April 28, 2014

Ward McAllister: Society as I have found it, 1890

As the following lines from Wikipedia will show, Samuel Ward McAllister (1827 to 1895)was certainly in a position to know a lot about Madeira wine. So reading through his book “Society as I Have Found It”, published in 1890, I came across chapter XX, loaded with knowledge about Madeira wine. Every serious Madeira wine lover should read these pages that offer a somewhat wild mixture of facts and customs related to Madeira wine. They contain a lot of Madeira wisdom in general and also enable us to have a glimpse back into American history.

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Samuel Ward McAllister (1827–1895), U.S. lawyer and social leader, picture taken from Wikimedia Commons


Wikipedia about Ward McAllister:

Samuel Ward McAllister (December 1827 – January 31, 1895) was the self-appointed arbiter of New York society from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Born Samuel Ward McAllister to a socially prominent Savannah judicial family, he established himself as a successful attorney in California during the Gold Rush. He used the earnings from his legal prowess to journey throughout Europe’s great cities and spas—where he observed the mannerisms of the titled nobility. Upon his return to the United States, McAllister settled in New York City and married heiress Sarah Taintor Gibbons. Using his wife's wealth and his own social connections, McAllister sought to become a tastemaker amongst New York's "Knickerbocracy", a collection of old merchant and landowning families who traced their lineage back to the days of colonial New Amsterdam. McAllister's downfall came when he published a book of memoirs entitled Society as I Have Found It in 1890. The book, and his hunger for media attention, did little to endear him to the old guard, who valued their privacy in an era when millionaires were the equivalent of modern movie stars. McAllister died in disgrace while dining alone at New York's Union Club, in January 1895. His funeral, held on February 5, 1895, was well attended by many society figures of the day.


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Rue de New-York en 1840 by Hippolyte Sebron, oil on canvas, picture taken from Wikimedia Commons


Excerpt from “Society as I have found it” by Ward McAllister:

Chapter XX: Madeira the King of wines – It took its name from the ship it came in – Daniel Webster and “Butler 16” – How Philadelphians “fine” their Wines – A Southern Wine Party – An Expert’s shrewd Guess – The Newton Gordons – Prejudice against Malmsey – Madeira shouldn’t be kept in the Garret – Some famous Brands

Having had your champagne from the fish to the roast, your vin ordinaire though the dinner, your Burgundy or Johannisberg, or fine old Tokay (quite equal to any Johannisberg), with the cheese, your best Claret with the roast, then after the ladies have had their fruit and have left the table, comes the king of wines, your Madeira; a national wine, a wine only well matured at the South, and a wine whose history is as old as that of our country. I may here say, that Madeira imparts a vitality that no other w2ine can give. After drinking it, it can act as a soporific, but the next day you feel ten years younger and stronger for it. I have known a man, whose dinners were so famous by reason of his being always able to give at them a faultless Madeira, disappear with his wine. When his wine gave out, he collapsed. When asked, “Where is Mr. Jones?” the ready answer was always given, “He went out with his ‘Rapid’ Madeira.”

Families prided themselves on their Madeira. It became an heirloom (as Tokay now is, in Austria). Like the elephant, it seemed to live over three score years and ten. The fine Madeiras were fine when they reached this country. Age improved them, and made them the poetry of wine. They became the color of amber and retained all their original flavour. But it is an error to suppose that age ever improved a poor Madeira. If it came here poor and sweet, it remained poor and sweet, and never lost its sweetness, even at seventy or eighty years, while the famous Madeiras, dating as far back as 1791, if they have been properly cared for, are perfect to this day. We should value wine like women, for maturity, not age.

These wines took their names generally from the ships in which they came over. There is no more sensitive wine to climatic influences. A delicate Madeira, taken only a few blocks on a cold, raw day, is not fit to drink; and again, you might as well give a man champagne out of a horse bucket, as to give him a Madeira in a thick sherry or claret glass, or a heavy cut glass. The American pipe-stem is the only glass in which Madeira should be given, and when thus given, is, as one of our distinguished men once said, “The only liquid he ever called wine.” This ought to be given as was done by the Father of the Roman Lucullus, who never saw more than a single cup of Phanean wine served at one time at his father’s table.

A friend of mine once gave the proprietor of the Astor House, for courtesies extended to him, a dozen of his finest Madeira. He had the curiosity years after to ask his host of the Astor house what became of his wine. He replied, “Daniel Webster came to my house, and I opened a bottle of it for him, and he remained in the house until he had drunk up every drop of it.” This was the famous “Butler 16.”

