Category Archives: Wine Education

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!

Braving the Willamette Valley front: Oregon Wine Month

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There is a belief among wine cognoscenti that grape vines must suffer before they can produce great wines. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, not only does that happen, but everyone in the wine business undergoes an annual pain called, “The Harvest.” Is Mother Nature going to be good to us, or will we be left to our own devices and suffer unruly weather? Unlike other regions in the world, such as Australia and the Napa Valley in California, the Willamette Valley proves unpredictable, and provides vintners with unhappy grapes from difficult vintages. While all wine growing regions suffer good and bad years, Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, just like the varietal in Burgundy, paints a picture of extreme variance.

Why do it? Just like writers, photographers and chefs, it is because of the challenge. Many of the greatest wine growers and winemakers aim their sights at the Holy Grail and pursue Pinot Noir with unrelenting faith because when Pinot Noir is great, there is nothing better. This is where the geekiest of wine folks live. It is an on-the-edge behavior that puts them in another realm. Two recent vintages in the Willamette Valley underscore this theme. 2011, which was a cool year, yielded many ungenerous wines that most “normal” wine drinkers may not enjoy. Yes, they may pretend to like it at a party, but it lacks the big, ripe fruit characteristic of say, a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012’s were a much different animal, and produced a wine that everyone would drink happily. For the most part, the 2012 wines are rich, rounded and juicy as can be. I already know a few purists who are scoffing at the wines for their uber-enticing style and seemingly early drinkability. Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, wine geeks often like wines that are crisp, high in acid, great with food and have potential to age over decade’s time. I am okay with both, I would just have to change my food pairing choices.

Pinot Noir is always a challenge. The wine is one of fussiest on the planet. The wine folks in the Willamette Valley are used to being on the outskirts of life and have come to love all their vintages for what they are. One fact is undeniable – unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Zinfandel, it cannot hide. Vintners cannot use oak, sugar or other varietals to make it better. It is what makes us love it or hate it. Here are a pair of favorites from my notebook. The classic and red-fruited 2013 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills, the fine and complex 2012 WillaKenzie Aliette and the cool vintage 2011 WillaKenzie Pierre Leon. Give them a try and you too will discover how nifty the Willamette Valley vintners are!


Tartrates in Wine

The definition of a tartrate (according to is, “a salt or ester of tartaric acid.” But in the wine world, we know tartrates as “those little pieces at the bottom of your bottle that look like glass shards.”

tartrates2For those not familiar with tartrate crystals, seeing them at the bottom of your wine bottle or wine glass could cause alarm. But not to fret, tartrate crystals are a natural occurring substance in some wines and are totally harmless.

How do tartrate crystals form?
When tartaric acid and potassium combine under very cold temperatures, they create a compound known as potassium bitartrate, which is basically a salt. Typically this happens during fermentation and the crystals attach themselves to the fermentation vessel walls, not in the wine.  But in some wines, more complex ones, the crystals may form at a later state, such as in the wine bottle.

Do all wines have tartrates?
Nope. There is a method called “cold stabilization” that can separates the tartrates from the wine and then the wine is filtered to remove them. Actually, higher end wines are more likely to have tartrates since many are not fined or filtered in order to preserve the nuances and complexity of the wine. Though they are found in both red and white wines, they are typically more noticeable  in white wines.

So what do I do with them? 
Most tartrates settle to the bottom of the bottle, so unless you have the last glass, you’re unlikely to get any. But you can certainly pour the wine through a fine mesh sieve to remove them should they be nuisance. Otherwise, put them to good use as salt on your meal :)