George Washington Drank Here

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has donated $1.2 million to the Mount Vernon estate to be applied toward the reconstruction of George Washington’s distillery. The donation was announced on December 8, at a black-tie function held at the estate. In addition to the authentic reconstruction of the distillery on its original foundation, the donation will be used to support educational programs.

The still is located at the gristmill, which Washington had built three miles from his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Now part of a state park, the mill was restored in 1932; not until this past summer did archeologists begin serious investigations into the distillery site. Excavations uncovered a 20-foot section of the distillery’s western foundation, along with portions of the brick drainage system.

Washington was quoted in his Revolutionary War correspondence as saying that distilled spirits were "essential to the health of the men." Spokesmen at Mount Vernon are quick to add that the founding father, although he was a regular consumer (finding its effects "very refreshing and salutary," according to his correspondence), he was also an advocate of responsibility and moderation.

The still was constructed in 1798 at the urging of Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson. Anderson, a native of Scotland, had experience in distilling both in Scotland and in Virginia. Washington was reluctant at first, writing that distilled liquor was "a business that I am entirely unfamiliar with." Anderson convinced Washington that a still was a natural side business to the mill operation already in place: Mount Vernon’s abundance of grains and its ready water supply were ideal.

The distillery, which was known as Dogue Run Farm, was up and running in a year, and was one of the largest distilleries in the young nation at the time. The building was 75 by 30 feet and housed five copper stills, five worm tubes, a boiler, and 50 mash tubs, plus a cellar, a cooperage and living quarters for Anderson and his son.

Records show that in 1799 Washington produced 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey. At its peak, the distillery earned a very tidy annual profit of $7,500. Among Washington’s customers were the finest families of Virginia, who paid in cash or commodities. He also imported rums from the Caribbean to use in Martha’s punches, which were legendary.

Washington died in 1799, and the distillery rapidly fell into disrepair. It was gradually dismantled over the course of the 19th century, the stones used for other construction projects.

One of Washington’s original copper stills is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution; curators will loan the still to the Mount Vernon estate to enhance its authenticity. Reconstruction is expected to take five years; once it is complete, visitors to Mount Vernon will be able to study the distillation process from crop to drop.

—Tim Moriarty

Historic Brunello Breaks Record at Auction

A 109-year-old bottle of a rare Brunello di Montalcino from one of the greatest vintages of the 19th century was sold at auction for more than $13,000 on December 3. The bottle of Biondi-Santi 1891 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, described by experts as a "work of art" and one of only seven in existence, was sold to an anonymous Dutch collector for 29.5 million lire ($13,310). The 1891 vintage was one of the finest early vintages of Biondi-Santi.

"This bottle is a piece of history," said a wine expert at the auction, adding that the wine was in excellent condition, although the bottle is unlikely ever to be opened. The lawyer who bid for the wine on behalf of the purchaser would reveal little of the new owner’s identity. "I can only say that my client is a Dutch industrialist and a great collector of wine and works of art. The wine will not be drunk, but will become part of my client’s collection," attorney Remo Roscioni said.

An even older bottle of Biondi-Santi wine, an 1888, failed to make its reserve price at the sale—run by the Pandolfini auction house in Milan, Italy—although bids reached 19.5 million lire ($8,854). The wine was one of the first Brunellos to be laid down by Feruccio Biondi-Santi, and is also from one of the great years, but is now seen as past its prime.


Napa Pioneer Joe Heitz Dies

Legendary Napa Valley vintner Joe Heitz, who came from an academic background to bottle the first great vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon in California, died Dec. 16, at the age of 81. He had been in failing health after suffering a major stroke early last year.

It was in 1965 that Heitz, who had started his eponymously named winery only four years previously, first purchased grapes from a source called Martha’s Vineyard, which was owned by a local couple, Tom and Martha May. The 15-acre site south of Oakville produced a distinctively mint- or eucalyptus-scented Cabernet, and Heitz decided not only to bottle it separately, but to include the "Martha’s Vineyard" name on the label.

For a while, Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was the most celebrated, and most expensive, red wine in California. Although Heitz’s wines declined in fame, and some said in quality in more recent decades, Martha’s remained in the upper echelon of the state’s wines until the vineyard was replanted in 1993.

The young Joe Heitz got a master’s degree in enology at the University of California at Davis, and for his first job went to work for Gallo. In short order, he landed at Beaulieu, under the tutelage of Andre Tchelistcheff. "I liked the job," Heitz later recalled, "but I was mostly [Tchelistcheff’s] understudy." When Heitz was offered the chance to set up the enology program at Fresno State, he took it. In 1961, with a $5,000 down payment, he started his own winery.

Heitz’s daughter, Kathleen, who is president of the winery, says it will remain in the family’s hands. His son, David, has been the winemaker for some time.

—Steve Heimoff


Rioja Row, as Sales and Prices Collapse

A vineyard in Rioja, where high yields have the wine industry reeling

A serious dispute has broken out in the Rioja region of Spain, as yields from the 2000 harvest have broken all records, stocks have built up in the region’s bodegas, and the price of grapes has fallen by half in less than a year. Protesting farmers have demanded action from the region’s wine regulatory council to protect their livelihoods, as the latest harvest shot up above 360 million litres of wine (95 million gallons). At the same time, a collapse in sales has shown that consumers both in Spain and overseas are making their feelings clear about rising Rioja prices.

Over the past decade, the area under vine in Rioja has increased from 106,000 acres to 118,000 acres, buoyed up by demand for Spain’s premium red. New bodegas have opened, and existing bodegas have increased supply. A new wave of ultrapremium wines, such as Roda I, Señorio de San Vicente and Bodegas Primicia’s Juan Ramón Madrid Reserva, has created much the same excitement as the "garagiste" wines of Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, the quality of basic Rioja, particularly sin crianza wine (without wood aging), has plummeted as farmers have increased yields. Recent big price increases by producers, encouraged by the quality of the Reservas and Gran Reservas from the 1994 and 1995 vintages, has finally burst the bubble of success, leaving bodegas with an inventory equal to more than two years worth of sales.

Proposals by the Rioja Regulating Council to limit yields, thereby cutting production, initially met with howls of protest from the farmers. A suggestion in summer 2000 to limit production to 100 percent of the permitted yield per hectare (the amount that is legally allowed to be made into an appellation wine) was thrown out, forcing the regulators to allow farmers to push their harvest up to 125 percent of the permitted yield. But the 2000 vintage produced 50 million kilos (approximately 50,000 tons) of grapes in excess of even that generous allowance, grapes which must now be distilled.

A new agreement has finally been signed which will take effect for the 2001 growing season. More severe pruning of the vines and green harvesting are designed to lead to lower yields. The new rules are aimed at stabilizing the market and promoting higher quality levels in the region.

—Roger Voss

Published on March 1, 2001
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Dylan Garret

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