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Archive for June, 2018

Grape clusters on the 18th c. frieze of The Circus, Bath

In Bath, England, between The Royal Crescent and Queen Square, lies The Circus.  The Circus is a completely circular formation of homes punctuated by only three streets at regular angles.  Designed by John Wood the Elder and built by John Wood the Younger, the three arcs were built in phases between 1754-1768.

There is no variation to the fronts of the houses, they are all three stories tall representing three orders Roman Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.  The frieze of the Doric entablature is decorated with 525 emblems including grapes.  In this instance, a vine with two grape clusters supported by a tree trunk, is shown centered above one pair of columns.

Carved grape cluster of the temple at The Roman Baths, England

The lost pediment and Gorgon’s head from the Temple of Sulis Minerva at The Roman Baths in England, carved in the first century AD, were discovered in 1790.  Additional pieces were revealed in the centuries since.  Today these pieces are installed in a subterranean room at the museum of The Roman Baths.  The pediment was originally supported by four large columns, raising it some 15 meters above the height of any visitors. Found amongst the surviving cornices are a carved cluster of grapes.  A detail of these grapes appears below.

Gilded brass medallion depicting grapes from the ocean liner Normandie, circa 1935

Szabo, Adalbert. “Medallion depicting grapes from the Normandie.” About 1935. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style. V&A Museum, London.

I took this image of a striking gilded-brass medallion at the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  It is one of twelve medallions, designed by Adalbert Szabo, that adorned each pair of doors leading to the first-class private dining rooms aboard the ocean liner Normandie.  The main first-class dining room was immense, some 305 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 28 feet tall.  However, flanking the main dining room, were four smaller, private dining rooms on each side.

Madeira in Early America, The dinner party

Discussing the history of wine is thirsty work.  After completing our breakout sessions and the walk around tasting for The Stanford Wine Society, it was time for dinner.  Back in San Francisco a handful of us gathered at a round table to refresh with a glass of NV Laurent-Perrier, Champagne Brut Cuvee Grand Siecle.  Grand Siecle is a blend of three vintages, the exact set unknown to us, but based on the label we know this was released in the 1980s.  From an English cellar, this is robust, lively wine with mature flavors and the core to persist for a number of years.

Carried over from England, the 2011 Arnaud Ente, Meursault La Seve du Clos is the most engaging and impressive wine of the evening.  Impeccable and easy to drink, this is the first wine I have found such level of flavor from a small sip.  The aromas, flavors, and mouth feel engage multiple senses.

A lack of vintage label invoked a study of Clape label styles to arrive at a backet of mid 1980’s vintages for our first red wine.  After tasting, those of more experience narrowed down to 1984 [believed] Auguste Clape, Cornas.  The nose is gorgeous, the palate gentle.

We met fate with our pair of 1989 Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve and 1990 Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve.  The former in fine condition but the sea spray aromas on the later 1990 indicated an off bottle.  The 1989 is all pure framboise with texture.

Of the final pair, the 1991 August Clape, Cornas first overshadowed the 1999 Noel Verset, Cornas.  The Clape is a deep, dense, flavorful wine from the start such so that I first finished my glass before moving.  Upon settling down with the Verset, I was impressed by how well it responded to air.  This is a wine with strong potential, the young flavors are tense with energy and the old-school note speaks of interesting complexity yet to come.

NV Laurent-Perrier, Champagne Brut Cuvee Grand Siecle
Imported by The Rare Wine Co. Alcohol 12%. 1980s release.  A mature color with a fine, textured nose.  Initially a robust wine with a fine cut of acidity and yeasty streak.  Lively, with both chalk and a core of fruit followed by plenty of presence through the finish.  The mature flavors are up front, coating the mouth and taking on sweetness with air.  **** Now – 2028.

2011 Arnaud Ente, Meursault La Seve du Clos
The very light color belies the aromatic nose of sweet, floral aromas, and tropical fruit.  In the mouth is a bright start with the body immediately developing and coming out to fill the mouth.  An almost inky finish brings a toast note.  The balance is impeccable and the effortless concentration is impressive.  Flavors of lemon, with a tart hint on the sides of the tongue, mix with fat and long-last acidity.  One really needs just a small sip to enjoy all the wine has to offer.  Gorgeous.  ****(*) Now – 2028.

1984 [believed] Auguste Clape, Cornas
Imported by The Rare Wine Co.  A gorgeous nose of vintage perfume, flowers, earthy hints, and menthol freshness.  In the mouth are gently sweet flavors of red fruit.  There is concentration and the citric grip is structured from the middle through the finish.  The fruit flavors are mostly up front and of tart, red flavors meaning the nose is the star of this wine.  ***(*) Now.

