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Juiced history: Was wine imported in 1796 really intended to toast John Adams’s presidency?

The Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey discovered 25 bottles of unopened Madeira wine that had been imported to the United States in 1796. (Courtesy of the Liberty Hall Museum)

The story zipped across the Internet this month on a sensational two-part premise. A historic mansion-turned museum in New Jersey recently discovered 25 bottles of rare and valuable Madeira wine in its cellar, their labels boasting an import date of 1796. This much is true. The second part fits the category of what might be labeled fake wine news: the Madeira found at the Liberty Hall house, it was breathlessly reported, had been ordered to celebrate the election of America’s second president, John Adams.

“Some of the original Madeira stock was shipped to the second generation who lived at Liberty Hall, in anticipation of John Adams’ presidency,” read the NJ.com article on July 9. The story — which offered no evidence for the John Adams claim — nonetheless lit a fire under the media’s viral click-makers.

The New York Post followed with two articles about the Madeira-Adams connection, citing NJ.com. “Decant be serious!” read one Post headline, its piece saying that the wine “had been shipped to the Hall” for an Adams victory party. NPR, Town & Country magazine’s web site, and CNN’s HLN network also aired or wrote versions of the story. “They say some of the wine cases were in anticipation of celebrating America’s second president, John Adams! Whoahhhh!” the on-air HLN reporter said during her segment.

But is that true? No, not likely, rare wine experts say.

The mansion’s former longtime owners don’t know how or when their ancestors acquired the 1796 Madeira. They have not yet found any receipts or letters detailing the reasons the valuable wine was purchased. The whole idea that their forebears got the wine to celebrate Adams’s victory in late 1796?

“That’s a supposition,” acknowledged John Kean, 87, a retired utility executive and president of the Liberty Hall Museum.

Kean suspects that his widowed great-great-great-grandmother, Susan Livingston Kean Niemcewicz, bought the bottles in late 1796, following Adams’s victory over Thomas Jefferson in the nation’s first contested presidential election. Kean thinks that maybe the newly elected president was even Niemcewicz’s guest of honor. After all, her late husband, also named John Kean, who died in 1795, was a member of the Second Continental Congress. President George Washington appointed him to run the Bank of the United States. The couple likely knew Adams quite well.

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“Certainly a widow would not have ordered a whole bunch of wine for herself, unless she was a closet drunk, and I don’t think that was the case,” said Kean, laughing. “If [my great-great-great grandmother’s] husband was still alive in 1796, maybe they would have drunk this together. But it’s our [belief] she was going to entertain at her home in Philadelphia for Adams. President Adams was known as a Madeira drinker and she would have obviously ordered a lot of it for him. But for some reason, she eventually took the wine back to New Jersey, and that’s how we ended up with it at Liberty Hall.”

But it’s just his guess. To understand the history of the wine, you have to know the family’s history at Liberty Hall.

In 1800, Susan Kean married a Polish aristocrat, Julian Ursin Niemcewicz living in exile in America. But he returned to Europe nine years later, and never came back. In 1811, her son Peter Kean bought the property for her, and they became the first Keans to move into Liberty Hall, which was originally built by her uncle, William Livingston, New Jersey’s first governor, according to the family’s history on the Liberty Hall web site. Niemcewicz outlived her son, who died in 1828, and remained in the house with his widow and her grandchildren. Even though her husband abandoned her, Niemcewicz  actually renamed the estate in his honor: Ursino.

When Niemcewicz passed away in 1833, her grandson, Col. John Kean, inherited the house. Under his stewardship, Ursino grew from a 14-room country house to a 50-room mansion. Plenty of room for his 11 children, two of whom went into national politics. The oldest — a third John Kean — became a member of the House of Representatives, and later the Senate. His younger brother Hamilton Kean also became a senator from New Jersey.

By family custom, the property was always passed down to the firstborn son. But Sen. John Kean died without any children. So Sen. Hamilton Kean’s son — a fourth John Kean! — inherited the house in 1932.

