An Ounce of Madeira, A Step Back in Time

By Marc Gilson

“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”   —- Proverbs 31:6-7

When I was a teenager, I imagined what my life would be like at middle age: immensely successful, impeccably fit, well traveled, highly respected, funny, ruggedly attractive, immaculately-dressed, indiscloseably wealthy, and entitled to make up words like “indiscloseably.” Think James Bond without the British accent and without quite so many brushes with death.

Now that I’m here, firmly ensconced in my 40s, I’ve had to settle for “funny,” and even that is a trait I only possess in moderation. So it’s fair to say that while I’m pretty content with my life it certainly hasn’t lived up to the teenaged fantasy. It’s like ordering a fast food hamburger; it will look absolutely nothing like it does in the TV commercials – a perfectly constructed, two-handed, mouth-watering, juicy burger – but you eat the greasy thing anyway, don’t you? So it’s life, limp pickles and all.

Burgers might reveal too much about the refinement of my adult tastes, but that’s another thing I thought would be different about being in my 40s; I thought I’d be busy indulging in the finer things in life. I thought I’d be more likely to be spotted at the symphony rather than on my couch watching baseball. I thought I’d belong to an elite golf club rather than riding my stationary bike in the garage. I thought I’d be wearing tailored Brooks Brothers suits as opposed to jeans and a button-down from Target. And, most importantly, I thought I’d really be into wine.

Wine is very popular with successful people. They drink it frequently and know all about it. They know their recioto from their reds, their sherry from their shiraz, and their vintage from their vin mousseux. While it’s true that wine is a wonderful beverage with a deeply rich history, let’s face it: for many people, it’s a status drink more than anything else. That’s not to say that everyone who drinks wine is a pretentious ass (I do know I’m playing amid generalities here, so forgive me, wine people). It’s just that I’ve found myself so often put-off by the attitudes of some wine lovers and all things vinous, that I’ve come to associate wine drinking with a certain degree of conceitedness. So while I beg the pardon of St. Vincent (the patron saint of wine-makers) I’ve avoided drinking much wine and have stuck to my bourbon or beer when imbibing.

You might think I’m being a tad unfair in saying that wine drinking is often tied to status. But the relationship of wine to status isn’t new. In fact wine, it can be argued, has lubricated the machinations of the upper crust for eons.

The ancient Greeks, the first known connoisseurs of fermented grape juice, knew full-well that you served finer wine to those you wished to impress, and you gave your slaves wine diluted with water in a 4 to 1 ratio. The Romans practically built their culture around wine; so many farmers abandoned their grain crops in favor of the much more profitable vineyards that grain had to be imported from elsewhere to compensate for the food shortage. They too used their best wine to schmooze honored guests and made sure to serve their better wine at the beginning of the evening’s festivities. Then they’d signal the kitchen to bring out the spoiled wine later on, once people were too soused to know the difference.

The best wine, in any wine-appreciating culture, has always been reserved for the elite (and sober), while the diluted, spoiled, or vinegary wine – called “lora” or “posca” in ancient Rome was provided to the slaves and lower classes. It was likely a sponge soaked in posca that was offered to Jesus as he suffered on the cross. Imagine that; there you are giving up your life for the sins of humanity and somebody offers you the equivalent of spoiled Franzia, out of a bucket, from a sponge on a stick, no less.

Today’s version of posca might be certain cheap fortified wines of relatively high alcohol content often sold in jugs or boxes, and that, say some, contribute to vagrancy and homelessness. Night Train Express, anybody?

While I know enough to opt for a decent chardonnay over a bottle of Ripple, truth-be-told, I think I’m intimidated by the whole “wine” thing. There’s just so much to it; so many do’s and don’ts. I know a few basics, like “never serve white wine with hot dogs,” and “a full-bodied merlot is ill-paired with Doritos.” But don’t be fooled by my apparent sophistication. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to wine, the guys living under the bridge sharing flasks of Thunderbird probably have more refined palates than I do. I just don’t pay attention to the more subtle aspects of wine tasting. The “bouquet?” The “nose?” The “finish?” Are we drinking here, or picking out flowers and furniture varnish? I generally fall into the category of wine drinkers concerned with the aspect of “taste,” as in, “Hey, how’s the wine?” “Oh, tastes pretty good, thanks!”

