How Madeira fueled the American Revolution

Jefferson toasted, Hancock smuggled, and Washington greeted voters with a healthy glass of Madeira.  But how did this tiny island beverage come to be colonial America’s top wine?  Why, the perfect combination of luck, timing, and political prowess – of course!  But to understand the importance of Madeira in American history, we must first start at the beginning.

Just off the coast of Morrocco , Madeira was perfectly suited for colonization in the 1400s due to the island’s proximity to East Indies shipping routes.  Portugal seized the opportunity to compete with the Italian monopolies of the time and enticed British merchants to use their newly colonized island as a port of export. They simultaneously began planting sugarcane, wheat, and Malvasian grape vines to supply their merchants.  Word of the island traveled throughout Europe, thus enticing a young Christopher Columbus to venture to the archipelago, take up harvesting sugarcane, marry the governor’s daughter, and learn the local seafaring trade – all leading up to his infamous journey to the “new world”.

Madeira port of call for 4th Voyage of Columbus
Madeira port of call for 4th voyage of Christopher Columbus

At the time, most European wines spoiled during the hot and rough voyages to the East Indies or the Americas.  After a series of happy accidents, it was later discovered that Madeira could survive by adding Brandy as a means to fortify the wine.  Also, the high temperatures of the carribean not only greatly improved the flavors of Madeira, but also made it virtually indestructible.  A win-win to thirsty colonials!

Thanks to a royal marriage and an exclusive trade treaty with Britain in the 1600s, Madeira monopolized the American wine market and became the #1 wine for almost 100 years.  Solidly a fan favorite among those angsty colonials, John Hancock and his shipping empire sparked a few key moments to begin what would later be known as the American Revolution.

MadeiraEasily one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, John Hancock inherited a great shipping empire and fortune from his late uncle. Much like him, John smuggled various goods into the colonies to turn a quick and steady profit – including Madeira.  With taxes on the rise after the Seven Years War, Britain sought to tighten it’s hold on all monies coming in and out of the American ports. With tensions and taxes rising, Hancock was quick to boast about his efforts to evade collectors.  These rumors eventually made their way to British authorities, leading to a seizure of Hancock’s ship Liberty and a lawsuit against him for unpaid taxes paid on one large shipment of Madeira wine – sparking riots in Boston. Having the means and connections to do so, Hancock enlisted a top lawyer/future president, John Adams as his defense attorney. Thanks to Adams’ politicking and fine grip on the needs of the new world, all charges were dropped against John Hancock, dealing one of the first major blows to British rule in the colonies and thus fueling the beginnings of a revolution.

Quickly setting his sights on politics, John easily became the protegee of revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, and used his reputation, wine, and wealth to make friends with early colonial leaders – most of whom had a taste for Madeira.  After the dust settled on the revolutionary war, almost every celebration was toasted with Madeira wine – General George Washington toasted in NYC after the British evacuated and wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson toasted at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Rumor has it, with campaign funding from John Hancock and a plethora of Madeira at the polling locations, Washington became the first President of the United States, and ceremonially toasted his inauguration with none other than Madeira wine.

Resources: National Archives, Massachusetts Historical Society – The Adams Papers, John Hancock Heritage,  Madeira: The islands and their wines – Book by Richard Mayson, Project Gutenberg

Tips & Tricks on Preserving Wine

It’s a common question – if how long can I keep a bottle of wine after opening it? While some are confused by the question (they’re in what we call the “clean bottle club”), it’s still good to know what happens to a bottle of wine after opening. Air is a wine’s best friend and its worst enemy. After opening a wine, air brings out and enhances the aromas  and flavors of the wine. That’s the purpose of swirling your glass or using a decanter. But too much oxygen leads a wine down the path to becoming vinegar. That’s why many wines go “bad” a few days after opening. So here are some tips on how to preserve that bottle.

  • Put it in the fridge – even the red wines. Refrigeration slows down the aging process of perishable items, and once open, wine is perishable. When ready to finish the bottle, take reds out about 30 minutes early or dunk in a bucket of lukewarm water until it comes back to drinking temperature.
  • Use a vacuum closure. For still wines, you can use the vacu-vin closure, Vacuvinwhich sucks the air out of the bottle. Some feel it also sucks some of the flavor out of the wine, so give it a try and judge for yourself. For sparkling wines, find a Champagne Stopper, which helps keep the bubbles in tack. Both of these help prolong a wine’s shelf (or fridge) life for a few days.
  • Gas it! Private Preserve is a safe, inert, non-flammable, tastelessz-bloggy gas (harmless Nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon), found naturally in the air that we breathe. When sprayed into the bottle, it blankets the wine, keeping oxygen from causing deterioration.
  • Transfer to a smaller bottle. Pour the wine into a small water bottle with a cap closure. This limits the surface area of air to wine and has been found to be a quite effective method.

