George Vanderbilt: A Thoughtful Wine Collector

George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful wine collector, whether at home or abroad.

Taste and style were two hallmarks of his life, and both are reflected throughout Biltmore—his private country estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

Visually stunning and technologically advanced, Biltmore House is a testament to Vanderbilt’s vision.

A Thoughtful Collector

Discover Biltmore white wines for outdoor entertaining
George Vanderbilt’s legacy of gracious hospitality lives on with Biltmore wines handcrafted from grapes grown in the estate’s own vineyard or selected from trusted west coast partners

George Vanderbilt was well-known as a collector, travelling the world gathering art, sculpture, furniture, and books. He also enjoyed wine, frequently purchasing it abroad and bringing cases of wine back to Biltmore to share with his family and friends.

Vanderbilt’s gracious hospitality was legendary, and a visit to his home was characterized by the best in comfort, entertainment, and attention to every detail, including the wines that graced his table and delighted his guests.

Man in a suit examining the library of Biltmore wines in the Winery
Wine cellars don’t have to be stuffy–evaluate your space and your lifestyle for options!

Wine research at Biltmore

In 2008, wine consultant John Hailman visited Biltmore to look at Vanderbilt’s wine cellar and the vintages stored there, and to review wine-related notes and correspondence from the Vanderbilt era.

Having been a wine columnist for the Washington Post, with his work nationally syndicated for more than a decade, Hailman is considered one of the foremost authorities on wine. In 2006, he wrote Thomas Jefferson on Wine, an examination of Jefferson’s influence as a wine connoisseur and collector in the early days of the nation.

Archival Bltmore wine receipt
A portion of an archival receipt for a wine and spirits order to be delivered to Biltmore House

Through Hailman’s research, we now have a better understanding of George Vanderbilt as a thoughtful wine collector. Archival correspondence, notes, and receipts suggest that Vanderbilt was well-versed in wines, purchasing those he enjoyed sharing.

Vanderbilt was also a practical buyer, preferring high quality vintages at reasonable prices, such as wines from Chateau Pontet-Canet which is still in business today in the Bordeaux wine region of France.

“Good enough for anybody”

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Vanderbilt’s trusted wine purveyor Alexander Morten was known for his excellent taste and recommendations, and would have been a worthy provisioner for the Vanderbilt lifestyle. George Vanderbilt relied upon Morten’s suggestions and his outstanding contacts in the industry. In one letter dated February 14, 1914, Morten advises Vanderbilt on a particular vintage for an upcoming ball, suggesting:

“As to Champagne for a ball:- I can strongly recommend Pierlot 1906. This is a good, sound vintage wine, price $32.50, and is used almost exclusively by many of our customers for dances and entertainments of that ilk. If you have the slightest hesitation, however, I can recommend Pol Roger 1906; price $36. We also have Krug, Clicquot and Pommery of 1906 and 1904; but these are more expensive. The Pierlot is good enough for anybody.”

This letter is particularly poignant, as George Vanderbilt passed away in Washington, DC, just a month after he received this letter. We don’t know what type of ball the Vanderbilts might have been planning, but the preparations were apparently abandoned after Mr. Vanderbilt’s unexpected death.

“You have only to examine the amount and variety of crystal and stemware in the Biltmore collection—glasses for every possible occasion and type of beverage—to see the importance of wines and spirits as an integral part of dining and entertaining,” said Leslie Klingner, curator of interpretation.

Crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt's monogram
Delicate crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt’s monogram on the Banquet Hall table

“Knowing that George Vanderbilt collected and enjoyed wine—and served it to his guests—forges a very real and logical connection between the Vanderbilts and the wine business their descendants have developed and continue to nurture today,” Leslie said.

Savor Biltmore Wines

Two couples enjoying white wine outdoors
Enjoy Biltmore wines while visiting the estate or savor them at home

Be sure to visit Biltmore’s Winery to enjoy complimentary tastings of some of our most popular wines, relax at our Wine Bar, or purchase your favorites online.

Featured blog image: John Singer Sargent portrait of George Vanderbilt paired with a selection of our fine Biltmore wines, including our Antler Hill series

Biltmore Wines Have Big Personalities

From flavor to food-friendliness, we’ve always believed that Biltmore wines have big personalities.

To highlight North Carolina Wine Month in May, we’re pairing five of the estate’s historic VIPs with a distinctive Biltmore wine that best matches their own larger-than-life personalities!

~ George Washington Vanderbilt ~
Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

George Vanderbilt as a thoughtful collector of wine
George Vanderbilt was a thoughtful collector of wines

Mr. Vanderbilt was known as a thoughtful collector of wine, often bringing back cases of his favorite discoveries from his world travels to share with friends and family at Biltmore.

