Text: L. Moffitt Cecil, “Poe’s Wine List,” Poe Studies, December 1972, Vol. V, No. 2, 5:41-42


[page 41, column 1:]

Poe’s Wine List

Texas Christian University

The most extensive wine list in Poe’s fiction appears in his satirical sketch “Lionizing.” James A. Harrison’s version of this piece, based upon the text printed in the Broadway Journal of March 15, 1845, introduces one Bibulus O’Bumper, a guest at a dinner party, who, in his conversation, “touched upon Latour and Markhrunen; upon Mousseux and Chambertin; upon Richebourg and St. George; upon Haubrion, Leonville, and Medoc; upon Barac and Preignac; upon Grave, and upon St. Peray. . . shook his head at Clos de Vougeot, and told, with his eyes shut, the difference between Sherry and Amontillado” (1).

It is interesting to note that this list did not appear in the original version of the sketch as published some ten years earlier in the Southern Literary Messenger for May 1835. Nor was the voluble O’Bumper among the invited guests at the banquet given by “his Royal Highness of Touch-me-not” (renamed “The Prince of Wales” in the Broadway Journal) . In the original version Poe allowed a bon vivant, “Fricassee from the Rocher de Cancale,” to discourse upon both wines and food: “He mentioned Latour, Markbrunnen and Mareschino — Muriton of red tongue and Cauliflower with Veloute sauce — veal a la St. Menehoult, Marinade a la St. Florentin, and orange jellies en mosaiques “ (II, 326).

“Bon-Bon” (August 1835) contained what must have been the original compilation of the wine list. To round out his description of the interior of the Cafe de Bon-Bon, Poe wrote, “There Mousseux, Chambertin, St. George, Richbourg, Bordeaux, Margaux, Haubrion, Leonville, Medoc, Sauterne, Barac, Preignac, Grave, Lafitte, and St. Peray contended with many other names of lesser celebrity for the honor of being quaffed” (II, 350). Since this sentence is omitted from later versions of “BonBon,” and since Bibulus O’Bumper, discoursing upon a similar list, appears in later versions of “Lionizing,” one concludes that Poe, who seldom passed up an opportunity to revise his work, came to the judgment that the list was more at home in the table talk of O’Bumper than in the wine racks of the Cafe de Bon-Bon.

The fact that Poe ridiculed both gourmet-philosopher Bon-Bon and Bibulus O’Bumper may account in part for the lamentable disorder and the evident disrespect for noble vintages which characterize these lists. Some of the most illustrious names among wines are included, but, alas, the affectionate precision of the devotee is wholly absent. The names of wine districts, communes, and chateaux — great wines and lesser wines — sweet wines, dry wines, sparkling wines — even wines from different countries — are indiscriminately and irreverently juxtaposed. Whether discrepancies in the spellings of the names of certain famed wines should be charged to the mispronunciations of Bibulus O’Bumper, to Poe’s eccentric orthography, or to the carelessness of typesetters and proofreaders, the fact remains that the resulting errors are distressing to knowledgeable wine men.

One who has experienced the delights of drinking a glass of the famed Burgundian wine from the vineyards [column 2:] of Richebourg would not be likely to write that name without an e. Nor should one omit the s from Graves, one of the five great districts which produce the renowned reds and whites of Bordeaux. Sauternes, too, deserves to keep its final s. And if one should search for the name Leonville in a wine encyclopedia, one could not find in Correctly written, the name is Leoville, without the n. The 1855 classification of Medoc wines lists among Second Growths the wines from Chateau Leoville-Les-Cases, Chateau Leoville-Poy-Ferre, and Chateau Leoville-Baston in the township of St. Julien. The words Barac and Bdrac appear to be errors for Barsac, a commune which, like Preignac and Sauternes, produces some of the sweet white or golden wines of Bordeaux. Most of these inaccuracies were carried over from the 1835 version of “Bon-Bon” to the 1845 Broadway Journal text of “Lionizing.”

