Bartholomew Broadbent was befuddled. For nearly three decades, the British-born wine importer with the famous name (his father is Michael Broadbent, famed wine writer and auctioneer) had tried to convince American consumers that Madeira played a fundamental role in U.S. history, and therefore deserved a place of honor on their dinner tables.
Broadbent boasts of bringing Madeira back to the United States in 1988 for the first time since Prohibition, that dark age when our collective knowledge of the pleasures of the grape were systematically erased from our national consciousness, leaving us with a taste for bathtub hooch. He used history as his sales pitch.
“It always amazed me that Americans had no idea their Founding Fathers drank more Madeira than any other wine,” says Broadbent, founder of Broadbent Selections, based in Richmond. “I’d tell audiences that George Washington drank a pint of Madeira every day, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both toasted with Madeira. And I’d explain that Betsy Ross, while sewing the flag, had a side table with a glass of Madeira on it. The only artistic license I allowed myself was to say, ‘That’s probably why she saw stars!’ The rest is all true.”
Last November, at the national conference of the American Wine Society, Broadbent again preached the Madeira gospel and chastised his audience for not remembering Madeira’s role in their nation’s history. A woman in the audience raised her hand. She was a retired history teacher. “She said all references to alcohol are removed from American history texts,” Broadbent recalls. “Now I know.”
Well, not every reference to alcohol is excised, of course. I recall learning about the Whiskey Rebellion, Skid Row, Carry Nation and the temperance movement, and of course Prohibition. Only the positive references to alcohol are banished from U.S. history books.
We can forgive Broadbent’s fixation on the role alcohol played in early U.S. history, and maybe even the native British nationalism of this naturalized U.S. citizen. “As Englishmen, we don’t know a lot about American history, but there are two things we know for sure,” he says. “One is that Madeira played a hugely significant role in American history, and the other is that Canadians did not burn down the White House in 1814.”
He’s certainly right on that first point. Aaron Nix-Gomez, a software engineer by trade and a wine historian by avocation, recently wrote extensively about Madeira’s impact on early U.S. history on his blog at Hogsheadwine.com. The series was based on a talk Nix-Gomez gave in April to the Stanford Wine Society, sponsored by Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Company, another leading importer of Madeira, and Roy Hersh, author of the blog For the Love of Port.
Nix-Gomez described how Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would order directly from shippers on the island of Madeira, specifying the color, body and sweetness they desired. (These characteristics were achieved through blending and, well, perhaps some additives.)
And Madeira may have been the first wine to be rated with a point score. John Drayton, a South Carolina judge and a wealthy plantation owner, sent a 110-gallon “pipe” of Madeira to an acquaintance in 1768, noting that “It is a silky fine flavored wine, and is allowed 10 by good judges here.” The point score may have seemed natural to Drayton, Nix-Gomez notes, as his fortune came from growing rice, which was rated according to the quality of its milling.
In a 2017 post, Nix-Gomez catalogues George Washington’s Madeira purchases during the spring of 1776, when the Continental Army was defending New York City from the British. The captain of Washington’s security detail bought as much Madeira as he could from merchants and collectors in the region on Washington’s behalf, usually in lots of 11 dozen bottles. When British troops captured the house of one of Washington’s suppliers, in Flatbush, they drank the Madeira stash in a “complete drunken frolic,” Nix-Gomez writes.
During his presidency, Washington developed a fondness for “India Madeira,” or wine shipped from the Portuguese island of Madeira to India. Wine lovers were discovering that Madeira improved by “cooking” in the holds of ships, where the pipes were used as ballast. (Modern Madeira is exposed to heat while it ages to replicate this effect.) Washington was willing to pay a premium for his wine to guard against fraud, because he had once purchased an entire pipe that was filled with water. But his two pipes of India Madeira were so precious that he painstakingly had them transported from Philadelphia to Virginia when he retired.
“George Washington brought his rare India wine back home to Mount Vernon, where he drank the last glass just months before he died in 1799,” Nix-Gomez wrote.
So here’s a toast to Madeira, the wine of American Independence.