Yeah, I know, I know, the world of wine tasting is one of refinement, elegance, subtle appreciation, and discernment. And that appeals to me. But if I’m entirely honest about it, I approach wine like I approach most drinks; does it taste good, and if so, may I please have some more?

Now I recognize that my overall exposure to wine has been relatively limited. I have not, for example, sampled some of the more expensive wines, like a 1982 Bordeaux Blend Lafite Rothchild, which runs about $8,000 a bottle. But in my defense, I live by a maxim passed down to me from my grandfather, who, just before he died, said, “Do not drink anything that costs more than your last car, unless someone else is buying.” Words to live by. But then again, I don’t know if he was speaking from experience. Maybe dropping a few $K on a good gulp of vino would be worth it. Did Grampy try it? On his income? Probably not. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I had that kind of money. What if I had a fistful of Benjamins and plunked it all down on the bar and placed my order, “Bartender, a magnum of 1982 Bordeaux Blend Lafite Rothchild please, and pour it into a diamond-encrusted stein. Dirty.” “Certainly, sir. Right away, sir.”

I would expect that, after such an investment, my first sip of an $8,000 wine would, at the very least, imbue me with the kind of everlasting life Indiana Jones got from drinking out of the Holy Grail. Throw in the looks and charm of Adonis, or at least those of Harrison Ford, and I might empty out my IRA and tip back a few. Somehow I doubt it works that way.

But alas, while I once coughed up $100 on a fine single malt scotch, I cannot see myself spending more than $30 on a bottle of wine these days. I know myself too well for that.

Let me give you an example: the last bottle of wine I bought was purchased at a convenience store. I was waiting to pay for my Cheetos and gum when a small wine rack next to the counter caught my attention. There was Chardonnay, Merlot, a Riesling, and a couple Zinfandels. I opted for the $9 Riesling, which I thought might complement the Cheetos nicely. I brought it home, uncorked it (okay, unSCREWED it), let it “breathe” for five minutes, and then poured it into a Guinness pint glass. I would say that the nose was crisp, with notes of apricot, apple, and a finish of light vanilla that persisted for nearly one full minute. Drinking it through a straw was a last-minute decision.

However, while I admit to approaching wine with the erudition and delicacy of Fred Flintstone, I do have a confession to make. I have acquired a grape-based guilty pleasure that has, somehow, managed to make me into a full-on, hardcore, lover of wine; a connoisseur, aficionado, and unabashed lover of a particular kind of wine you may have never heard of. It’s called Madeira, and it changed my life.

Made on the picturesque island of Madeira off the coast of Spain, Madeira wine-making goes back to the 14th century and is rife with history. It was Madeira that America’s founding fathers drank to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington was a known Madeira buff, rumored to consume a pint or more daily (that’s right, folks, the father of our blessed country was often tipsy on dessert wine!). And it was Madeira that was used to christen the legendary USS Constitution in 1797.

With varying degrees of sweetness and dryness, Madeira is usually served as an aperitif or dessert wine, like port or sherry. In fact, it’s a kind of “anti-wine;” its characteristics derived from doing the opposite one would normally do to produce, say, a stunning Merlot. For one thing, while most wines must avoid contact with oxygen until it’s time to drink, Madeira is allowed to oxidize, giving it a dense, rich body, like a fine liqueur. While the natural sediments in wine are typically left to settle to the bottom of the bottle (or cask), Madeira is intentionally moved around from time to time to infuse and concentrate it with flavor derived from those very sediments.

