The Wine-Dark Sea
Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of
American Trade and Taste
Yale University Press, 2009
Madeira wine is indelibly linked with the American story. Its medicinal and anaesthetic qualities earned it a place at the side of George Washington’s deathbed. Its value as a commodity created the dispute over duties that led to the seizure of John Hancock’s boat and to rioting in Boston. It was with a glass of Madeira that the Founding Fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And if David Hancock is right, trends in contemporary American commerce developed from Americans’ desire to fill their glasses with this robust wine from tiny Madeira, an island not much larger than the Isle of Man.
Tracing the story of Madeira from its beginning at humble farms to its place at Chief Justice John Marshall’s dinner table, Oceans of Wine situates wine at the centre of the Atlantic dynamic which spurred the economic ascendancy of the Americas. While Hancock’s entertaining narrative engages the reader, the real power of this book rests in its capacity to demonstrate how economic networks and individual ties came to define not only a new culture of consumption, but also a nation.
Not unlike the improbable birth of the United States, Hancock reveals Madeira’s emergence as a trade borne of convenience. The island was a key stopping point on trans-Atlantic journeys sailing with the brisk northeast trade winds and Canary current from Europe. This fortuitous location fueled and fulfilled consumer demands, transforming the wine from a simple, cheap, and easily preserved cargo into a varied and refined drink. Madeira’s success was immense: from 1700 to 1775, it comprised just over three-quarters of Anglo-American wine imports, with British North America consuming a quarter of the global trade. Small but significant quantities were even shipped as far as India. With the help of a small island, America thus took its first steps toward becoming a leading power in the new and truly global economy of the modern world.
Hancock’s book provides an excellent exploration of the effects that such expansive trade had on all aspects of life, from culture to politics. We learn, for example, that Madeira was a touchstone of international contention for nearly two centuries. Originally, politics favoured the island, with periodic boycotts, legal restrictions, and seizure by privateers keeping French and Spanish wines from the American palate. This reversed in the late 18th century, however, as Madeira was caught in the increasingly hostile relations between Britain and her North American colonies. Portugal sided with the British and closed the island’s ports to American ships, forcing those merchants to turn to France, precipitating a growing taste for the wines of continental Europe, and ultimately stunting the Portuguese economy. Both in boom and in bust, then, the story of Madeira constitutes a case for Jeffersonian pragmatism: “commerce with all nations; alliance with none”.
Hancock’s simultaneously leisurely and intensely factual style deftly reveals the connections between such grand geopolitical movements and the individuals behind Madeira’s journey from grape to glass. He introduces the reader to the methods of Madeira production along with the vintners who produced it, the merchants who moved and sold it, and the consumers who drank it. Culling a vast array of primary sources, he also shows how consumer opinion influenced prices and production methods thousands of miles away—and in turn, how the dynamic Madeira trade influenced the economic fortunes of nations around the Atlantic.
Connecting this economic picture to the texture of “consumer culture” is Hancock’s forte. He neatly outlines early trends in wine consumption, links them to shifts in American domestic life, and then—in perhaps his most interesting move—suggests a genealogy from 18th-century consumerism to our own. At the start of this story, the growth in Madeira trade improved knowledge of wine and its production, storage, and maturation. This prompted a string of responses: cellars were built on the advice of importers; buyers learned the benefits of decanting; vendors obliged with a profusion of decanter styles; and drinkers wishing to pour increasingly special Madeira into complementary glassware drove demand for a vast array of wine glasses, often beautifully etched. The Madeira trade had knock-on effects in other areas too, stimulating not only wine consumption, but also naval construction, crystal production, and glassware.
And from all this activity, as with the Greeks, Romans, French, and Italians before them, Americans were creating a culture around the social drink. With its elegant paraphernalia, Madeira quickly became a status barometer. In a letter evocative of contemporary drink etiquette, for instance, George Washington advised his daughter to give her finest Madeiras only to “particular and intimate acquaintances” and “persons of distinction”. Trade in Madeira also stimulated demand for other wines, contributing to a cultural expansion beyond high society. Academia was a notable recipient of this spread: disapproving reports of the time complained that “scholars…unnecessarily frequent Taverns”, whilst the second president and former Harvard law student John Adams wistfully reminisced about “the free use of Cider and the very moderate Use of wine and ardent Spirits”.
Complaints of the period notwithstanding, the development of the social drink was part and parcel of the founders’ vision of a country cohered by distinctly American culture. Foreshadowing the emergence of Napa and Sonoma nearly two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson expressed a desire for America to develop its own wine culture on the model of his beloved France. According to Hancock, it was Madeira that allowed this dream to become a reality—and it was Maderia that bound this reality to a particular brand of consumerism. Wine became the drink of hospitality and was marketed as such, with distributors advertising that their wine was served at the table of Alexander Hamilton, that President Madison or President Monroe was their customer. Madeira thus led to the development of contemporary marketing strategies, and to an American culture of consumption.
While the story of the founding of the American nation has been told many times, telling it through a glass of Madeira wine brings new life to what can too easily be inaccessible history. Hancock’s book reveals Madeira’s unique ability to shed light on the connections — both humble and grand — between wine, economics, politics, and the very human biographies of individuals who are too often made remote by their small part in a history long past. Therefore, when next uncorking a bottle of wine, it would not be out of place to consider raising a toast to Madeira for its compelling role in a history which still shapes our world.
James Moxness is reading for an MPhil in Classical Archaeology at Merton College, Oxford.