Contributions of Thomas Jefferson to Wine
Besides Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to political philosophy and the development of the American Republic, he was also a great collector and admirer of famous wines. Jefferson’s writings on wine provide a wonderful insight into 18th– and early-19th-century traditions and social behaviors. In addition, these writings also offer an intriguing look into the wine business and art of winemaking at a time when technological advancements—in bottling and corking procedures, for example—had sparked significant transformations that foreshadowed today’s global economy.
Despite his limited encounters with wine in his early life, Jefferson became the foremost wine specialist of his day, in addition to all else he did. With the arrival in Virginia of Italian wine trader Philip Mazzei, who had been encouraged by Benjamin Franklin to relocate to the United States to establish a domestic wine business, Jefferson’s attitude towards the winemaking industry began to change. Mazzei’s efforts piqued Jefferson’s interest in wine, which he passionately pursued when he traveled to Paris in 1784 to represent the United States at the court of Louis XVI.
In February 1787, Jefferson embarked on a three-and-a-half-month journey through the famous winemaking regions in southern France and northern Italy and back into France to establish an American wine business based on the French model. The 3,000-mile journey included stops at Burgundy’s Meursault and Montrachet, the Rhone’s Condrieu, and Northern Italy’s Turin. When Jefferson returned to France, passing through Nice and heading north to Bordeaux, he sampled the region’s best wines, including Château Margaux, La Tour de Segur (Chateau Latour), Hautbrion (Chateau Haut-Brion), and Chateau de la Fite (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild).
Although the trip improved Jefferson’s palate, it also brought awareness in him regarding the unprecedented challenges of establishing a winemaking business in America. It famously caused him to write to a fellow Virginian that vines are the parent of misery and that those who produce them “are always impoverished.” Jefferson would have added that persons who developed a fondness for drinking wine were frequently left impoverished due to their consumption habits. It was in Paris that Jefferson would begin his long tradition of collecting and storing hundreds, if not thousands, of bottles
The collection of various wine varieties turned into a habit that kept the notoriously squandering Founding Father in debt for most of his life. Jefferson had ordered bottles and casks during his wine tour began arriving at his door, adding to the almost 600 bottles he already had in possession. Jefferson’s cellar grew by 124 bottles from Montrachet (one of the world’s best white Burgundies), 124 bottles from Meursault (another famous Burgundy town), and 250 bottles of Frontignan Muscadet, and 180 bottles of Chateau Margaux in just four months. When Jefferson returned to the United States, Alexander Hamilton criticized him for his commitment to French ideas and luxury, accusing him of having “abjured his native victuals.” Even some of Jefferson’s friends and allies were perplexed by his bizarre new wine preferences.
When he took office in 1801, he stocked the White House cellar with a combination of his personal favorites and wines. These varieties were more prevalent among his compatriots, particularly fortified or sweetened wines, such as Sherry and Madeira. Moreover, Jefferson also kept a good supply of nearly everyone’s favorite at the time: Champagne wine, which he had discovered during his second European wine tour that included the Rhine and Moselle river valleys as well as western France.
These wines served as the foundation of Jefferson’s daily informal dinners at the White House, which he hosted in the company of eight or ten movers and shakers. Although these dinners were generally successful in aiding Jefferson’s mission, they occasionally created controversy. For instance, a newly-appointed British ambassador objected to the informal tone of the event at which he and his wife had expected to be honored guests. With a $25,000 annual income that was required to cover all of his expenses, Jefferson spent an average of $3,200 per year on wine collection during his first term. Nonetheless, following his reelection, his annual spending decreased considerably to under $1,000.
After leaving office, he reduced the collection of his costly wines and developed a cellar of less expensive imports. For example, Jefferson replaced his Chateau Margaux with cheaper wines from southern France and Italy, particularly the Rhone and Languedoc. He was in such desperate financial circumstances that he had to sell his library to the government to earn money. Jefferson was a big fan of Rhone wines, especially those from Hermitage, where the whites were better and more abundant than the reds at the time.
Jefferson passed away before his idea of an American winemaking industry could come to fruition. However, wine is produced commercially in every state in the continental United States today, including at Monticello and elsewhere in Virginia. Some of the West Coast wines compete well internationally. Indeed, Jefferson would have been overjoyed by the so-called Paris Judgment, a blind tasting on July 4, 1976, in which the underrated California wines defeated their top French equivalents.
Want to read more? Try out these books!
Thomas Jefferson on Wine (University Press of Mississippi, 457 pp., $38)