Norfolk Towne Assembly
Wine in Early-19th Century America
New Year’s Eve is upon us. Although it is a time usually associated with champagne and other sparkling wines, we thought we would take this opportunity to investigate what “still,” or non-bubbly wines were imported and consumed in America during the Federal Period. However, before we get into wines, we need to talk a bit about who was drinking them, their cost, and their popularity.
As many of us who are interested in the social history of this era know, the most popular beverage in America, based upon consumption, was cider, followed by beer/ale. In the context of 18th and early-19th language, cider was fermented apple juice. Cider, however, is a subject for future post since today we are talking about wine.
Wine was expensive! Thankfully, the Legislatures of most colonies and states during this period regulated what taverns could charge for their services so it is possible to get a view into what one had to pay for various drinks there. Looking at price lists from taverns in the 18th and early-19th centuries we find that in 1769 Maryland:
Cyder per quart:
Strong beer brewed in this province per quart:
Small beer per gallon:
Strong beer and ale imported from Great Britain in bottles, wired:
Lisbon wine per quart:
Port wine per quart:
Madeira wine per quart:
Claret imported from Great Britain in casks:
Claret imported from Great Britain in bottles:
By 1809, Prices were being reflected in dollars however, as we can see from the New Jersey price list below, wine still was significantly more expensive than Cider or Beer:
Price in $
Cyder per quart:
Strong beer per quart:
Cider in bottles:
American porter in bottles
London porter imported in bottles:
Lisbon wine per quart:
Port winr per quart
Claret wine per quart:
Madeira wine pe quart
As we can see from these examples, wine, which varied over time from 10 to 16 times the price of cider and 6 to 7 times the price of strong beer, would not have been the drink of the “masses” here in North America. Rather, it would have been primarily the drink of the financially well off and social elite. This is not to say that others would not have bought wine to celebrate an especially joyous occasion or drunk it if a gentleman who was celebrating an occasion purchased it for them in a tavern.
In a previous post, we addressed Madeira, the most popular wine among well-to-do gentlemen in America from colonial times up through the mid-19th century. As a result, we will not dwell on it in this article. Instead, we will look at some of the other types of wine that were imported and consumed here in Colonial America and the Early Republic.
The Founding Fathers
While many of us may be aware of Thomas Jefferson’s great love of wine (more on that later), several other Founding Fathers were avid wine drinkers or at least showed interest in wines other than Madeira. John Adams personally touring Bordeaux and later sharing wine with Jefferson in Paris, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. George Washington, well known for his love of Madeira, also greatly enjoyed clarets (the English term for the red wines from Bordeaux) and received many cases of French wines from Jefferson after he was appointed minister to Paris. French generals who served with Washington recorded his love of fine claret at the lively suppers with his officers. Washington’s letters also show that he ordered “Rhenish” or Rhine wine in one-pint tasting bottles.
Much has now been written of Thomas Jefferson, who was early America's most that wine lover Thomas Jefferson, and of how he taught George Washington about French wine. But less is written of the man who taught Jefferson about French wine: Ben Franklin. Franklin, who had a well-deserved reputation as a ladies’ man and bon vivant, loved to drink Champagne. Records show that he had a well-stocked cellar in his Paris residence as early as 1778. Consisting of more than one thousand bottles, these included,
“258 Bottles of Red and White Bordeaux; 15 Bottles of old Bordeaux; 21 Bottles of Champagne; 326 Bottles of Mousseux (bubbly); 113 Bottles of Red Burgundy; and 148 Bottles of Xeres (sherry).”
In his approach to wine, Jefferson is remarkedly modern in the breadth of his tastes. He liked the Reds, the whites, and the Rosés; the dry and the sweet. He expressed a preference for French wines, particularly those of certain Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, and the Rhône regions. Before his journey to France in 1784, Jefferson, like most of his countrymen, had been a consumer of Madeira and port, with the occasional glass of "red wine." As he recalled in 1817, "The taste of this country was artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain." However, under the tutelage of Dr. Franklin, Jefferson was introduced to the fine wines of France and the rest of Europe. It was from this beginning that Jefferson developed a life-long love of fine wines.
Throughout his life, Jefferson had many wine cellars, including at least two at Monticello, one at his father’s house at Shadwell, one at the Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg, at least two at the White House, two in Paris, two in Philadelphia, one in New York, one at Chancellor George Wythe’s house where Jefferson studied law, another at Annapolis where he lived with James Monroe, and one at his octagonal second home, Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, VA.
Although Jefferson was certainly the foremost amateur expert on wines in North America, he was far from a wine snob. Very much like most present-day American wine drinkers, when his favorite Burgundies and Claret (Bordeaux) became too expensive, he switched to the thriftier wines of southern France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. However, Jefferson, and other American wine drinkers faced obstacles that are unknown to us today when trying to stock their cellars as there were no wine shops or wholesalers, although there were wine merchants in some of the major ports.