All wines are different, and some, particularly higher quality, young wines, are able to last a bit longer when open and some even improve after being open a couple of days! So enjoy learning about the wine ageing process as you experiment with different methods. Cheers!

3 Under-the-Radar Whites for Summer Sipping

While Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are sure to make an appearance at any summer picnic, party or happy hour, there are a few other summer whites that are sure to beat the heat and will let you venture out beyond your traditionally summer sippers.

Here are our top 3:

Muscadet: Simple, yet terribly refreshing and full of “minerality,” meaning it’s crisp and light and reminiscent of a stone walkway after a hard rain… Affordable, and a perfect match for any seafood, especially oysters!

Vinho Verde: Lunch wine! Slightly effervescent and low in alcohol, this dry, refreshing wine is perfect in a plastic cup, as a big, cold glass on a hot day, or even as the base for a good white Sangria! Pick up a bottle of this affordable, quench-busting wine. Added bonus? it comes in rose form :)

 Chenin Blanc: Loire, yes. South Africa, big YES! Chenin Blanc from South Africa might be one of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay look-alikes. At times it reminds you of a value Macon-Villages or entry-level white Burgundy, while other times, I think I may have a complex Sauvignon Blanc. It’s often under $15, sometimes under $10. The acidity and balance are unbeatable in the heat!

For summer, ideal whites have high acidity, so there are a number of choices for summer sipping, but give these 3 a try. Cheers!

white wine

Wine Houses of Westeros

For anyone who has seen an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones or read the series of books for which it is based (A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin), it is abundantly clear that wine is the preferred drink of choice in Westeros.  With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of Earthly wines who’s labels could easily pass for each noble houses’ wine – No Spoilers (promise!)

HOUSE LANNISTER = Joseph Jewel Wines

Joseph Jewel

Sigil (Banner) –  One of the wealthiest families in the realm, the Lannister’s owe their vast fortune to the highly productive gold mines which lie beneath Casterly Rock. The stately lion and it’s golden color are a perfect banner for this royal family.

Wine – In Earthly heraldry, the image of a lion raised on his hind legs (lions rampant) represents royalty, valor, and bravery.  In 1934, the lions rampant was chosen by King George V to adorn the Royal Banner of Scotland as a symbol of loyalty.  Honoring their Scottish heritage, garage winemakers from the Russian River Valley, Micah (Joseph) Wirth and Adrian (Jewell) Manspeaker, chose the lions rampant as the central feature of their Joseph Jewell Wines label.

“Everything’s better with some wine in the belly” – Tyrion Lannister

HOUSE BARATHEON = Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars & Stags’ Leap Winery

Sigil – With claims to Stag's Leap Wine Cellarsthe Iron Throne and relatives who are eager to fight for it, House Baratheon honor the powerful Stag as their central figure and sigil.

Wine(s) – For this,  look no further than Napa Valley‘s tiny but mighty AVA – Stag’s Leap Wine District. Legend has it that the region was named for a lowly stag who leaped to freedom from his pursuing hunters.  Regardless of it’s origin, the district features two wineries who share the district name along with an label featuring a stag – the older Stags’ Leap Winery and celebrated Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.  (If confused, note the apostrophe!)  As for it’s history, the district was thrust into the limelight in 1976, when a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars beat out high-end Bordeauxs and took home first place in the infamous blind tasting in Paris.

HOUSE TARGARYEN = Shrader Cellars  Old Sparky Cabernet

Sigil – Known to have a special connection to and governance over dragons, House Targaryen has had a history of using their power over these great creatures to further their worldly conquests.

Wine – With the finest grapes in hand and hopes of building a new brand, Fred Schrader turned to his graphic designer / wife for guidance and vision in creating a new label of significance. From here, “Old Sparky” was born.  This powerful dragon represents the best that Schrader Cellars has to offer with the brand being sourced from the finest barrel lots in their Beckstoffer to Kalon vineyard. Just like the respect given to a creature of this size and stature, Schrader’s 100-pt wine can only be found in the larger magnum bottle.

