cape’s inferior “stomach wines” at all, or that Morris would have gone through so much “trouble” to get them to Washington (a man he greatly admired, and to whom he had stressed that the wine procured previously was “a good one”). When Gouverneur describes the Constantia wine as “an Excellent Stomachick”, I think he is genuinely praising its digestive properties rather than suggesting that it isn’t the genuine article.
    And it wouldn’t be the first or last time that Constantia was praised for its medicinal qualities…

    • July 22, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Joanne,
      Thank you very much for reading my post and commenting. These bottles are an interesting subject because if they contained true Constantia then it appears they are the first documented bottles of Constantia to reach American land. I do not know much about the history of maagwijn so Groot Constantia is further researching its use by Hendrik Cloete. From what I have read of 18th century English documentation, stomach-wines were a respected category of wine. It is interesting that the maagwijn/stomach-wine terms are still used in South Africa and have a derogatory connotation. I have not come across an 18th century reference describing Constantia as a stomach-wine or simply beneficial to the stomach in any way, so I’d appreciate any references that you have. For me the careful distinction between Constantia and maagwijn coupled with the fact that Isaac Gouverneur sent the wine from a Dutch colony cast some doubt. I certainly agree it is possible that George Washington received the real thing and that Isaac Gouvernour was simply praising the qualities of the wine. Or Isaac Gouvernour was confused and attributed the name of maagwijn as a quality of Constantia. One of the reasons I write such posts is to solicit responses such as yours so that I may refine or correct the post in the future. Let me know what you find out about Stavorinus, I think the maagwijn itself would make for interesting research.

      Best,
      Aaron

  3. Joanne Gibson
    July 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Hi Aaron, I think this could be a very exciting discovery indeed! Just to clarify: I didn’t mean to imply that the term maagwyn/stomach wine is still in use in South Africa today; it isn’t – probably because most people here share my feeling that it is/was rather unflattering! (i.e. referring to wines drunk for strictly medicinal purposes rather than actual enjoyment…)
    In his Memorials arguing for a price increase for Constantia in the mid 1780s, Hendrik Cloete was outraged that producers of “stomach wine” could trade on the open market and thereby achieve a higher price than the fixed price the Dutch East India Company was paying him and his neighbour, Johannes Nicolaas Colijn at Klein Constantia (the original Klein Constantia, not to be confused with the Klein Constantia we know today). This price had been reached several decades previously by former owners and was now a “trifling sum”, he harrumphed, for “that precious wine, which is so much sought, and liked through the whole world”. (He and Colijn did in fact resort to selling some of their wine privately, for which they got into a great deal of trouble…)
    Given that Curacao was a Dutch colony (like the Cape, which only came under British administration in 1795), I think genuine DEIC-procured Constantia could have been on any DEIC ship that called at the Cape prior to making its way towards South America…?
    Regarding Constantia and the stomach, here’s one little snippet for you from À Rebours, a classic romance written by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884, in which we encounter the neurotic young aristocrat named Jean des Esseintes while he is feeling weak:
    …‘Still I must try and eat something,’ he sighed, – and he proceeded to soak a biscuit in a glass of old JP Cloete, a few bottles of which were still left in his cellar.
    This wine, the colour of slightly burnt onion skins, smacking of old Malaga and port, but with a sugary bouquet of its own and an after-taste of grapes have been condensed and sublimated by burning suns, had often comforted his stomach and given a fillip to his digestion enfeebled by the forced fasts he was compelled to undergo; but the cordial, generally so efficacious, failed of its effect…
    Of course we already all know about Constantia’s “healing powers, on a disappointed heart” (not to mention “colicky gout”) in Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811). And in 1870 Dickens wrote of “the support embodied in a glass of Constantia and a home-made biscuit” in his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I have a couple of other “medicinal” references but all from the 19th rather than 18th century, come to think of it…
    By the way, I’ve been trying to find out a bit more about John Elmslie, first US consul at the Cape (1799-1806). He was married to the daughter (two daughters, in fact!) of a man who had owned (albeit briefly) the property next to Constantia, named Tokai, Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dig up some US Constantia references there? Let’s stay in touch! I’ll DM you my email address… 🙂

  1. July 4, 2013 at 8:02 am
  2. January 21, 2015 at 12:27 pm

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