Many are unaware of the important role Madeira wine held in early American life. It was used to celebrate occasions and was toasted in the most respected homes throughout our new nation, particularly here in Savannah.
The Davenport House Museum will be performing traditional Madeira parties on several dates throughout February, allowing guests to get a closer, historic look at the wine’s influence on early Savannah society.
In the beginning days of our nation, wine-quality grapes were not grown in the original thirteen colonies, so importing was the only option. Madeira filled the need. The potent potable was the dominant wine import of the time and was used in every way in politics, helping the economy, and in making a social statement.
The Founding Fathers consumed the fortified wine regularly and it was served at the signing of the Declaration of Independence as well as George Washington’s inaugurations.
Jamie Credle, Director of The Davenport House Museum, stressed the importance of knowing our local history which was also a huge impact on the development of our country.
“This event gives us an opportunity to talk about something that is specialized as opposed to just what we do normally,” she said. “Madeira was a favorite celebratory tasting wine through the early 19th century, especially here in Savannah with its closeness to the port and the seafaring life.”
The wine is produced on Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal that was part of the early Atlantic trade.
Credle said, “The back-and-forth Atlantic trade included goods, but also enslaved people. We do understand and recognize that. The Ann, the ship that brought Oglethorpe and the first settlers here to Savannah, stopped in Madeira and loaded up on wine before coming to the colony. It’s always been part of our culture here.”
Credle explained what made the wine so special.
“These large sailing ships had containers within called pipes. They would grow warm from the coal and also the direct sunlight. Because the Madeira was exposed to this heat, it actually made the wine even better.”
In essence, Credle said, the heat pasteurized the wine, making the taste quite unique.
“For the people in Savannah [and Charleston] who loved drinking Madeira, it was easy to store. You didn’t need an underground cellar to it cool keep. Many folks of the time kept it in their warm attic to preserve the temperature.”
Another benefit, Credle stated, was “There wasn’t a big tax on Madeira like there was on French or Spanish wines at the time.”
Madeira in Savannah
Madeira was consumed regularly throughout Savannah’s founding days, according to Credle.
“Some of the more prominent houses in town, like the Davenport and Owen Thomas houses, conducted inventories and discovered many references to the use and storage of Madeira in their record-keeping.”
“When Mr. Davenport died, he had a demijohn in his inventory—that’s the traditional glass storage vessel for Madeira,” she relayed. “So, we know the wine was an important part of these families’ lives in entertaining and celebrating. Some people had 90 bottles of the wine stored around their property at any given time.”
“Vintners of Madeira were attuned marketing-wise to what East Coast people liked. A local fellow by the name of William Neyle Habersham is credited with naming Rainwater Madeira which is one of the ones we have here,” Credle said. “It’s said he took a taste of Madeira and said it was ‘as fine as rainwater.’”
Potable Gold Event
Realtor Liza DiMarco is sponsoring the event at The Davenport House because of her strong belief in historical preservation.
“The fabric of the city’s history is so important to Savannah,” DiMarco said. “To preserve it helps to preserve the city itself, its atmosphere, its culture. It shows respect to the ancestry that created the beautiful surroundings we live in. Without the preservation, Savannah wouldn’t be the wonderful city she is today because we would have lost her to mindless development.”
The event will be performed Fridays and Saturdays in February at 5:30 p.m., lasting 75 minutes. Guests will experience the historic atmosphere of the Davenport House in a socially distanced format while learning about and tasting a unique and flavorful wine.
“Madeira parties traditionally followed the evening meal and was for men only,” Credle said. “Our take on the traditional party is to make it for everyone. It was an opportunity after the meal to sit around and discuss the wine, the news of the day, and politics for an hour. I’d say we still do similar activities today.”
Credle said similar to the stress of modern-day, “There is value to being able to separate yourself from your work and your cares and simply talk about things that might interest you and others. It’s great sharing those thoughts over a relaxing glass of wine.”
Patrons to the event will get an orientation to the long and rich tradition of Madeira as it relates to the history of Savannah.
“The event will give a teeny, little taste of the Madeira,” Credle said with a laugh. “After all, this is an education program primarily, but an adult education program. We’ll talk about the island of Madeira, our founding fathers, the early nation and we particularly share how hospitality took place in these houses.”
Credle’s hope is the event will give folks an idea of what life in Savannah was like in its beginning days.
“After the simulated Madeira party, we’ll make our way up to one of the attic rooms,” she said. “We keep our groups small and start at dusk, just as people would do back in the day. It’s fun to see the house by candlelight—we only do that three times a year, including our yellow fever program in October (kind of creepy) and then our Christmas program. This event is held in February before it gets too warm to go up to the garret room.”
The director anticipates a great event. “I’m ready to be with people again. We need to be doing things again… not just watching people on television doing things. This is an opportunity in this international tourist destination for people to come to [the Davenport House] for a reason and learn.”
“Our city is beautiful and our story is interesting,” she continued. “This gives everyone a chance to step back and think about something people did in the past and the time they set aside for themselves. It’s a time to step out of the ordinary.”
Credle is pleased to offer an out-of-the-house break for visitors and locals alike.
“We’re talking about a beverage people aren’t necessarily familiar with, so we try to make it fun and educational and worth coming out for. It’s refreshing to be with your friends and we’re going be safe with up to 10 people per performance.”
She added, “We’re all sort of messed up having been in isolation so long. This allows us to talk about something that’s rather untold, but we get to share it with friends.”
The event requires reservations and Credle stresses not to wait until the last minute.
“The first two weeks are already booked, so please call us for a reservation if you’re interested,” Credle said.
“We’re starting to look at our lives again and appreciating these times to be with other people. We want to cherish those times and make opportunities together.”
For more information or to make reservations, contact The Davenport House at 912-236-8097 or by visiting davenporthousemuseum.org