1989 Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve
Pure, aromatic fruit on the nose followed by framboise in the mouth.  The flavors turn a touch tart with air but they are pure, clean, and in plenitude.  There is plenty to perceive as well, fine berries with texture, evocative of seeds, minerals, and even structure.  Lovely.  **** Now – 2023.

1990 Chateau Rayas, Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve
Not quite right on the nose, sea spray.  In the mouth are slightly short red fruit flavors, sharper fruit, and a tart middle.  Grippy on the tongue with plenty of grip and extract.  Clearly an off bottle but enough going on that you could drink around it as a mid-week wine.  Shame!  Not Rated.

1991 August Clape, Cornas
Imported by The Rare Wine Co. Alcohol 12.5%.  Slightly textured, animale, dense and flavorful.  The fruit is not bright, rather dense and deep in flavor.  Fine polished wood and a deep, meaty end wrap things up.  **** Now – 2028.

1999 Noel Verset, Cornas
Alcohol 12.5%. Lot 1.  A greater purity to the red fruit.  There is still structure but the grapey tension and resolution with time only makes the wine more attractive.  Delicate yet greatly flavored with an old-school note.  This bottle shows strong potential.  ****(*) Now – 2033.

Madeira in Early America, Part 4

This is the final of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

India Madeira in America

During the Revolutionary War, the British blockaded the major ports of Boston and Charleston. In response the Continental Congress economically boycotted Great Britain which included a ban on the import of Madeira wine. Madeira shipments to America plummeted so the Madeira houses sought to make up this deficit in part by expanding trade to India and China. The share of Madeira sent to this eastern market rose to nearly half of the entire trade. During the ocean voyages the holds of these ships, with the pipes of Madeira inside of them, could reach temperatures as high as 120F. It was soon found that this India Madeira was favorably improved.

The American India trade began in 1783, when the ship United States of Philadelphia set sail for China but first stopped at Madeira. Pintard boarded the ship within half an hour of it weighing anchor. He invited the Captain, Supercargo, and Surgeon to stay at the house of Searle where he resided. He was also a relative and employed at the house. The director of the house convinced the captain that a better price would be obtained for any Madeira sold in India rather than China. Some two weeks later the United States left Madeira for India with a cargo of 125 pipes of Madeira from John Searle & Co.

The journey of the United States to Pondicherry and back to Philadelphia took an extraordinary long time with many lives lost to scurvy. The majority owner was in financial difficulties as a result, causing the ship and cargo to be auctioned off just to pay the wages. There was then the question of the debt to John Searle & Co. With only one-fifth of the Madeira bill paid the matter was turned over to attorneys, the results of which are unknown. This was not the last issue for the Searles.

Pintard wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784 that the house of John Searle & Co. had “Vast connections in the India trade”. In 1786, when the British East India Company looked for a Madeira supplier for their colonies in India, the house of John Searle & Co won the very first bid. The Searle’s were soon extensively involved in the India Madeira trade.

The trade with India and China could yield immense profits but the early Madeira trade was not without its risks both for the owners of the ships with their cargoes and the Madeira shippers. Across several documents we learn the fate of the John Jay and General Washington, two ships, under different owners, which both set sail for the Far East in December 1788. The General Washington was to carry a cargo valued between of £10,000 to £12,000 worth of which 1/8 would be Madeira taken on board en route. Both ships loaded up with Madeira from John Searle & Co of which more than 120 casks of various sizes were on the General Washington alone.

Upon arriving in India, the supercargo of the General Washington found that they had “the misfortune to find a great imposition in the quality of our wines which has proved a ruinous affair to the whole Voyage”. There was a series of small and unexceptional vintages from 1785-1788 which appear to have caused the Searle’s to overextend themselves. The General Washington was forced to sell the first portion at “a very low cost” for goods instead of money then the rest were sold off in China. It did not help that the market was glutted with wine. The cargo of the John Jay was mostly Madeira which they were forced to sell off in Madras, Batavia, and Bombay. Both ships wrote letters of protest to support their legal cases against Searle whose failure was announced in American newspapers in 1793 and 1794.

Pintard had left Madeira in 1786 only to return in 1790 as Consul. Experienced in the India Madeira trade under the Searle’s, he created his own business and it is he who shipped four pipes of Knox’s Madeira via India. There were accompanied by two pipes for Washington. This was in fact the second order of India wine being sent to Washington. Both of which arrived within months of each other. This new type of Madeira was no doubt rare. Neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison ever received India wine. Pintard acknowledged this unusual order suggesting “Should you not think proper to take the pipe that is gone to India” then it could be sold to someone else.