All of Poe’s characters who claim to be connoisseurs of wine come off poorly. Fortunato, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” like Bon-Bon and Bibulus O’Bumper, is but a sad travesty of the true expert. Montresor entices Fortunato into his cellar by challenging him to attempt what Poe presents as a very delicate and difficult test — to distinguish between amontillado and sherry. At the time, there may well have been need for such a test. Frank Schoonmaker, in his Encyclopedia of Wine, reports of amontillado that “Its name comes originally from the place-name Montilla, a village and district south of Cordoba whose wines were legally sold as Sherry until quite recently.” Actually, amontillado is an especially fine kind of sherry. Its name means “a Sherry of the Montilla Type” or a “Montillad’d wine.” Schoonmaker describes it as “A superior type of Spanish Sherry, generally fairly dry and paler than the average, although not as pale and light nor generally as dry as a Fino or Manzanilla” (2). Montresor claims that he has purchased a pipe of wine, advertised as amontillado, about which he is doubtful. No small quantity, a pipe contains on the average 130 gallons; so Montresor’s repo¢ted investment is considerable.

Although Montresor declares in the story that he is “skilful in the Italian vintages” himself and that Fornmato, a “quack” in some ways, is “sincere” in the “matter of old wines,” their conduct on the excursion into the cellar would seem to belie any such claims. In the first place, Fortunato is intoxicated, a disqualifying condition for any serious wine tasting. Had he come safely to the wine and sampled it, his testimony would have been worthless. He would have failed the great test, which — the distinguishing of amontillado from other lighter and drier or heavier and sweeter sherries — is not an especially difficult challenge.

As they proceed into the cellar, they pass some stored Medoc. Montresor recalls that he “knocked off the neck of a bottle” and handed it to Fortunato to drink. Later Montresor “broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave,” which Fortunato “emptied . . . at a breath” (VI, 170171) . It seems preposterous that some of the nobler wines of France should be treated so cavalierly by reputed connoisseurs. Even if these wines were not estate bottled, still they must have borne upon their labels the names of particular communes and vintage years. But Montresor and Fortunato do not note such things. It is plain that Fortunato is not a connoisseur — he is an alcoholic. However many injuries he may have inflicted upon Montresor, [page 42:] a wine lover may feel that Fortunato deserves the fate which overtakes him just because of his gross overindulgence in his insulting disregard for noble wines.

The plot of another of Poe’s stories, “‘Thou Art the Man,’” first published in 1844, turns upon an interest in a renowned wine. The action takes place in a village named Rattleborough, perhaps in one of the middle Atlantic or New England states. Old Charley Goodfellow’s especial fondness for Chateau Margaux makes it possible for a bright amateur detective to confront Charley with a crime. Chateau Margaux has long been considered one of the noblest of French wines. In the 1855 classification of the Great Growths of the Gironde, it is listed as one of the four First Growths of the Medoc. And Alexis Lichine, in his Wines of France, speaking of the current reputation of Chateau Margaux, writes: “The best wines of the comm? ‘ne, or parish, of Margaux come from a cluster of vineyards that produce the most exquisitely delicate wines of Medoc, hence of Bordeaux” (3).

It is important to consider the manner in which Poe treats this noble French wine. He explains that Charley’s “favorite beverage was Chatean Margaux, and it appeared to do Mr. Shuttleworthy’s heart good to see the old fellow swallow it, as he did, quart after quart.” One day Mr. Shunleworthy said to Charley, “. . . since you love to guzzle the wine at that fashion, I’ll be darned if I don’t have to make thee a present of a big box of the Chateau Margaux” (V, 292). To use Chateau Margaux thus, to reduce it to a common beverage, to swallow it “quart after quart,” to “guzzle” it, is to display an appalling insensitivity comparable to that of the drunken Fortunato.

