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Steven Malanga
He Held Good Taste to Be Self-Evident
Thomas Jefferson was America’s first great wine expert.
31 August 2007

Thomas Jefferson on Wine, by John Hailman (University Press of Mississippi, 457 pp., $38)

Given Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to our political thought and to the formation of the American republic, why would anyone want to spend time studying his thoughts about wine? John Hailman, former wine columnist for the Washington Post, confronts that question squarely in the preface of his new, exhaustively researched, and entertaining work, Thomas Jefferson on Wine. His answer is straightforward enough: Jefferson thought so much of the subject that he made voluminous and meticulous observations on wine, and then went out of his way to preserve them. Surely there was a reason.

Indeed there was. While students of the American Revolution might not find much in Hailman’s volume to illuminate the great issues of the day, Jefferson’s writings on wine are a valuable window onto eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century customs and social practices. They also provide a fascinating glimpse of the business and art of winemaking at a time when technological advances—in bottling and corking practices, for example—had spurred profound changes that presaged today’s worldwide marketplace.

Hailman argues that along with everything else he accomplished, Jefferson became the foremost wine expert of his day, though his early experiences with it were prosaic. A 1769 entry in Jefferson’s account book reveals only a small cellar, stocked with wine that was common in the United States, including “Lisbon wines,” which were hearty Portuguese whites that stood up well to the rigors of a transatlantic crossing, and Madeira, the most popular wine in colonial America because it originated from Portugal’s island possessions—considered part of Africa, and hence not subject to British shipping restrictions on European wines.

Jefferson’s attitude began to change with the arrival in Virginia of Italian wine merchant Philip Mazzei, whom Benjamin Franklin persuaded to immigrate to the United States to create a native wine industry. Mazzei was from an ancient Tuscan family that even today practices winemaking at its estate, Castello di Fonterutoli. He settled on 2,000 acres that Jefferson gave him and began trying to cultivate wine with European vine cuttings. Jefferson urged him on, saying that “the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Though Mazzei, who optimistically formed the Virginia Wine Company with such investors as Jefferson and George Washington, ultimately failed, his work sparked Jefferson’s interest in wine, which he would pursue with vigor when he went to Paris in 1784 to represent the United States at the court of Louis XVI.

Arriving in France as very much the Virginia gentleman, Jefferson learned the fine art of living well in Europe from the bon vivant Benjamin Franklin, who boasted a wine cellar that many collectors today would envy: more than 1,000 bottles, including 258 bottles of red and white Bordeaux and 113 of red Burgundies. But whereas Franklin and the French “took their wine for pleasure and amusement” and didn’t “sit around reading vintage charts,” Hailman observes, Jefferson was analytic and curious—an eighteenth-century version of what today we often call a wine geek—and he embarked on a systematic study of European wine.

Hoping to build an American wine industry on the French model, Jefferson undertook a great wine tour in February 1787—a three-and-a-half-month jaunt through southern France and northern Italy and then back into France. The 3,000-mile trip included visits to Meursault and Montrachet in Burgundy, Condrieu in the Rhone, and Turin in Northern Italy. Then Jefferson doubled back along the Italian coastline into France, through Nice, and north to Bordeaux, where he tasted the area’s greatest wines—Chateau Margaux, La Tour de Segur (Chateau Latour), Hautbrion (Chateau Haut-Brion), and Chateau de la Fite (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild). Although the trip helped Jefferson cultivate his palate, it also sobered him on the difficulties of establishing an industry in America, prompting him to observe in a letter to a fellow Virginian that vines are “the parent of misery” and that those who cultivate them “are always poor.”

Jefferson might have added that those who become passionate about drinking wine are often left the poorer for it. For in Paris, Jefferson was to begin his long habit of collecting and cellaring hundreds, at times thousands, of bottles. It was a practice that helped keep the notoriously improvident Founding Father in debt much of his life. Even before Jefferson returned to Paris from his wine tour, bottles and casks that he had ordered on the trip starting arriving at his door, adding to the nearly 600 bottles that he had already accumulated. In just four months, Jefferson’s cellar swelled with 124 bottles from Montrachet (which produces some of the world’s best white Burgundies), 124 bottles from Meursault (another great Burgundy town), 250 bottles of Muscadet from Frontignan, and 180 bottles of Chateau Margaux, to name just a few of the additions.

Jefferson was willing to pay top dollar for such trophies. Searching for some 250 bottles of Meursault’s Goutte d’Or, Jefferson asked a local negociant (a wine merchant and shipper) to “let the price be what it may, always however considering quality more than price.” Jefferson also distributed the good juice liberally among his friends and political allies. While in Bordeaux, he wrote to inform his brother-in-law Francis Eppes that he had ordered six dozen bottles of Haut Brion for him, “of the vintage of 1784, the only very fine one since the year 1779.”