The timing of these orders is not by accident for in 1793, France declared war against Great Britain. The British tolerated this American trade because they did not want the Americans to reactivate their alliance with France. The Jay Treaty avoided war between Great Britain and America by recognizing American neutrality in the wars with France. It also allowed formalized American trade to both the West and East Indies. The treaty was passed in 1795, the same year that the new ship Ganges picked up the pipes of Madeira destined for Washington and Knox.

The cost of the London Particular Madeira was the same but it is the freight which made these wines expensive. The freight charges for the first India pipe was £15 compared to the £3 3s direct from Madeira. That made one pipe of India wine £55 compared to £39 13s for London Particular direct. The freight for the second two pipes came to just over £33 each. These pipes of India Madeira cost a staggering £71 each, not regarding duties and drayage.

The freight for Knox’s pipes was £20 each compared to £33 each for Washington. The former were simply “cased” whereas the later were in “dble cases”. In order to prevent the theft of such expensive wine, the pipes or casks themselves were often placed inside a larger wooden case. Washington once had a pipe of Madeira entirely replaced with water so he subsequently cased his wines. For this shipment he was exceedingly cautious as he placed his Madeira inside two increasingly larger cases. Madeira typically shipped in 110 gallon pipes. Knox’s single case raised the volume to approximately 196 gallons each. Washington’s double cases would have occupied over 320 gallons each.

George Washington was willing to pay such extraordinary prices not only because Madeira “one of the most expensive liquors” but that old Madeira “is not to be had upon any terms”. Keenly aware of the scarcity of his India wine he instructed that the duties be paid “for the whole quantity” of the double cases rather “than have them uncased for the purpose of measuring the” present contents. He did not want to risk the wines stolen or adulterated.

The India Madeira for Knox and Washington arrived during the summer of 1796. Knox was notified of the arrival of his wine and that it would be stored until directed otherwise. Seven months later he received another letter explaining that the bill remained unpaid. He was given just five days to pay the outstanding $922, a huge bill given that he made $3000 per year as Secretary of War. We do not know what happened with the wine. Knox had moved back to Maine, where several of children passed away and he had engaged in failing business enterprises.

George Washington wanted his old India Madeira “reserved..for my own use when I get home” as it was “not easy to be replaced”. It was in March of 1797 that George Washington retired from his Presidency and returned to Mount Vernon. According to his Household Account books, that very same month he paid the duties on the two pipes of Madeira as well as the drayage. George Washington’s personal goods were shipped from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon so there is a bill of lading. It is noted in the margin, ”No. 21.22. Two pipes Meda. Wine not mentioned in the No. of Casks-“. George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon where he drank the last glass just months before passing away in 1799. Pintard became disgraced by consular affairs that year and departed the Island. In doing so he closed this early trade in India Madeira with America.


[1] Arrowsmith, Aaron. Composite: Map of India. 1804. David Rumsey Map Collection.  URL: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~233589~5514095:Composite–Map-of-India-?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort%2CPub_Date%2CPub_List_No%2CSeries_No#

Madeira in Early America, Part 3

This is the third of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

Descriptions of Madeira

Color is the first aspect one notices of wine in a glass. A desirable color was of such importance that a wine merchant wrote to George Washington in 1760 that his cask of Madeira had a “Color we have endeavored Carefully to please you.” Merchants were not simply picking casks of a particular color, they were coloring the wines. Benjamin Franklin received a case of wine split between “high coloured or Madeira Wine” and “pale Wine”. It was even recommended that cyder be colored for “It will add Greatly to its beauty to have it a little coloured”. Contemporary to James Madison’s orders was Thomas Jefferson’s receipt of a “half Pipe Natural Sherry” and a half pipe “Sherry with Color”. The “Natural Sherry” was without “color or any additives”.

There is but one example of the actual color of Madeira from this period. George Washington received three year old “very choice Particulr Madeira Wine” that was “of a fine Amber Colour”. This description matches an advertisement in New York City for similarly aged Madeira and is distinct from “old pale” Madeira. The implication is that the Amber wine was more colorful. James Madison preferred Madeira that was “rather of the deeper colour”. A later order of Madeira was also described as “of a very deep colour”.

I can find no descriptions of body in the James Madison’s papers. We know that George Washington requested a “rich oily Wine” for one of his Madeira orders. Thomas Jefferson later wrote of “silky Madeira” that was made by “putting a small portion of Malmsey into the dry Madeira.”

