For Washingtonians, “local wine” once meant wine produced within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Estates in what was then called Washington County (in contrast to Washington City, near the Potomac River) often included acres of vines, producing grapes for table consumption and wine production. Families opened “wine houses” to sell the wine produced on their property. City development was only beginning to encroach: The Soldiers Home, a filtration plant, Trinity College and Catholic University were nearby, and an electric streetcar helped city residents reach their favorite watering holes, including a popular one run by a beautiful woman named Rosie Arnold.
The District’s wine houses thrived from the 1870s until about 1910, when references to them and to vineyards vanish in newspaper accounts. Their story is told by Aaron Nix-Gomez on his captivating blog Hogshead. “Hogshead” is an old name for a wine barrel and hints at the blog’s emphasis on wine history. Nix-Gomez writes in a matter-of-fact style, relating a story that weaves together the capital’s recovery from the trauma of the Civil War, the growth of the temperance movement and the wiliness of purveyors as they subverted government attempts to regulate the production and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Nix-Gomez, 41, is not a historian by trade but a software engineer, a profession he credits for giving him “an attention to detail” that aids his amateur research. A native of Fairfax County now living in Montgomery County, he works mostly from home on government software contracts for the Applied Physics Lab of the University of Washington. During his off-hours, he scours online historical archives for references to his favorite tipple.
“I’m able to exploit all these archives that have come online the last few years,” says Nix-Gomez, who launched his blog in 2011. “You see it in other fields of history, but with wine there’s still a lot of research to be done. So I’m constantly looking every time another archive comes online.”
During his college days, Nix-Gomez spent a year at the University of Bristol in England, where his studies strayed from academics to wine. “Bristol was an old trading port, so there are several old wine merchants there,” he says. “That’s where I first tasted the Bordeaux first growths, Château Musar, Quilceda Creek cabernet or Chinese chardonnay. And the merchants always told the back story, the history. And Bordeaux has a lot of history.”
In addition to the District’s wine houses and Rosie Arnold’s frequent court appearances for operating without a license, Nix-Gomez chronicled earlier vineyards in Rock Creek Park and Georgetown dating to 1799. In the 1860s, George and John Heyser made award-winning wines near Hagerstown, including a sweet Catawba picked “after a frost” in November 1865. (Descendants of John Heyser own Heyser Farms, in the Colesville area of Silver Spring.)
Scouring CIA archives, Nix-Gomez uncovered correspondence between Philip Wagner, founder of Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards, and former CIA director Allen Dulles. In one letter, Wagner boasted that his 1959 red was “the closest thing to a Beaujolais” produced in the United States.
Nix-Gomez’s work has led him to consult historians at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier as he explores gaps in the history of their drinking habits.
“Historians wonder why Jefferson never mentioned Constantia wine from the Cape of Good Hope, but they forget to look at the other Founding Fathers,” he says. “Washington and Adams had some, so I expect Jefferson tasted it. Adams called it Vin de Cap, and there is a Jefferson reference to Vin de Cap, so I suspect he did try it.”
One of the biggest wine scandals of the past decade was the sale of counterfeit wines supposedly once owned by Jefferson. But that was nothing new. Nix-Gomez traces intrigue over Jefferson’s wine holdings to the 1840s, when John Gadsby, owner of Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, auctioned off wines from his extensive collection, including several bottles of Madeira he claimed had belonged to Jefferson. Nix-Gomez could find no reference to Jefferson’s having owned such bottles, but they matched an order that had been placed by Madison. Based on his research, the Rare Wine Co., an importer and merchant, produced Mr. Madison’s Madeira, modeled after the wine Madison had purchased, and marketed it last year for the 200th anniversary of the British burning of the White House.
Individual anecdotes often give Nix-Gomez the most pleasure from his research. “A Civil War soldier wrote of mixing snow and sugar in his wine and said it was admirable,” he recalls. “Or the American ‘journalist’ captured by the Soviet secret police who blamed his lack of memory on having drunk a bottle of Uzbek wine.”
Through letters, memos and court records now online, those memories of wine echo through the ages and have found a voice on Hogshead.