Back in the United States, the habits of dining, dress, and drink that Jefferson acquired in Paris got him into occasional trouble with his peers. Patrick Henry accused him of having “abjured his native victuals,” and Alexander Hamilton mocked him for his attachment to French ideas and luxuries. Even some of Jefferson’s friends and allies couldn’t quite understand his strange new tastes in wine. A guest at Monticello, politely drinking Jefferson’s claret (the common term in those days for red Bordeaux wine) with dinner, took a friend aside and asked for a glass of brandy, commenting that “I have been sipping his [d . . . d] acid, cold French wine, until I am sure I should die in the night unless I take an antidote.” Later, the guest wondered “why a man of so much taste should drink cold, sour French wine?”

Jefferson was not entirely oblivious to such attitudes. When he assumed the presidency in 1801, he stocked the White House cellar with a mixture of his own favorites and wines that were more popular among his countrymen, especially fortified or sweetened wines like sherry and Madeira. Jefferson also stocked a healthy amount of practically everybody’s favorite at the time: wine from Champagne, which he had developed a taste for during a second European wine tour encompassing regions of the Rhine and Moselle rivers and western France. “Note a hamper of 50 bottles [of wine from Champagne] opened Dec. 7 is finished Dec. 19th in which time 125 gentlemen have dined, which is 2 bottles to 5 persons,” Jefferson noted meticulously in his memorandum book in 1802.

Jefferson used these wines as the core of daily informal dinners that he hosted at the White House, usually in the company of eight or ten movers and shakers. Although these dinners were largely successful in helping Jefferson pursue his agenda, they also occasionally sparked controversy—as when a new British ambassador took affront at the informal nature of the gathering at which he and his wife had expected to be guests of honor. Some guests also tired of Jefferson’s displays of knowledge, as when John Quincy Adams remarked wearily about one dinner, “There was, as usual, a dissertation about wines, not very edifying.” Still, despite such behind-the-scenes sniping at these affairs, Jefferson clearly considered them useful, which may be why he invested so heavily in wine. Supplied as president with an annual salary of $25,000, which also had to cover all his expenses, Jefferson spent an average of $3,200 a year just on wine during his first term—though after his reelection, his yearly spending dropped dramatically to about $1,000.

Late in life, Jefferson himself may have grown weary of all this sophistication—and its cost. After leaving the presidency, he cut back on his collecting of expensive wines and built a cellar of less costly imports. In such dire financial straits that he ultimately had to sell his library to the government to raise money, Jefferson replaced his Chateau Margaux with more affordable wines from southern France and Italy, including from the Rhone and Languedoc. In particular, Jefferson was a proponent of Rhone wines, especially those from Hermitage, whose whites were at the time superior to its reds and more plentiful. Writing to his wine representative in Marseilles, Jefferson outlined what he liked—and didn’t—in a good white Hermitage: “M. Jourdan’s last supply of wine is of quite a different quality from those of the two preceding years; they were what we call soft, or silky. . . . What he last sent is dry and hard . . . and will not be drank here.” Jourdan replied that the wines Jefferson disliked had pleased Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, but that in the future he would suspend shipments to America except in cases where the vintage yielded a wine more suitable to Jefferson’s taste.

Jourdan’s tone suggests that he found the former president’s tastes less sophisticated than those of European gentlemen, but Jefferson has since become one of history’s most famous wine collectors. Bottles purportedly associated with him have fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction and generated enormous controversy about their authenticity. Currently, American businessman and wine collector William I. Koch is suing European wine merchant Hardy Rodenstock for fraud, alleging that the four bottles of 200-year-old Chateau Lafite, inscribed with Jefferson’s initials, that Koch bought for $500,000 from a cache that Rodenstock claims he discovered in Paris are forgeries.

Jefferson died without seeing his vision of an American winemaking industry mature. But today, the third president would be astounded that wine is made commercially in every state in the continental U.S., including at Monticello and elsewhere in Virginia, and that some of our West Coast wines stand up well in the international marketplace. Indeed, the so-called Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting on July 4, 1976 in which the best California wines outperformed their top French counterparts, would probably have brought Jefferson no end of satisfaction.

What might also have astounded Jefferson was that a handful of the French wines featured in that 1976 tasting—and still greatly sought after today, such as Chateau Haut Brion—would be familiar to him. The world of wine has changed enormously since Jefferson’s day, but as Hailman perceptively observes, “of all the places he could visit in modern America, [Jefferson] might well find himself more at home in a wine shop than any other place.”

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More by Steven Malanga:
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Borrowing Trouble
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