Shipping was always a big problem. If the wines were sent from Europe at the wrong season, the slow and rough ocean voyages might result in freezing or overheating the wines as they lay in the holds of the 18th and early 19th century sailing ships. Another hazard was the eighteenth-century pirates who sometimes raided ships carrying wine to North America. An even greater threat to wine destined to locations in the interior of our country were what Jefferson referred to as the “rascally boatmen” of the Potomac, James, and other rivers, who tapped the wine barrels, drank much of the wine, and then refilled them with water. Additionally, in order to import wines from Europe one had to almost become an import/export specialist since to order wine, one had to specify in each letter to one’s purchasing agent in Europe, the ship it was to be sent on, the name of the Captain, the ports of exit and entry, how the wine should be packaged, how one would get payment to Europe, and determine and pay the customs duties. In 1815, things were so bad (possibly because of the War of 1812) that Jefferson lamented to a wine merchant that “disappointments in procuring supplies have at length left me without a drop of wine.”
Not one to be undone, Jefferson soon found at least one “native” wine that he was impressed with; wine made from the Scuppernong grape. The name comes from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina in the coastal plain. It was first mentioned as a "white grape" in a written logbook by the Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524. It was first cultivated during the 17th century, particularly in Tyrell County, North Carolina. Isaac Alexander found it while hunting along the banks of a stream feeding into Scuppernong Lake in 1755. The name itself traces back to the Algonquian word ascopo meaning "sweet bay tree."
In 1817, Jefferson gave the state of North Carolina credit for producing "the first specimen of an exquisite wine," Scuppernong, and praised its fine aroma, and crystalline transparency. "Scuppernong" properly refers to a white variety of the muscadine grape, a variety first brought to notice in North Carolina and much cultivated there from the early nineteenth century on. The popularity of the variety has led to the name Scuppernong being used for muscadines in general however, here we shall restrict it to its original reference. The wine that Jefferson drank and liked was the produce of well-to-do planters around Edenton and Plymouth in the low country on Albemarle Sound; some of this, at least, came from cultivated vineyards. Whether grapes from wild vines were also used is unclear but seems highly likely.
Farther south, Scuppernong wine was almost a “vin de table” for the poor. All along the Cape Fear River for, seventy miles, farmers made wine from the wild grapes and used it "as freely as cider is used in New England." Observers from time to time noted the ease with which such wine was produced, prompting them to wonder whether it might not be promoted from a hobby or cottage industry to become a staple product for the enrichment of the state.
Another important grape in early American wine making is the Catawba grape. The Catawba grape is one of the earliest Vitis labrusca grapes used in wine production but can also be eaten or made into grape juice, jam, or jelly. The grape was found in western North Carolina around 1801 or 1802. It is believed cuttings of the vine were transported to Montgomery County, MD sometime before 1816, when they were left by a traveler with Jacob Scholl, an innkeeper in Clarksburg. The Catawba grape began appearing on nursery inventory lists across the United States and soon became a major grape in the growing American wine industry. From 1825 to 1850, it was the most widely planted grape in the United States. One early adopter was Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati, Ohio who, in 1830, founded America's first commercially successful winery and became famous for his sparkling wines made from this grape.
Wines That Were Imported to the United States
Unfortunately, figuring out all the varieties of wine that were imported into the United States in the early-19th century is almost impossible. To be able to say that a particular wine was never imported we would need to examine every order for wine from anyone in the US during our period. We can however, due to Jefferson’s love of a wide variety of wines, and his exacting record keeping, derive a list of varieties, that we can use as a basis for early-19th century wine lists that will hold something that will meet most people’s tastes.
As we have already discussed, Jefferson favored reds from both Bordeaux and Burgundy
“Country Wines”, both reds and whites, from southern regions in France such as Languedoc, Rhône, and Roussillon were regulars on Jefferson’s table
Jefferson drank quite a variety of Italian wines including Chianti, Orvieto, Gattinara, Marsala, Moscato, Vin Santo, Montepulciano, Carmignano, Pomino, Castello di Ama, and the ancestor of Soave.
Among Spanish wines Jefferson preferred “pale” Sherry and St. Lucar, today called Manzanilla. He also served Malaga, a sweet, fortified dessert wine, to guests, and prescribed for his daughter during her final illness Pedro Ximénez, a sweet sherry.
For Portuguese wines, in addition to Madeira, there were Portuguese Rosé and white “Lisbon” wine. Most of Jefferson’s Portuguese whites no longer appear under the names he knew them by, but many of the crisp whites and full-bodied reds of Portugal we have today are good substitutes.
In addition to Jefferson’s notes, other records from the 18th and early-19th century include the importation of Port, a fortified wine from Douro Valley of northern Portugal, French brandy, French white wine.
At Monticello he once served Daniel Webster a “Grecian Islands” wine which Webster called “Samian,” apparently the famous Muscat of Samos.
“Renish” or Rhine wines (most commonly like a modern Riesling) are found not only on tavern price lists here in North America but also used in recipes in a number of English and American cookbooks from the period. These were primarily white wines and varied from dry to sweet.
We hope you found today’s article on Wines of Late-18th and Early-19th Century America to be interesting and informative. Hopefully, you learned something you did not previously know about what wines were available and who drank them. We also hope that this will help those who wish to serve period-appropriate wines at historical dinners or events. Please join us again in two-weeks as we post our first article focused on Living History and developing appropriate civilian impressions for late-18th and early-19th century American events.
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Hailman, John Estate of. Thomas Jefferson on Wine. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Henderson, Alexander. The History of Ancient and Modern Wines. London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1824.
Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb63q/.
Redding, Cyrus. A History and Description of Modern Wines. London: Whittaker, Treacher, & Arnot, 1833.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation. "Wine." n.d. Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. 23 November 2021. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/wine.