Handcrafted from exceptional grapes grown by phenomenal vineyard partners in California’s Napa Valley, our full-bodied Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is as refined and elegant as George Vanderbilt himself.


~ Edith Dresser Vanderbilt ~
Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina

Edith Vanderbilt paired with Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay
Our Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay is an elegant match for this glorious Boldini portrait of Edith Vanderbilt

Handcrafted from North Carolina’s finest locally grown Chardonnay grapes, this wine is full-bodied with good acidity highlighted by citrus and tropical fruit flavors.

Only vintage wines worthy of the Biltmore Reserve name earn this select honor, and the excellence of this Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina reflects the gracious character of Edith Vanderbilt who, in turn, symbolizes the heart of Biltmore and all that the estate represents.


~ Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil ~
Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir

Biltmore wines have big personalities, like Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil
Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil exemplifies the Roaring Twenties spirit of our Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir

Born in 1900, Cornelia Vanderbilt would come of age in the Roaring Twenties, a time characterized by the effervescent enthusiasm of the American Jazz Age.

Our Biltmore Estate Blanc de Noir sparkling wine captures the joie de vivre of this exciting era in a crisp, sparkling wine with a delightful light pink hue and flavors of cherries and strawberries.


~ Richard Morris Hunt ~
The Hunt Red Blend Sonoma County

Richard Morris Hunt and The Hunt wine
The Hunt Red Blend is named in honor of Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt

The name of our richly-layered and refined Bordeaux-style red blend already honors Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of America’s Largest Home®, so it’s no surprise that it also represents his dynamic personality!

Aging for 18 months in French and American oak barrels gives The Hunt great structure, just like Biltmore—the magnificent estate that Hunt designed for George Vanderbilt.


~ Frederick Law Olmsted ~
Biltmore Estate Limited Release
Sauvignon Blanc

Frederick Law Olmsted and Biltmore wine
Biltmore Estate Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc reminds us of Biltmore landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted

Known as the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted planned the breathtaking gardens and grounds that surround Biltmore.

With classic grassy and herbal varietal characteristics, Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect partner for such an accomplished horticulturalist, and our Biltmore Estate Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc—refreshing and unexpectedly creamy with hints of toasted coconut, key lime, and oak—is no exception.

Find our award-winning wines online

Bucket full of Biltmore Wines
Put Biltmore wines on your “bucket list” for summer sipping!

Stock up on your favorites Biltmore wines now and discover new varietals at estate shops, local retailers, and online.

Featured image: Photograph of Edith Vanderbilt paired with Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina

A Tribute to the First Hostess of Biltmore

As the youngest of eight children, George Vanderbilt had a very close relationship with his mother, Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt, who became the first hostess of Biltmore.

After his father’s death in 1885, it was George who took on the task of caring for her, a task that played a significant role in the selection of Asheville as the location for Biltmore.

But before we delve into that, let’s take a look at a few pieces from our archives and collection that highlight their special mother-son bond.

The Elm Island Series

Photo of George Vanderbilt in 1873
Photograph of George Vanderbilt in 1873, two years after receiving The Elm Island Series from his mother

For George’s ninth birthday, his mother gave him three volumes from Reverend Elijah Kellogg, Jr.’s Elm Island Series and within each, she inscribed “George from Mama Nov. 14th 1871.” With titles like Boy Farmers of Elm Island and The Ark of Elm Island, one might guess that George had a taste for adventure, but the stories are also instructive.

Throughout the series, the main characters are faced with all sorts of ethical dilemmas that challenge their resolve to be upstanding young men, all while they navigate the treacherous waters of the West Indies.

Maria Louisa’s thoughtful gift helps to shed light on George’s boyhood interests as well as how deeply she valued and encouraged her children’s moral and intellectual growth.

The gift of a poem

An unsigned, undated poem was found tucked away among some of George’s personal papers. Bound with a ribbon, the three pages were composed in perfect penmanship. Upon reading the poem, it becomes apparent that it was from Maria Louisa, written for the occasion of George’s 21st birthday.

Through her carefully-crafted prose, Maria Louisa bids her youngest son to heed the call of work, to put right what he finds wrong:

To give a kindly word of cheer
To those who heavy burdens bear
Such work will bless, when nobly done.
And such work comes to every one.
He helps the age in which he lives,
Who does his best – and his best gives
To carry sunshine everywhere…

Just as his mother urged, George did, in fact, develop a sound moral compass and strong philanthropic sense, qualities that helped establish his original vision for Biltmore.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains

The first hostess of Biltmore: Maria Louisa Kissm Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt party near Biltmore Station; March 1891. Seated (L-R) are Margaret Bromley, Maria Louisa Vanderbilt, Marguerite Shepard, and two unidentified women; unidentified person seated behind Mrs. Vanderbilt. Standing (L-R) are Margaret Shepard, possibly Frederick Vanderbilt, and George Vanderbilt.