As in painting there are the Murillo and Correggio schools, the light and ethereal conceptions of womanhood, as against the rich Titan coloring; so in Madeira, there is the full, round, strong, rich wine, liked by some in preference to the light, delicate, straw-colored, rain-water wines. Philadelphians first took to this character of wine. They judiciously “fined” their wine, and produced simply a perfect Madeira,-to be likened to the best Johannisberg, and naturally so, it having similar qualities, as it is well known that the Sercial Madeira, the “king pin” of all Madeiras, was raised from a Rhine grape taken to the island of Madeira. And here let me say, that “fining,” by using only the white of a perfectly fresh egg and Spanish clay, is proper and judicious, but milk is ruinous. The eggs in Spain are famous, and are thus used.

In Savannah and Charleston, from 1800 up to the Civil War, afternoon wine parties were the custom. You were asked to come and taste Madeira, at 5 P.M., after your dinner. The hour of dining in these cities was then always 3 P.M. The mahogany table, which reflected your face, was set with finger bowls, with four pipe-stem glasses in each bowl, olives, parched ground nuts and almonds, and half a dozen bottles of Madeira. There you sat, tasted and commented on these wines for an hour or more. On one occasion, a gentleman, not having any wine handy, mixed half “Catherine Banks” and half “Rapid.” On tasting the mixture, a great wine expert said if he could believe his host capable of mixing a wine, he would say it was “half Catherine Banks and half Rapid.” This was after fifteen men had said they could not name the Madeira.

A distinguished stranger having received an invitation to one of these wine parties from the British Consul, replied, “Thanks, I must decline, for where I dine I take my wine.”

The oldest and largest shippers of Madeira were the Newton Gordons, who sent the finest Madeiras to Charleston and Savannah. From 1791 to 1805, their firm was Newton Gordon, Murdock, & Scott. One hundred and ten years ago, they sent five hundred pipes of Madeira in one shipment to Savannah. These wines sent there were the finest Sercials, Buals and Malmseys. All these wines were known as extra Madeiras. The highest priced wine, a Manigult Heyward wine, I knew forty years ago; it was ninety years old-perfect, full flavoured, and of good color and strength. In Charleston and Savannah from 1780 to 1840, almost every gentleman ordered a pipe of wine from Madeira. I know a man who has kept this up for half a century.

There is a common prejudice against malmsey, as being a lady’s wine, and sweet; when very old, no Madeira can beat it. I have now in my cellar an “All Saints” wine, named after the famous Savannah Quoit Club, imported in 1791; a perfect wine, of exquisite flavour. My wife’s grandfather imported two pipes of Madeira every year, and my father-in-law continued to do this as long as he lived. When he died he had, as I am told, the largest private cellar of Madeira in the United States. All of his wines were Newton Gordons. He made the fatal mistake of hermetically sealing them in glass gallon bottles, with ground glass stoppers, keeping them in his cellar; keeping them from light and air, preventing the wine from breathing, as it were. It has taken years for them to recover from this treatment.

Madeira should be kept in the garret. A piece of corn cob is often a good cork for it. Light and air do not injure it, drawing it off from its lees occasionally, makes it more delicate, but if done too often, the wine may spoil, as its lees support and nourish it.

The great New York Madeiras, famous when landed and still famous, were “The Marsh and Benson, 1809,” “The Coles Madeira,” “The Stuyvesant,” “The Clark,” and “The Eliza.” In Philadelphia, “The Butler, 16.” In Boston, The “Kirby,” the “Amory 1800,” and “1811,” “The Otis,” In Baltimore, “The Marshall,” “The Holmes Demijohn,” “The Mob,” “The Colt.” In Charleston, “The Rutledge,” “The Hurricane,” “The Earthquake,” “The Maid,” “The Traddstreet.” In Savannah, “The All Saints” (1791), “The Catherine Banks,” “The Louisa Cecilia” (1818), “The Rapid,” 1817, and “The Widow.”

PS: To my knowledge there is no copyright on "Society as I have found it", especially not in this 1890 version. Since it was published before January 1st, 1923 I believe it has entered the public domain. But should you know of any still existing copyright please inform me using my email-address from the chapter "Introduction" or the forum. I used the original text layout and all the typos are exactly from the original (or so I hope).