HOUSE BOLTON = Prisoner Wine Company

Prisoner Wine CompanySigil – Cruelty has no boundaries when it comes to House Bolton.  Known all over the land for utilizing an old practice of flaying (skin peeling), the Boltons show no mercy to those who oppose their rule – either dead or alive.  Appropriately, their house banner is a flayed man upside down on a cross.

Wine – Finding a wine that best represents the strange practices of House Bolton was no easy feat, so we took it down a notch from flaying to imprisonment. Naturally, The Prisoner Wine Company became the perfect choice. Winemaker David Phinney is known for going beyond convention to create unique wines with a cult following. At the age of 12, his art-loving parents gave him an etching from Spanish artist Francisco Jose de Goya entitled “La Petite Prisonier”.  He so loved this piece of art, that it went on to become both the inspiration for his new brand and, in the end, it’s label.

HOUSE GREYJOY = Rob Murray Vineyards  Force of Nature Chardonnay

Rob Murray Vineyards Forces of Nature ChardonnaySigil – Calling the harsh and desolate Iron Islands home, House Greyjoy are the true “pirates” of the story. Robbing and plundering their shoreline neighbors to get by, this sea savvy fleet of ruffians hoists a flag featuring the deadly kraken.

Wine(s) –  Believing that mother nature is the true farmer, Santa Barbara winemaker / agriculturist Rob Murray created the “Force of Nature” series of wines.  Each varietal features either a natural or a mythical force. The larger-than-life kraken on his Chardonnay can be seen terrorizing a seaside city – just as House Greyjoy would have done.

“For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.” – Sir Francis Bacon, Novum Oranum (1620)

HOUSE STARK = Kenwood Vineyards Jack London

Sigil – Fiercely loyal to their companions, the direwolf is a intimidating symbol for the members of honorable House Stark. Just like the extinct dire wolves from North America, Martin’s direwolves were built to withstand the long, cold winters of the north.  If House Stark’s motto rings true “Winter is (truly) coming”.

WineKenwood’s Jack London label alone is enough reason enough for this to be THE wine for House Stark.  However, there’s more to the story to further backup this claim.  Just like the members of House Stark, Jack London was a man who was quick to defend the underdog and right injustices.  His grand estate and farm in Sonoma became the perfect backdrop for his writings. It was here that he penned the infamous White Fang, a novel told from the perspective of a wolf-dog and his journey to domestication.  Kenwood Vineyards has the honor of being the only winery to produce wines from this treasured land, and London’s character adorning the label.

HOUSE TYRELL – Bodegas Volver Tarima Hill

Tarima HillSigil – Lording over the expansive farmland surrounding Castle Highgarden and therefore most of the food in the realm, House Tyrell plays their hand in politics any chance they get.  With royal ambitions and knowledge of the land, the golden rose is befittingly the central piece of their banner.

Wine – Chosen for it’s beauty and intricate detail, the passion fruit flower adorns Bodegas Volver’s Tarima Hill label. Although not the regal rose, this label was chosen for two reasons – for it’s golden and therefore stately color and for it’s mesmerizing allure.  Both qualities found in members of House Tyrell!

HOUSE MARTELL = Luce Della Vite

LuceSigil – Ruled by the strong-willed House Martell, the arid region of Dorne rests at the southernmost point of Westeros. Their Sunspear castle is aptly named after their sigil, an image of a sun with a spear through it.  This image was created as representative of the long ago union between a great warrior princess and the nobleman Mors Martel.

Wine – A similarly great union came together to form the Luce Della Vite wine label.  For the first time, a Tuscan powerhouse (Vittorio Frescobaldi) joined forces with a Napa Valley icon (Robert Mondavi) to create a one-of-a-kind Italian experience.  For their new label, they found inspiration within the nearby Santo Spirito church in Florence.  A centuries-old altar image inside features a radiant sun with 12 spires.

HOUSE ARRYN = Balverne

BalverneSigil – Perched high atop a peak on the east coast of Westeros, the Erie is House Arryn’s principle stronghold. Virtually impossible to penetrate due to it’s natural defenses, House Arryn can safely fly their banner featuring a soaring falcon and a crescent moon.