His wife, Mary Alice Barney, eventually scrapped Ursino  and restored the original name, Liberty Hall. The property was named a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

When she died in 1995, her oldest son — the current Liberty Hall museum president, and fifth John Kean — inherited it. He’d grown up in the house before going off to boarding school, Harvard, and then the Marines. He ran a public utility in New Jersey until his retirement in 1995, and later set up a family foundation to run Liberty Hall as a museum, which officially opened in 2000. Kean’s four children are scattered across the country and had no interest in modernizing their ancestral home and living there, he said. In 2007, the family finally sold the house and its 11 acres of land to Kean University, named for the Kean family and Robert Winthrop Kean, a Republican congressman in the mid-20th century.

Though he’d owned the house for decades, John Kean said he never wandered down into the cellar to peruse his family’s age-old collection of wine, liquor and ale.

“I knew the wine cellar was there and used to watch my father go into the basement with a big key and open the door. But I never went in there by myself because it was scary place,” he said. “It was dark and gloomy and filled with cobwebs and dust. It was always locked, and I am not sure anyone knew where the key was. But I knew because I remembered my father always getting it from the right-hand cabinet next to the fireplace in the dining room.” 

Last year, amid ongoing renovations, the museum staff finally decided to open the cellar. The stone walls were falling apart. They began taking out each bottle and cataloging everything, eventually discovering 600 bottles and 40 demi-johns of wine. They came across some unlabeled wooden crates, opened them up, and picked through the straw, out of which peaked several bottles whose corks were covered in red wax seal.

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“LENOX MADEIRA,” the label read. “Imported by the late Robert Lenox, Esq., via Philadelphia, in 1796. Bottled, Summer of 1798. Re-Bottled, June 1888.”

It didn’t take long for one of the nation’s foremost experts on Madeira wine to get wind of Liberty Hall’s Madeira stash. Mannie Berk, president of the San Francisco-based Rare Wine Co., called up the museum and arranged to tour the cellar with a fellow Madeira connoisseur.

Berk was bowled over. Liberty Hall’s collection of 1796 Madeiras is a rare find. For one thing, it’s hard to locate Madeira that had been imported to the U.S. in the 18th century, when Madeira reigned as the drink of choice for affluent Americans. Each bottle, Berk estimates, is worth a minimum of $10,000. And they’re still drinkable. All anyone has to do open the bottles, and let the wine air out in a decanter for several weeks. The longer the wine breathes in the open air, the better it tastes, he said.

But when Berk began reading the news stories this month about the bottles having been purchased for John Adams’ election victory, the expert was dumbfounded.

“I was scratching my head. Who came up with that?” he asked. “There’s nothing to corroborate the John Adams story.”

Many of the clues to the wine’s history are right there on the bottle itself and the label, Berk noted.

The very first date on the label, 1796: That’s the year the wine was imported from Madeira, south of Portugal and to the west of Morocco. The Madeira was likely shipped in a barrel, and imported by Robert Lenox, a prominent merchant in New York City who specialized in the brandy-fortified wine.

The label’s second date, Summer of 1798: That’s when Lenox finally drew the wine out of the cask and bottled it for his personal collection, hence the custom-made seal, “R. Lenox,” on the hand-blown bottle above the tattered label.

“These types of bottles were made for the private use of owners,” Berk explained.

After Lenox died in 1839, the Madeiras were likely sold out of his estate, but it’s not known when or to whom. A second merchant, probably.

The label’s third date, June 1888: That’s the year the wine was removed from the bottles to air out and to rejuvenate its taste. The wine was then re-bottled in the original “R. Lenox” bottles, likely by the new merchant. Then, the merchant created labels in Lenox’s honor, calling the wine “Lenox Madeira.” Eventually, they were sold. It’s not certain when the Keans obtained the Madeira bottles.

According to Berk, the earliest the Keans would have acquired the bottles would have been the year of their re-bottling in 1888. Ninety-two years after Adams’s victory.

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