The result is a wine of rich, deep substance, with an amazing spectrum of subtle flavors, including chocolate, caramel, anise, walnut, coffee, spice, toffee, coconut, vanilla, and velvety brown sugar. It is, to me and other Madeira lovers, a deeply enjoyable adventure in both taste and history.

Madeira first reached European palates in 1515, when shipped to King Francis the 1st of Spain. Wine importers initially worried that Madeira would prove to be a lost cause, what with all the jostling and stifling heat it endured in the hold during the long sea voyages; not ideal for most wines, to say the least. But shippers soon realized that the constant movement of the ship and excessive heat actually worked to improve the taste of the wine rather than degrade it. This resulted in Madeira, spending so long at sea, becoming known as the vinho da roda, or “wine of the round voyage.” So when Francis got his first taste, the deal was sealed and Madeira became highly prized among European imbibers. And the best part is that because Madeira is a fortified wine, it has the added advantage of being able to be stored and consumed over long periods of time making it feasible for Madeira lovers today to enjoy the same wine people were enjoying more than a century ago. Indeed, Madeira wine of over 200 years old can be found in some restaurants, even today.

My first exposure to Madeira came in the Fall of 1986, when I visited a local Indian restaurant renown not only for its food, but also for its wine list; one of the best on the entire west coast. My father and I had just finished an astounding meal of Chicken Tikka Masala, curried scallops, and biryani, when our server enquired as to our feelings on the topic of dessert. Having stuffed ourselves on fine Indian cuisine, we were disinclined to give in to further temptation.

That’s when our server, Craig, a wine expert, leaned over our table and said, “I might mention that we are having a special on a fine Madeira. A 1928 Bual.”

Dad and I looked to each other with raised eyebrows, curiosity whetted. Neither of us had the faintest idea what this man was talking about, but it certainly sounded interesting. Craig, taking pity on our obvious ignorance, filled in the blanks, “Madeira is a wonderful fortified wine that isn’t as affected by exposure to oxygen as most wines and therefore can be stored, opened, and enjoyed over long periods of time. It’s quite flavorful.” As discreetly (and somewhat sheepishly) as I could, I asked the price. “We normally sell this wine at $32 per ounce,” said Craig, “but tonight an ounce is $18.”

An ounce? Eighteen bucks for an ounce of anything street-legal caused my mind to reel for a moment. I tried to look indifferent, with a casual nod. But I think my eye twitched a little. Craig eyed us both for a moment, probably regretting his suggestion and about to recommend a pitcher of Coors Light instead, and said, “I’ll leave you some time to decide. But I would mention,” he added in a hushed tone, “that once people taste a Madeira of this magnificent quality, they become aficionados for life.” And then he walked away. The bastard.

Aficionados? For life? Dad and I looked at one another and pondered the implications. What did this mean? Aficionados for life? Would we be getting badges? Can I add that to my resume? Will there be some sort of ceremony? How’s my hair?

I was picking up the tab on the meal this evening and had already spent a small fortune on dinner. But then again, Dad and I rarely had a chance to dine out together. This was quality time with Dad. This was a special occasion. And this “1928 Boy Al,” or whatever, was almost half price!

Always the bargain hunter, I decided to throw caution (and some cash) to the wind and we ordered up two ounces of the stuff. Craig, appearing pleased with us, did a brief head cock, bowed slightly, and heeled off toward the wine cellar. Somewhere deep in my pocket I felt my credit card roll its eyes and toss up its hands. But dammit all, this was our chance to elevate ourselves into the sacred and elite realm of the wine aficionado and I was not about to blow it over 36 measly dollars!

It took quite some time for the wine to arrive. I suppose one must be rather careful when pouring two ounces of wine when $36 is on the line and the wine is almost 60 years old. It was brought to our table by two winged angels riding chariots of gold whilst the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang Ode to Joy.