Wine– Along California’s Russian River Valley, the red-tailed hawk can be seen soaring high over great vineyards of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Looking to capture the essence of the land, Windsor Oaks Vineyards brought back to life the estate’s Balverne wine which had received national acclaim in the 1980’s.  For the label, they turned to local Sonoma artist Bob Johnson and an image of the red-tailed hawk.

HOUSE TULLY = Steelhead Vineyards

SteelheadSigil – Technically not one of the Seven Kingdoms, the Riverlands central location and surrounding rivers have always played host to nearby rulers travelling through.  The Tully’s lord over this borderland region, and look to the leaping trout for both their food source and house banner.

Wine – The various rivers along the northern California coastline are known for their steelhead trout.  Sourcing grapes from all over this river region, Steelhead Vineyards sought to honor the unique fish by proudly supporting water conservation efforts in the area to protect it’s natural habitat.

HOUSE FREY = Les Forts de Latour

Les Forts De LatourSigil – Under House Tully’s rule in the Riverlands, House Frey grew in wealth and therefore power due to it’s control over The Twins – a castle and toll
crossing over a great central river.  One of the only passages between North and South, the two towers and bridge easily became the icon for Frey’s populous and prosperous family.

Wine – Just like House Frey, Les Forts de Latour is overshadowed by a closely related first growth Bordeaux.  Technically the second label for the infamous Chateau Latour, the wines for Les Forts de Latour are produced using the same care and method as it’s grand cru sibling.  This attention to detail has produced wines of superior status, thus transforming this lowly 2nd label to a top Medoc classified growth.  The site of the estate had once be occupied by a miltary fort which burned down during the Hundred Years War.

Honorable Mention:

KNIGHT’S WATCH – Ravenswood

GOT-Knights WatchAs a military order, the Knight’s Watch has no sigil and no status of which to speak. They are charged with defending the realm from the all that lies north of the Wall. Dressing entirely in black, their Wildling enemies have given them the nickname “Crows”.

Wine –  Winemaker Joel Peterson envisioned three ravens adorning his California wine, Ravenswood.  Crows and ravens are often mistaken for each other based on their strikingly similar characteristics and behaviors. Though not a crow, the triskelion of three black ravens on the Ravenswood label seemed like the best fit for this order. Just like ravens who circle high over the grape vines, so do the Knight’s Watch band together high atop the Wall to look over the realm.


Exploring Portugal

Misty rolling hills are home to Vinho Verde white wine varietals
Misty rolling hills are home to Vinho Verde white wine varietals

In early May, I had the pleasure of joining a group of five retail wine buyers on a whirlwind tour of Portugal’s wine regions. Our lucky group spent the next seven days discovering the beautiful landscape, forward-thinking winemakers, and incredible wines to be found in this corner of Europe.

Our trip began in the rainy northern Minho region, where excellent white wines are produced. Varietals such as Alvarinho, Loureiro and Avesso are just some of the varietals that are grown in this lushly green land. Naturally low in alcohol and extremely refreshing, these are wines perfect to stock up on for summer.


Incredible history in Douro Valley. Yes, that reads 1795!
Incredible history in Douro Valley. Yes, that reads 1795!

Douro Valley was quite a contrast to Vinho Verde – lushly rich reds were the standout wines from this region traditionally known for their Port wine. Terraced hillsides are full of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca. The history in this region is incredible – we regularly spoke with 4th and 5th generation winemakers tending their family vineyards.

One of the biggest finds of my trip was my discovery of the wines of the Dao Region. Cool climate reds and whites are being produced by some of the finest winemakers in Portugal. I predict sommeliers, wine geeks, and reviewers to “discover” this region very soon.

Old school labels, new school winemaking in Portugal's Dao region
Old school labels, new school winemaking in Portugal’s Dao region


Talking shop with Lisbon area winery owners
Talking shop with Lisbon area winery owners

Moving south, the trip ended in the wine region closest to Portugal’s capital Lisbon. New winery owners are using modern techniques at their centuries-old estates once owned by Lisbon’s aristocrats. Here, the climate and land are Mediterranean – and the wines follow suit. Rhone blends are having great success.

Portugal is  an old world country ready to be re-discovered by wine lovers. I predict that the refreshing and unique white wines along with the dense and complex red wines will take the wine world by storm soon, appealing to the value-seeking and collector wine lovers alike.

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