In 1887, Maria Louisa visited Asheville with George, now her designated caretaker, amid growing concerns over her health.

While we have no archival documentation stating the exact nature of Maria Louisa’s health problems, we do know that Asheville’s mountain air was promoted as a curative for a variety of ailments.

As a result of their visit, George fell in love with the area’s landscape—as well as its supposed medicinal benefits to aid his dear mother—and he set into motion the process of acquiring land for his country retreat.

Family portraits by Sargent

Painting and mannequin of the first hostess of Biltmore for A Vanderbilt House Party -- The Gilded Age exhibition in 2019
(L – R) Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt by John Singer Sargent, 1888; mannequin representing Mrs. Vanderbilt with clothing recreated from that portrait for the 2019 A Vanderbilt House Party – The Gilded Age exhibition

Around that same time, George commissioned renowned artist John Singer Sargent to paint a portrait of his mother which is displayed in the Tapestry Gallery in Biltmore House, along with Sargent’s 1890 portrait of George himself.

In 1895, Sargent painted Richard Morris Hunt, Biltmore’s architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate’s landscape architect; both of these works can be seen in the Second Floor Living Hall.

Other Vanderbilt family portraits by Sargent include Mrs. Benjamin Kissam, George’s aunt, and Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon, one of George’s favorite cousins.

Yet it is Sargent’s portrait of Maria Louisa, titled Mrs. William Henry Vanderbilt, that has been referred to as “one of Mr. Sargent’s greatest successes in portraiture.”

The first hostess of Biltmore

Detailed paper wig created for Maria Louisa Vanderbilt's mannequin
Detailed paper wig created for Maria Louisa Vanderbilt’s mannequin as part of our 2019 A Vanderbilt House Party exhibition

Maria Louisa visited Biltmore only three times—once while the house was still under construction—before she passed away. According to the Guest Book, she visited at Christmas 1895 when the house first opened, presiding as hostess, and then again the following May.

After her passing on November 6, 1896, in New York, condolences sent to George came from many, including his dear friend John Singer Sargent, among others.

And though Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt was only able to visit her youngest son’s visionary masterpiece a few times, she is remembered fondly as the first hostess of Biltmore.

Plan your Biltmore visit today

Today’s guests can admire the Sargent portrait of Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt to the left of the door into the Library.

Whether you’re planning a surprise for your own mother or simply looking forward to visiting America’s Largest Home, we invite you to join us soon.

Solving a Mystery in the Kitchen Pantry

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry at Biltmore took some detective work, but our Museum Services staff finally cracked the case!

“Among the many place settings of china in the Biltmore collection, one set had remained a mystery for many years,” said Lori Garst, Curatorial Assistant.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry
A cup, saucer, and plate from the collection of unidentified china

While the set was often referred to as “the Christmas china” because it was used during a 1931 holiday party, or “the employee china” because it was later used by staff members, the origin of the china—and its original purpose in Biltmore House—remained unclear.

Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt's monogram
Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt’s monogram

“Most of the china in Biltmore House was chosen by George Vanderbilt,” Lori said. “He selected an elegant white china with a burgundy and gold pattern, manufactured by both Minton and Spode-Copeland. It features his monogram and was used every day for family and guest meals.”

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china matches her father’s pattern but includes her own CSV monogram.

China featuring Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
While Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china closely matches the pattern her father selected for use in Biltmore House, their monograms distinguish one set from another

“We know that Edith Vanderbilt ordered Cornelia’s china in 1923,” said Lori. “And Mrs. Vanderbilt requested that Cornelia’s monogram be in the same style as her father’s.  I think it is sweet that her service blended in with the style her father had chosen.”

But what of the mysterious china collection on the shelves of the Kitchen Pantry in the Basement?

Museum Services began to look for clues about its history. While not as fine as the monogrammed Vanderbilt china, the gold-trimmed white pattern rimmed in crisp navy was definitely elegant and the amount of it suggested it had been purchased with a large number of people in mind.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry of Biltmore House
Trimmed in gold and rimmed in navy, this china is elegant, but more sturdy than the monogrammed family china in the collection

“We began with the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom of each piece,” said Lori. “Kniffen & Demarest Co. manufactured hotel and steam ship supplies, so the china was well-made and rather sturdy to stand up to use by guests and passengers in public settings.”

