August 25, 2011

William Neyle Habersham and Madeira wine

In 1817 William Neyle Habersham was born into the Habersham family of Savannah, Georgia. Growing up in a wealthy and well-known family he was introduced to life’s finest things, especially Madeira wine which was undoubtedly served on a regular basis at the Habersham’s family home Avon Hall, located in Vernonburg right at the banks of the Vernon river. The Habersham family had been linked with Georgia ever since James Habersham (1712-1775) had arrived in colonial Georgia in 1738. His three sons Joseph, John and James Jr participated in the revolutionary movement and later rose to influential positions in the state of Georgia. Especially Joseph left his mark in Georgia, having Habersham County in northern Georgia named in his honour, as well as numerous sites and streets throughout the state.

So the family was well established when William Neyle Habersham was born in 1817 as the great-grandson of Joseph and the son of Robert Habersham (1783-1870). Robert had been married three times, so there was a number of ten children. Becoming a successful businessman with the company Robert Habersham and Son, Inc., of which William was a copartner with Robert Beverly Habersham, he soon made himself a name as the most precise palate of his time, especially when it came to Madeira wine. He was said to be able to blindly name a wines year, grape variety and even vineyard. In his home in Savannah the excentric merchant collected Madeira wines, treating them to the sun in a specially-built glass-house as well as fining his wines with a secret method to increase the brilliance and clarity. Some say that he invented the light and pale type of Madeira wine called “Rainwater”. But not only did he collect vast amounts of Madeira wines, he also traded them to other collectors, building up a high reputation as the source of the finest Madeira wines available. His wines would often be named after the ships that had brought them over from Madeira island or after the characteristics of the pipe that they had been stored in. Famous Habersham Madeiras were the “Hurricane Madeira”, the “All Saints Madeira”, the “Painted Pipe Madeira” and others. Besides his Madeira wine interest he was an amateur flutist and an authority on salmon fishing.

In the Civil War his business came to a stop and personal tragedy hit William Neyle and his wife Josephine (1821-1893), when both their sons Joseph Clay and William Neyle Jr. were killed in the battle of Atlanta. After the war he continued his involvement in the Madeira wine trade, selling wine from his large stocks that had been hidden away during the war to the rich and wealthy in Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Savannah. Habersham died in 1899, the rest of his collection was sold at auction in 1900. His wines helped to keep alive the tradition of the Madeira parties, brilliantly described in Silas Weir Mitchell’s story “A Madeira Party”. The complete text of this well-written and somewhat ironic story can be found at this website.

It was 1959 when a group of businessmen from Savannah consisting of Thomas Gignilliat, Dr. Thomas A. McGoldrick, Dr. Peter L. Scardino, Major General Haywood S. Hansell Jr. and Dr. Antonio J. Waring formed the Savannah Madeira Club to revive the tradition of the Savannah Madeira parties. The members kept meeting until the 1990ies and their meetings would take place at a member’s home, including dinner, several Madeira wines and the discussion of a paper or a lecture presented by one of the members. In 1976 they celebrated the Bicentennial with a special Madeira party, dressing in historic clothing and re-acting a party very close to what Mitchell had described in his book.

Visitors of today’s Savannah can do a "Madeira Tour" at the Davenport House and even though Avon Hall burned down in the 1970ies there is still a slave cabin at the original site in Vernonburg and a plaque set in the brick walkway leading to Avon Hall by William Neyle Habersham.

