Monday, May 01, 2017

Mallorcan Wine Fit For A President

The fascinating story is told of one John Martin Baker and his organisation of Mallorcan exports to the United States. Baker was the US consul in Mallorca. This was during the time when Thomas Jefferson and then James Madison were presidents. In 1809, Baker, apparently from Menorca but a naturalised American, was asked by Jefferson to arrange for wine and other products to be sent. Jefferson was seemingly interested in imports from a variety of sources - France, Italy, Madeira as well as Mallorca.

This is known because a writer of the time and a friend of Jefferson's, Margaret Bayard Smith, reported it. Smith and Jefferson had got to know each other through the American Philosophical Society. In 1809, the same year as Jefferson ceased to be president, she moved to Washington with her husband, who had been made the president of the Bank of the United States. So she was clearly well in with the political elite.

What is perhaps curious about this wine export is that Smith said that the president had a particular desire for Albaflor. It is curious because certain references to the wine seem to suggest that the Archduke Louis Salvador was responsible for it. This certainly wasn't so. In addition to Smith, there are other written references to this export to Jefferson - one, for instance, from 1840. The Archduke wasn't to arrive in Mallorca until the mid-1860s.

The reference from 1840 goes thus: "The island of Majorca furnishes several wines of sufficiently good quality to bear exportation, among which, those made in the district of Benesalem (sic), three leagues from Palma, are accounted the best, at least of the red growths. At Banalbusa is grown the white wine known under the name of Alba Flor." This came from A Handbook of Wines, which was seemingly directed towards the gentry of Victorian Britain.

Be that as it may, but Jefferson certainly received the wine (and Malvasia from Banyalbufar). The exports were for him, as opposed to their having been part of some major import-export exercise. Jefferson was a wine buff, a serious one. He had used his consulate officials - Baker in particular - to seek out fine wines with which he could stock his cellar for when he retired. In 1816, Baker was to send Jefferson a letter which explained that he had obtained a case of Barsac white wine from an estate in Bordeaux. He trusted that the wine "may meet your approbation".

Baker, in fact, reveals a somewhat enlightening insight into the situation in Mallorca when Spain was experiencing the Peninsular War and Joseph Bonaparte had been named king. Two years after Jefferson left office in 1809, Baker sent him a letter which basically implored him to try and get him and his family the hell out of Mallorca. This was partly because the receipt of "every consular emolument ... no more than satisfied the payment of rent for a decent house to dwell in". Baker's family was "large", "Provissions" (sic) were high. But more than this was the "precarious" situation, one that - in Jefferson's interests - was making the export of wines more and more difficult. Baker was "credibly informed" that the post of consul in Lisbon had fallen vacant. "I most Respectfully, Entreat your Excuse for importuning, and pray you Sir, to influence in my favor with His Excellency. The Most Honorable James Madison, President of the United States of America."

Favours in high places; where have we heard about those before? Not that his request had any immediate effect. In 1813, he wrote to Jefferson again, this time from Mahon in Menorca. He prefaced his pleas by noting that a cask of Albaflor wine had been despatched along with a sack of shelled almonds. His desperation to get away was akin to his having got on his knees and begged Jefferson.

The export of wine to the US was limited. It was something to tickle Jefferson's fancy. More important exports were the likes of oranges, but even these were limited, and because of the war, shipping was difficult to say the least. Hence, Baker had to make use of Cadiz rather than rely on the Balearics.

Mallorca's wine export was European, and it was to later flourish when the French vineyards were devastated by the phylloxera plague in the mid-1860s. For some 25 years, exports enjoyed a golden age. Until phylloxera arrived in Mallorca in 1891.

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