The name of the wine merchants in the story — Hoggs, Frogs, Bogs and Co. — adds to the burlesque. The letter announcing the shipment is businesslike enough: “Dear Sir — In conformity with an order transmitted to our firm . . . we have the honor of forwarding this morning to your address, a double box of Chateau Margaux, of the antelope brand, violet seal. Box numbered and marked as per margin.” On the margin of the letter appear the following notations: “Chat. Mar. A — No. 1-6 doz. bottles (1/2 Gross.) “ (V, 304) . This seems a curiously casual description of a purchase of a noble wine. I have not been able to verify the “antelope brand” or “violet seal.” Today Chateau Margaux wears a picture of the famous chateau on its label, together with a deal more of pertinent information proudly assuring a buyer of the quality of wine he gets. Messrs. Hoggs, Frogs, and Bogs do not mention in their letter even the vintage year of the wine they are forwarding.

The first-person narrator, the unraveler of the mystery in “‘Thou Art the Man,’” had carefully prearranged it that the Margaux should arrive late, after Old Charley Goodfellow’s guests had already finished eating. Was there an after dinner liqueur? A brandy or cognac suitable for the occasion? No. At Charley’s instigation the already intoxicated guests fell unceremoniously upon the box of Margaux to open it. No doubt they would have “guzzled” the entire lot, had they not discovered in the box, instead of the wine they sought, a corpse.

Into other of Poe’s stories famous wines are introduced, but never in the spirit of the aficionado, never with the affection, the knowledge, the measured appreciation which would be expected from a true wine man. [column 2:] Bon-Bon, during his conversation with the Devil, drinks Mousseux, Chambertin, and Sauternes until he is maudlin. In “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” the inmates, who have taken over the asylum and imprisoned their keepers, drink Clos de Vougeot and Sauternes at dinner. The wine serves to bring out all of their suppressed eccentricities and results in the failure of their attempt to escape their fate. And presumably it was drinking too much Lafitte that preconditioned the narrator for his unexpected encounter with the Angel of the Odd and led to the nightmarish events in that story.

Not only famous wines, but most of the common alcoholic drinks, function in Poe’s stories as intoxicants, and in almost every case the results are bad. Unnamed wines contribute to the moral and spiritual degeneration of William Wilson. And wine, forced by the King upon the jeerer Hop-Frog, leads to a most spectacular conflagration. It is “brown stout” and “French brandy” which make Peter Shook fall asleep and then fall overboard. Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin, those profligate sailors who defy the plague and meet King Pest and his degenerate retainers, start out by drinking ale, or “humming stuff,” as they call it; but before their debauch is over they find wine, liqueurs, Black Strap, and October beer.

One of his darkest tales, “The Black Cat,” contains the most direct denunciation of drinking in Poe’s fiction. The first person narrator of this story, awaiting execution for his heinous crimes, confesses that he has been utterly destroyed by the “disease” of alcohol — by the”Fiend Intemperance.” A perverseness of spirit, he admits, has made him a slave to overindulgence in wine, gin, and rum. Poe names no fancy wines in this story. Drunkenness, with the consequent destruction of human personality, is his theme.

Two conclusions may be drawn from this examination of the uses to which Poe put wines in his fiction. First, it is clear that Poe was not an expert in the matter of wines, despite the frequency with which he introduced them into his stories. His technical knowledge of the subject did not extend much beyond the famous names he cited. There is no indication in his writings that he was interested in the details of viniculture, the history of particular wines, the bouquet and characteristic taste of individual wines, good and poor vintage years, or the traditional manner and order of serving wines. More important is the finding that when Poe wrote about wines he almost always wrote in his satiric mode. He ridiculed those among his characters who were reputed to be connoisseurs, representing them usually as witless or drunk; and he introduced into his stories the noblest of wines, not in their capacities to help make life more pleasurable and rich, but as traps for the unwary and the weak. Wine served Poe as a metaphor — a medium through which he could scoff at man for his pretenses and upbraid him for his failings.



(1) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1902), II, 39. References are to this edition.

(2) Encyclopedia of Wine (New York: 1969), p. 12. 3 Wines of France (New York: 1969), p. 27.


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[S:0 - PS, 1972]