1824 Cossart Gordon Habersham 2

About a year ago I was able to pick up a bottle of old Madeira at auction. It had been found cleaning out the basement of an old house after the owner had died. The faded handwritten label was well legible and read: “from the cellars of the late William Neyle Habersham, Savannah, Cossart Gordon PP 1824, bottled from demijohn in 1906”. Below that comes a printed part reading “Morten & Co, 58 Broad Street, New York”. I was thrilled! Here was an original wine from one of the leading Madeira wine authorities of the 19th century America and probably of all times. And could PP be short for the famous “Painted Pipe”? After all there is at least one other bottle of “Painted Pipe” Madeira in existence, decanted, demijohned and rebottled by Morten & Co of New York in 1907 for the Vanderbilt family. However the wine merchant Ward McAllister selling this bottle claimed the “Painted Pipe” to be imported in 1790 by Newton, Gordon, Murdoch and Scott (other reliable sources like Mannie Berk say McAllister claimed the wine to be imported in 1791 by Thomas Gibbons) and now on my bottle it said 1824? But this mystery can easily be solved. As Emanuel Berk clearly shows in his brilliant expanded second edition of Noel Cossart's "Madeira - the island vineyard", the famous wines traded by Habersham "were really only blends". This does not imply that these wines weren't of the best quality. In fact being blended by the master-palate of his time, some wines were so successful that they became sought-after "brands" and so Habersham needed to re-blend considerable quantities of his famous wines again and again. After Habersham's death, his remaining wines were sold by Arnold & Co in 1900. Among the many demijohns going into sale, there was one demijohn of "Painted Pipe" carrying the date of 1824. Even though the date seems to be fictitious, it was nevertheless used in the description of the wine. So since the bottle shows the 1824 date and has been bottled from demijohn by the same New York wine merchant like the Vanderbilt bottle and since it names Cossart Gordon on the label it might well be a “Painted Pipe” wine.

1824 Cossart Habersham 1

However there was another big question mark about this wine. When the bottle had been found, there had only been a small cork loosely sticking in the bottle neck, no capsule, no wax cover and the level had been low shoulder. At first the seller of this bottle wanted to throw the contents away, finding more value in the antique bottle than in the wine. I was able to convince him of putting a clean cork firmly into the bottle neck and then shipping it. Miraculously the bottle survived the transport, arriving in perfect shape.

First inspection of the bottle showed a classic three-part mold with the typical seems at the shoulder. The bottle lip had been added to the neck by the use of a lipping tool and the bottle itself was in great condition, without any cracks or chips. The label was well legible, handwritten with ink on faded paper, sticking to the glass with water-soluble glue. There were no signs of seepage on the bottle, being consistent with the bottle having been found in an upright position.

I couldn’t resist for long, so here is the tasting note from august 2011: The color of the wine is a beautifully brilliant but pale bright iodine, just like you would imagine from Habersham’s special and secret wine treatment (ok, I’m getting carried away a little here…, but the color is just amazing!), showing a hint of orange at the rim, reminding me of an old Cognac I once tasted (and did not like…). The nose offers piercing volatile acidity that makes your eyes water, lots of lovage, a little toffee, with a base layer of a slightly burned or signed buttery caramel and a hint of apricot at the end. The nose is very promising, even though the very high level of VA is rather disturbing. Finally when taking a sip all my hopes are crushed. The wine shows burning acidity, being no longer drinkable, giving a paint-thinner-like feel to the throat. Even though there is some thin and almost faded black tea taste, a hint of lemon and a woody and absolutely dry background like in an old Cognac, the wine is clearly long dead, resembling somewhat of a ghost of a once probably very good Madeira wine. So is it really the original wine? Probably yes, since in the hot climate of Savannah the Madeira wine drinkers of Habersham’s time often preferred light and dry wines that were not too sweet or too heavy. For example in the above-mentioned Arnold & Co's catalogue of Habersham's wines many Madeiras are described as pale, light or dry. And what grape variety could it be? Well, many of the wines weren’t made from a single grape variety back then. And as shown above, Habersham's wines were mainly blended wines. In the case of the "Painted Pipe" this wine had been made from 8 different Madeiras. And the wine surely tastes like a blend, lacking the individual characteristics of a single grape variety.

Even though the wine clearly does not live up to the expectations it raised, I do not regret buying that special bottle. Finding out about the history and the background of this wine was just so interesting and so much fun. I had to share this information with you and I hope you enjoy reading it.

PS: If somebody is able to supply additional information about Habersham Madeira wines, the Morten & Co company of NYC or even a picture of an old Habersham bottle, forwarding it to me is highly appreciated!

PSS: Further reading can be found at showing the complete copy of “Ebb tide” by Spencer Bidwell King Jr., a very interesting book about the diary of William’s wife Josephine Clay Habersham which she kept in 1863, with many fine drawings as well as wonderful map of the Vernon river and the surroundings of Avon Hall. Also this book offers a lot of information about the Habersham family in general.

A general overview of Robert Habersham, William’s father, can be found in complete copy at also offering lots of additional information on the companies associated with the Habersham family.

Finally a beautiful booklet with wonderful pictures of Vernonburg, Georgia can be found at .