Biltmore conservator shows manufacturer's mark on the bottom of a china saucer
A conservator shows the Kniffen & Demarest Co. name on a piece of the so-called mystery china

While Museum Services was researching details for our Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition, they finally discovered written references to the china in conjunction with Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s wedding. 

“This set was also sometimes referred to as ‘the wedding china,’ but we never knew which of its three names was correct until recently,” said Lori. “The pieces came together at last, and we realized that this was the china that had been ordered for the buffet at Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil’s wedding breakfast.”

After the ceremony at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, the wedding guests and additional reception guests (500 people were invited to the ceremony and reception; another 2500 were invited only to the reception) arrived at Biltmore House.

John and Cornelia Cecil wedding party at breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House
John and Cornelia Cecil and their attendants at the wedding breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House

The newlyweds and their attendants were served at a table in the Winter Garden, and all the other guests enjoyed a buffet in the Banquet Hall, which featured this china.

As the years passed, the Kniffen & Demarest china was still used, but its original purpose was forgotten.

Today, it’s stored in the Kitchen Pantry where it receives the same care and attention as all the other china in Biltmore’s collection.

Enjoy your own Vanderbilt china service

China pattern based on an original set used by the Vanderbilt family
Porcelain tea set from the Vanderbilt Service

Whether you prefer a tea service or an entire place setting, this beautiful porcelain serveware is based on a Sevres pattern, circa 1888, that the Vanderbilt family once used at Biltmore. The original is on display in the Oak Sitting Room, but you can now enjoy the reproduction set in your own home.

Preserving Generations of Biltmore China and Crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal is a delicate job.

If you have fine china or crystal handed down in your family, you can imagine the care it takes to clean and preserve all the fragile place settings and glassware in the Biltmore collection!

Generations of fragile china and crystal

Preserving generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Gevevieve Bieniosek opens the china cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry

There are three generations of china and crystal stored in Biltmore House, and much of it is more than 100 years old.

These fragile pieces of the collection are stored in glass-front cabinets in the two-story Butler’s Pantry, and a comprehensive inventory system helps our conservators keep track of each object.

A unique identification number is assigned to every dish and glass, the location of the piece is recorded, and a digital photo of it is included in an inventory database.

Cleaning generations of Biltmore china and crystal
Genevieve cleans saucers that bear George Vanderbilt’s monogram, while the floral patterned plates on the left were chosen by Vanderbilt’s grandson, William A.V. Cecil, for Biltmore’s centennial celebration in 1995

Cleaning all the china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry is a process that takes several weeks to complete. Each piece is dusted, wiped with a mixture of ethanol and water, and dried with lint-free cloths. All the objects are inspected for unstable cracks.

“Most of the cleaning and dusting is done in the Butler’s Pantry, because the less we move such fragile pieces, the better,” said Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator.

Preventing problems

Caring for a fragile part of Biltmore history--crystal glassware
Delicate crystal glassware with George Vanderbilt’s monogram in the Butler’s Pantry

During a recent cleaning project, the conservators noticed that some of the crystal on display was suffering from ‘glass disease.’ According to Genevieve, this is a condition where components in the glass structure leach out over time, causing the glass to appear cloudy.

“If left untreated,” Genevieve explained, “it will eventually create a fine network of cracks over the piece.”

The glasses were treated by washing them with mild soap and water, drying them with soft towels, and letting them air dry for several hours.

“By treating them now, we avoid permanent damage from the glass disease,” said Genevieve.

Improving the process of storing crystal and china

China cup with Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
This fluted cup and saucer bear Cornelia Vanderbilt’s monogram

In addition to careful cleaning of these fragile pieces, our conservators are always looking for ways to improve the overall process for preserving the china and crystal.

“We recently looked into different types of padding material to keep the china safer, and placed sheets of polyethylene foam between each dish. The material is very stable, so the sheets don’t break down and create chemicals that could harm the china,” noted Genevieve.

Take a behind-the-scenes guided tour

Biltmore House Butler's Pantry
The Butler’s Pantry, as seen on The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour

Plan a visit to America’s Largest Home today, and treat yourself to The Biltmore House Backstairs Tour. You’ll experience an in-depth look at servant life at Biltmore with this 60-minute guided tour, including rarely-seen areas such as the Butler’s Pantry as you hear fascinating stories of those who worked and lived on the estate in the Vanderbilts’ era.

Featured blog image: Biltmore conservators Genevieve Bieniosek and Renee Jolly clean china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry of Biltmore House