Actually, it was brought in two tiny little dessert wine glasses by Craig, but he delivered it with great care and flourish, placing our glasses gently before us as though handling a couple ounces of plutonium. He had clearly done this before. We hadn’t. After Craig delivered the goods, he bowed again and said, “Gentlemen. Enjoy.” He departed in a flash, leaving us alone with my investment. I mean, Madeira.

Dad and I spent a moment looking at our tiny glasses of amber-colored wine. Dad is a man who enjoys a fine drink and a choice cigar whenever the opportunity presents itself. So I was not worried he would simply down this spendy liquid like a shot of tequila.

But then again, is there some protocol for drinking such a thing as a 1928 Madeira? We elected for the traditional clinking of glasses, careful not to spill a drop of the precious liquid inside. He said, “Here’s to 1928!” and we took our first sip.

It’s a funny thing how such unexpected pleasures in life leave their mark. I realize how absurd it may sound, but as we lowered our glasses from our lips, we said nothing, only smiled, and allowed our senses to be absolutely overwhelmed by this sensation. It was metaphysical. It was glorious. It was sweet, rich, aromatic, slightly spicy, and felt as if our mouths had been suddenly but gently upholstered in some sort of fine, luxurious velvet.

We attempted to comment, but couldn’t, being in the throes of a moment of absolute bliss. There was really no need to discuss it. No words necessary. Craig was right. This drink, this…wine… was some sort of panacea, a magic elixir. As I took my second, precious sip, life became an experience of complete and utter satisfaction. This was no posca or convenience store swill. This was enchantment in a tiny glass.

In 1928, Sonja Henie won her first gold medal in the 2nd Winter Olympics in St Moritz, Switzerland. Charles Lindbergh was presented with the Medal of Honor for his first trans-Atlantic flight. Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin. The ever-dour but resourceful Herbert Hoover became President of the United States. Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in the cartoon “Steamboat Willie.” And somewhere on the island of Madeira, someone began making the 1928 Bual my father and I savored that crisp autumn evening in 1986.

It takes quite an experience to render my father and I speechless. But as we sat there grinning at each other and sipping our Madeira, I noticed Craig, standing at a distance, next to the kitchen, a slight, knowing smile on his face. I worried that he might judge us unworthy of our purchase. Pearls before swine, or something. But Craig is a wise man and superb server, and at heart he seems eminently concerned with the satisfaction of his patrons. Mission accomplished. Craig rules over his wine collection like a lion over his pride. So as he looked on favorably while Dad and I continued our sipping, I realized that he was right. We were instant aficionados of Madeira. I also realized that I was hooked, and expense aside, I would soon be returning to sample more of this sacred tonic.

In the months to come, I would taste a 1930 Barbeito, a 1923 Malvazia, a 1926 Sercial, a 1900 Verdelho, an 1892 Verdelho, and a dozen others. Each presented its own unique, wondrous drinking experience. I confess that I’ve spent a small fortune on these taste excursions; an ounce-by-ounce pleasure, but without an ounce of regret. Someday I intend to finally sample the legendary 1795 Terrantez, $210 per ounce before the last of it is gone, or perhaps the oldest known vintage, a 1715 Terrantez. What might wine made in the year Louis the XIV died taste like?

So at middle age, I have not become the suave, urbane, bon vivant I had envisioned. I’ll still opt for a good pulled pork sandwich over a filet mignon more often than not. I’ll still choose the Yankees over opera.

But as I sat there with my father, watching him agreeably relishing this simple, ancient taste sensation from a bygone age, our little glasses of Madeira provided me with something much more important; a sense of connection to history, to life, to the grape-infused vein of human refinement, and to my dad. What more can anyone ask from a glass of wine?

It’s true that my life is not one of complete refinement, sophistication, erudition, and class. I still can’t recommend a fine Merlot to properly represent you at your next dinner party. And most of the wine world remains a mystery to me. But I do have my niche as a Madeira lover. And it’s one infused with rich flavors, a hint of history, and a bouquet of fond memories in which life is truly, tastefully, good

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