It seems like the perfect setup for a hoity-toity exhibit about wine—but the collection, like Longone, turns out to be warm and informative. From colonial failures with European grapes to early American successes with native varieties, from Prohibition to cocktail culture, the exhibit explores the history of American wine making and alcohol consumption with a light-hearted emphasis on quirky anecdotes.
An 1823 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Georgetown winemaker John Adlum praises one of the bottles Adlum had sent him, but then goes on to write, “the 2nd bottle, a red wine, I tried when I had good judges at the table. We agreed it was a wine one might always drink with satisfaction, but of no particular excellence.” Adlum printed the letter—despite its faint praise—as a foreword to his book. I wonder if Adlum was so thrilled with a letter from the former president that he completely ignored the dig. Or was the book world so different from today that no one would think of excerpting the letter and ending it with a quiet ellipsis after “satisfaction”? I secretly hope for the latter, creating an idealistic picture of early American honesty.
On the day I visited the exhibit, an older couple from Kalamazoo pored over a party menu from the early 1900s. They marveled at the wine selection that included a bottle of an 1810 Madeira and mused about a mention of maraschino cherries. Although they were there because they read about the exhibit in a “Wine Events” section of the Wall Street Journal, they (like me) lost themselves in the stories these books conjured.