In this post, Estate Historian Maggie Lidz continues her research into wine and the du Pont family.
In the second half of the 19th century, the common drinks in America were spirits, cider, and beer. Although a domestic wine industry existed, and many people fermented their own homemade fruit wines, imported wine was terribly exotic. (Click the image on the right to expand it and see examples of American wines.) Menus, cellar lists, and inventories from the era reveal the availability of a surprisingly wide range of imported vintage burgundies, Bordeaux, and champagnes however.
In January 1861, the New-York Hotel on lower Broadway (Prince Napoleon, a cousin of Emperor Napoleon III, stayed there while on his American tour) offered 22 varieties of imported champagne, 25 choices of Bordeaux, 8 wines from Burgundy, and a variety of Rhenish wines. The prices were steep. A quart of champagne was between $2 and $4. According to a New York Times article that month, $2 was a full day’s wage for the attendants at Niblo’s Circus a few blocks away.
The further the wine traveled from the place of production, the fewer people recognized what the flavor should be. The situation was ripe for fraud. “Buyer beware” was the best operative theory when buying European wines in America at the time.
In 1857 the Philadelphia antiquarian John F. Watson sneered at the “the credulity and vanity of those who live for show,” pointing a special finger at those who paid “exalted prices for alleged Champagne, made of Cider of Wines adorned with blue strings and gilded labels….So too of Brandies, made of our whisky, and marked Bordeaux Vintage of 1830” (Watson’s Annals, Volume II, page 592).
It is exactly during this period that New Yorker John Rack wrote a manual on how to make counterfeit alcohol—or as he calls it, fictitious liquors—entitled The French Wine & Liquor Manufacturer. The word “French” on the cover is in highly ornamented script, a sort of buyer-beware code: “FRENCH,” as in “Not.” He explains his purpose fully in the subtitle: A clear and comprehensive treatise on the manufacture and imitation of brandy, rum, gin and whiskey: with practical observations and rules for the manufacture and management of all kinds of wine…including complete instructions for manufacturing champagne wine.
Of all the imported French wines, champagne was the most popular. Rack asserts that “New York alone sells five times as much of this world-renowned nectar as all the Champagne wine districts produce.” He maintains that his imitation is so good that few can distinguish from the genuine French drink. His recipe involves a concoction of sugar syrup, adding a little sweet (and cheap) muscat wine and then charging the result with carbonic gas (like soda water).
It is interesting, in this context, to examine the wine lists kept by Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont of Delaware (unlike the rest of his family, he spelled his name with a capital D and “DuPont” closed up).
In the two years before he died in August of 1866, the Admiral occupied himself with, among other things, inventorying his liquor. As I mentioned in the last post, the Admiral inherited some of the wine and liquor owned by the Bidermanns, the French-born first owners of Winterthur. Among the brandies and whiskies in the Admiral’s stock were “9 Bottles & jars of very old Kirschwasser, present from Bro. Bidermann.” The list included more gifts from Bidermann: four bottles of 1828 French brandy, three gallons of 1838 brandy, and seven bottles of 1823 whiskey. The 1828 and 1838 brandies date to the exact years that the Bidermanns traveled in France. These Bidermann bottles were minor entries in the Admiral’s extensive and international liquor and wine inventory however.
During a 48-year career in the navy, DuPont traveled all over the world. As with the Bidermanns’ brandy, there’s a direct correlation between the Admiral’s voyages and his wine cellar. The Admiral recorded wine from Port Mahon—off the coast of Spain—where he frequently docked between 1829 and 1832 aboard the US sloop Ontario. His bottles of the Majorcan wine Alba Flor date to 1830. He carefully recorded that in 1832 he bought nine bottles of rare wine (including the prized Tokay of Hungary and some Albarello from northwest Spain) from the English consul based in Syracuse, Sicily. (This consul may have been the bibliophile William Noel-Hill, third baron of Berwick, whose diplomatic commission terminated in 1832.)
Between 1857 and 1859, DuPont commanded the USS Minnesota, which sailed to China and Japan by way of Cape Horn, then back again. On July 25, 1864, his stock in Delaware included “1 large box containing Cape Wine-3 Doz or more, 1859, and 2 Boxes of Cloete Constantia (Cape).” Constantia was one of the most celebrated South African wines of the 19th century; the Cloete family, the most noted producer. The vineyard and wine cellars date to the 18th century.
Not everything in the Admiral’s cellar was purchased directly at the source. In 1853 he was given a stock of “White Capri” while serving as a superintendent of New York’s Crystal Palace Exhibition. He imported an 1855 Steinberger Cabinet to take along on his 1857 voyage to China, but left it at Winterthur. The wine was still there in the 1860s.
Mr. Speiden (possibly William Speiden, with whom he corresponded in the 1840s and ’50s) seems to have supplied him with an array of spirits: a “jug of Italian,” Madeiras of various vintages, and arrak, a South Asian spirit. Perhaps the most intriguing wines for the contemporary oenophile are the Admiral’s burgundies, which are carefully noted: “Box ¾ full Corton –Guillemard in Dijon and Box ¾ full Clos Vougeot Guillemard in Dijon.”
The inventories that the Admiral created at the end of his life are like a memoir: of people encountered, like the consul; of lost family, like Brother Bidermann; of friends, like Mr. Speiden. Each bottle would have the ability to conjure places known and scenery and smells remembered. This personal connection is what was missing from the wine imbibed by so many other Americans in the Admiral’s time. Unlike Europeans, for Americans wine was not about the harvest cycle, the family table, the pride of village or the region. It was about show, as John Watson scoffed, and ignorance, which John Rack took advantage of and increased though fraud.