Though this mixture was made famous by Jefferson we also find it in a letter from John Drayton written several decades earlier. Drayton was a chief Justice of South Carolina and a wealthy planter who built the Palladian mansion Drayton Hall which still exists on the Ashley River near Charleston. He wrote to his merchant Newton-Gordon in 1771 that he wanted “a couple of pipes of the best madeira for my use, of the finest flavor. Silkey-soft & smooth upon the palate — no ways ruff, sweetish & a little more Malmsey in it than usual.” Drayton regarded the silky character as highly important. His 28 Pound Sterling Madeira is described as “a silky fine flavoured wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” I take that to mean 10 points, hopefully out of 10. That Drayton scored his wine may not be so unusual for he made his fortune from rice which was rated according to the quality of its milling.

I mentioned before how Madison liked to finish aging his Madeira in his garret. The term “mellow” appears in the 1780s to describe the Madeira stored by Americans in “the tops of the houses”. At the same time it was acknowledged in a committee meeting about providing the best investment for returning British East India ships, that Madeira mellowed from the long journey in the hot holds. Despite this early acknowledgement, it was not until after the end of the War of 1812, when it became more common for wine to travel from Madeira to India or China before returning to America, did the term become more frequent. In fact it became synonymous with wine from that trade route.

Up Next: India Madeira in America


[1]  Mallet, Allain Manesson.  Description de l’univers. 1683. URL: https://archive.org/details/descriptiondelun03mall

Madeira in Early America, Part 2

This is the second of four posts based on my talk presented to The Stanford Wine Society in April of this year.

Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746). (1)

How It Was Aged

James Madison was very specific when it came to the handling of Madeira for he desired to achieve a particular flavor. He preferred to age his Madeira in cask for at least five years. When he received an order of Madeira he was sure to let the cask remain stationery for quite some time. This allowed all of the lees or dead yeast cells to settle on the bottom. As an alternative to waiting, many people would fine their wines to remove the lees. This usually involved putting an ingredient into the cask to help bind the lees together so they would settle down on the bottom.

One correspondent noted his wines were frequently spoiled in finning. His preferred method was to pour a pint of milk into the cask. After agitating the cask the top third of the cask would be clear in one week and the bottom would be clear in two weeks. The correspondent drank his wine from the cask for it was “milder than when bottled” and that bottled wine “has a sediment which often fouls the wine.”

Madison did not drink his Madeira straight from cask. After letting the cask age and settle he preferred to bottle the Madeira for further aging. He felt that this was the ideal “mode of compleating its flavour.” He wrote that “wine is said to attain its perfection best by lying 5 or 6 years in Cask, and then going into bottles and kept throughout in warm situations.” Madison found that a particular parcel of Madeira which he had bottled then stored in the garret or attic for 18 months had become “exquisite”.

It is curious as to when people first started storing their Madeira, not in the cellar, but in the attic or garret. I thought, at first, that this tradition might have come from such Madeira loving cities as Charleston. Located on the water, many existing 18th century houses do not have basements due to the high water level. However, the earliest reference I can find comes from Sir Hans Sloane, the famous naturalist whose immense collection formed the backbone of The British Museum. Sir Sloane wrote in 1707, “Madera Wines have this particular to them, different from French Wines, and all others coming hither, that it keeps better in a hot Place, and expos’d to the Sun, than in a cool Cellar”.

Philadelphia was a great Madeira city where houses contained both cellars and garrets. We know from probate inventories that during our period of interest, of houses with cellars, ¼ kept liquor and beer down below. Over the same period, of houses with garrets, 1/8 kept liquor and beer in the garret. Elizabeth Drinker, the wife of wealthy merchant Henry Drinker, noted that one fall day in 1804, her husband and his coachmen “have been busy this Afternoon moving a Cask of wine from the Cellar up 2 pr. Stairs, obliged to nearly empty the cask before they could get it up, and then fill it again.” We know from his 1809 inventory that there were “4 demijohns containing wine” up two pairs of stairs. The wine mentioned would be Madeira stored in his garret and I wonder if that’s where he filled the demijohns.

George Washington always stored his Madeira in the cellar of his home at Mount Vernon. However, for one particular order of India Madeira, near the end of his second term as President, he was advised that his recently arrived pipes of Madeira would improve better if left in the counting house above ground than in any cellar. This was a change for Washington for most of his life he had his Madeira drawn from the pipe on a daily basis. By this point you must now wonder what these wines were like.

Up Next: Descriptions of Madeira


[1] Vüe ​​de la ville et de la rade de Funchal capitale de l’ile de Madere, Volume 2 of the “Histoire générale des voyages” of AF Prévost (Paris: Didot, 1746).  Wikicommons. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:V%C3%BCe_de_la_ville_et_de_la_rade_de_Funchal_capitale_de_l%E2%80%99ile_de_Madere_(1746).jpg