In January of 1920, Babe Ruth was traded for a record $125,000 to the Red Sox. “Human Fly” George Polley climbed the Woolworth Building in New York as far as the 30th floor before being arrested. The New York Times publicly blasted rocket scientist Robert Goddard in an article they would have to retract just as publicly 49 years later, when Apollo blasted off for the moon. Most importantly that month, the United States put the Eighteenth Amendment into effect and banned the production, transport, and sale of alcohol.
Taking up residence at Liberty Hall in 1811, the Kean family produced more than it’s fair share of political heavy hitters, most of them named John. The John Kean who passed away in 1795 had been a member of the Second Continental Congress and was appointed by George Washington himself to run the Bank of the United States. When Grandson Col. John Kean inherited the 14-room “country house,” he upgraded it to a 50-room mansion.
His oldest son John became a Congressman, then Senator, followed by younger brother Hamilton, who also became a Senator. When the Col. and his Senatorial sons were faced with the dilemma of what to do with the family wine collection, now that it had just been declared contraband, they did what any upstanding family of lawmakers would do. They boarded it up with plywood and plaster. Like anything unused in the basement year after year, the family pretty much forgot it was there.
Hamilton’s son John got title to the estate in 1932 and passed it on to his son John, current owner since 1995 and museum president. He grew up in the house before heading off to school. The wine cellar never interested him much. “I knew the wine cellar was there and used to watch my father go into the basement with a big key and open the door. But I never went in there by myself because it was a scary place,” he said. “It was dark and gloomy and filled with cobwebs and dust. It was always locked, and I am not sure anyone knew where the key was. But I knew because I remembered my father always getting it from the right-hand cabinet next to the fireplace in the dining room.”
As the house turned museum was getting a top to bottom restoration, they finally got around to opening the cellar. They expected to find wine and were not surprised to find 600 bottles and 40 “demi-johns,” which are large glass jugs used to store and transport the wine. Then they came across some unlabeled crates. Once they got the handmade nails loose from the wooden boxes and poked through the ancient straw, they found “several bottles whose corks were covered in red wax seal.”
The still legible labels read “Lenox Madeira” and said they had been “Imported by the late Robert Lenox, Esq., via Philadelphia, in 1796. Bottled, Summer of 1798. Re-Bottled, June 1888.” “It was an oh my God moment,” Bill Schroh, Liberty Hall’s Museum Director said.
It wasn’t long before Mannie Berk, one of the countries top experts on Madeira wine heard about the find. He quickly called the museum and arranged for him and a colleague to get a look. The president of San Francisco’s Rare Wine Co., Berk was floored by what he saw. Opening bids for each bottle will start at $10,000 and could get to $25,000 or better he estimates if it gets to auction. The find is exceptionally rare because Madeira that was imported during its peak time of consumption in the 1700s is impossible to come by.
The wine is still drinkable after all this time. Not only that, after airing out in a decanter for “several weeks,” it will only get better. “The longer the wine breathes in the open air, the better it tastes,” Berk said. “It had the unique quality of being almost immortal,” said Berk, “One reason has to do with the volcanic soil on the island. Another is that importers deliberately sailed the ships with the barrels through the tropics to condition the wine. Subjecting it to heat that way was part of the process that gave the wine such great longevity.”
Museum director Schroh says Madeira was the “drink of choice for 18th-century gentlemen because it was easy to ship and lasted.” The labels indicate the wine was imported personally for Robert Lenox, “a millionaire and major wine importer from New York City.” According to Schroh, “Madeira was a popular beverage for elites in colonial and early America, George Washington was a noted fan.”
Earlier this month there were a flurry of stories relating the found Madeira to a celebration of John Adam’s election. The event was of historical significance because it marked the first peaceful transition of power in history, from Washington to Adams when he beat Jefferson in the election in 1796. Wine expert Berk saw the stories and his jaw dropped. “I was scratching my head. Who came up with that?” he asked.
“There’s nothing to corroborate the John Adams story.” Just taking a look at the labels gives you all you need to know to debunk the recent “fake news.” It shows the wine was imported from Madeira in 1796 in a barrel by Lenox. It was bottled in 1798 for his personal collection evidenced by his seal on the neck of the bottle. It was taken out, and “rejuvenated” by airing it out in June of 1888, then put back in the original bottles. The new labels were added by the new merchant naming the wine, “Lenox Madeira.” The family would have acquired them after that.
No matter if they were meant to commemorate Adams election or not, the exceptionally rare and still palatable wine is a find of priceless significance. The oldest of the batches has not been opened for sampling yet but the current John Kean got a taste of a younger sample only 147 years old and says it tastes like sherry.