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Three cases of Madeira wine were discovered at a New Jersey university.

July 10, 2017

Everyone’s basement has been known to get cluttered at some point. That’s what it’s there for, right? Your own private hoarder’s paradise that no one ever has to know about. Even if the space doubles as a wine cellar, sure, maybe some boxes get moved around and you forget about a few bottles until the next spring cleaning. Or in the case of the Kean family, maybe you forget about a few cases… for 221 years.

During a recent restoration project at Liberty Hall Museum on what is now New Jersey’s Kean University, staff discovered nearly three cases of Madeira wine from 1796, as well as around 42 demijohns from the 1820s, according to NJ.com. Even more amazingly, much of the Madeira – which is a resilient fortified wine similar to port – is believed to still be in good, drinkable condition. In the 18th century, Madeira – which comes from the islands of the same name located in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Portugal – was popular in the states because it was able to cross the Atlantic without losing its quality. That same steadfastness is why it’s likely been able to hold up over two centuries later. “So you could open some of these bottles, and it might be perfect," said Bill Schroh Jr, Liberty Hall’s director of operations. Liberty Hall President John Kean even tried a bit, comparing it favorably to a sweet sherry.

Of course, how any alcohol gets lost in a wine cellar for over 200 years is another story entirely. Liberty Hall was first built in 1760 as a getaway for a rich New York lawyer. In 1811, the Kean family moved in, where multiple generations lived until 1973. Now a museum, every year, the staff has chosen a different room to renovate, according to Kean University’s The Tower. 2016 was the year of the cellar – a room that hadn’t been properly cleaned in 50 years – which is what lead to the recent wine discovery. “There were bottles on top of bottles,” said Schroh; “some were bad, some were good, some were popped and emptied, some were broken; but there were just so many. There were at least 200 years’ worth of bottles in there.”

Even Kean wasn’t entirely aware of what was in the basement. “We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” he said.  Perhaps what they should have done is let some of the university students loose in there on a Saturday night: If there’s alcohol to be found, they’d have found it.

The museum is now believed to have the largest known collection of Madeira in the United States, though the value of all that wine isn’t being disclosed.  At this point, the bottles are simply being put on display as part of the museum; however, it’s worth noting that, technically, the wine is still property of John Kean and the Kean family. Schroh even pointed out that, if he wanted to, Kean could come by and grab a bottle at any time.