Jul 042013
 
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson may not have been a renowned poet, but he did have a gift for language. The phrases Jefferson crafted in the Declaration of Independence not only inspired those who risked their lives to break away in rebellion from England, but have stood the test of time. They have been quoted so often, and by so many, they are a touchstone of oratory.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For Jefferson, the pursuit of Happiness included wine.

Among the Founding Fathers, Jefferson was not alone in his appreciation of alcoholic beverages. In fact, the constitutional convention may have set the standard for this sort of consumption. Perhaps in celebration, perhaps to calm their nerves, the delegates ran up quite a bar tab at a local tavern. In a single night they drank 60 bottles of claret and 54 of Madeira. And there were only 55 delegates in all, which works out to roughly a bottle of each per delegate. That same evening they also added 22 bottles of porter, 12 of beer, eight of whiskey, seven bowls of punch (spiked ) and eight bottles of hard cider.

Clearly, this was thirsty work.

The hard cider is of particular note. There are some who credit the colonists’ victory over the British to cider, which protected them against the ravages of intestinal disease that killed so many soldiers. Jefferson’s colleague and fierce political rival John Adams began each day with a large draft of hard cider before breakfast. In fact, cider was a clear favorite among the early colonists. The average colonist at the time of the American Revolution drank 35 gallons of cider a year.

And for good reason. The water in colonial America was likely unhealthy, even deadly, contaminated by every settler and animal upstream. It could, of course, be boiled and made into tea – but we know how that ended in Boston. And before refrigeration, milk was better used to create products with a longer shelf life, like cheese and butter. With water and milk off the table, the early Americans drank alcohol because it was safe, and because it was, indeed, a way to pursue a bit of happiness.

And they tried just about every possible variation. Among the crops that they brought from Europe, they planted hops, grapevines, barley and apples. Only the apples thrived. When Johnny Appleseed walked across America planting apple seeds, he was not providing school children with treats to polish for their teachers. Apples are genetically unstable, and an apple seed rarely produces a tree with delicious ripe fruit. It is far more likely to produce a rather tart and bitter fruit that is best used to create, you guessed it, hard cider.

As they founded a nation, our leaders created their own alcoholic beverages from just about anything at hand, from pumpkins to parsnips. Benjamin Franklin experimented with a fermented spruce beer, and George Washington tried to ferment a beverage from molasses. Jefferson also brewed his own beer. But apples were simply the best option.

It was in this milieu that Thomas Jefferson developed a passion for wine. Actually, he was a man of many passions. John F. Kennedy famously welcomed a group of Nobel Prize Laureates to the White House by saying, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

And he knew his wines.

As a young man, Jefferson would have received a classical education, complete with studies in both Latin and Greek. Perhaps this explains his interest in wines that were a bit out of the mainstream for many of us today. Of course he drank the most famous wines of France, from Bordeaux and Burgundy particularly, although he was not a fan of the sparkling wines of Champagne (these, he was sure, were a passing fad). He waxed poetic over the wines of Sauternes.

Beyond these he explored with great passion and enthusiasm. He served Greek wine to Daniel Webster. He drank German wines from both the Rhine and the Mosel, as well as wines from Cyprus and Hungary. He loved the wines of southern Spain, and often served Malaga during his terms in the White House. He recommended Pedro Ximenez to his ailing daughter, and preferred above all the delicate Manzanilla wines of Sanlucar de Barrameda. He drank both whites and reds from Portugal, including those made by the Marquis de Pombal. (As ruler of Portugal, this dignitary organized a complete regulation of the Port wine industry, and decreed wines called Port could only come from specific parts of the Douro Valley…and one small plot outside of Lisbon that just happened to be owned by the Marquis de Pombal.)

Most of these he had shipped from Europe by the barrel, and bottled once they arrived at Monticello. To facilitate the process, he not only planted cork oak trees so that he could produce his own stoppers, an unsuccessful experiment, but he became an expert at wine importation. He advised at least four other presidents on their wine purchases: George Washington, John Adams, Madison and Monroe.

From Italy he drank the still-famous wines of Chianti, Nebbiolo, Gattinara, Orvieto, Marsala, Soave, Moscato, and Vin Santo. But he also loved wines that have evolved to a lower profile in America today: Montepulciano, Camignano, Pomino, and Castelo di Ama. He was advised on these wines by Phillip Mazzei, a Tuscan viticulturist who lived next door to Monticello, consulted on the vineyards at Monticello, and obviously influenced Jefferson’s view of Italian wine.

As ambassador to France, Jefferson traveled the country, and he did so with an eye to wine. It may have not been the most strategic or diplomatic itinerary, but Jefferson spent time visiting the Rhone, Burgundy, Bordeaux and the less expensive but also interesting regions of the Languedoc. When he could afford them he bought large quantities of great wines. And when his financial situation prevented that, he purchased lesser wines that he still enjoyed. His cellar in Paris, where he was to live for only a few years, held nearly 2,400 bottles of wine.

As Secretary of State under Washington he reveled in the wines (and books – he loved to collect books as well) that he could purchase and share with his friends, colleagues and guests. And he urged President Washington to do the same. At one point Jefferson placed an order for wines for George Washington that included “40 dozen of Champagne, 30 doz. of Sauterne, 20 doz. of Bordeaux de Segur, and 10 doz. of Frontignan.” That’s 1,200 bottles of wine in a single order – and that was just for Washington. Jefferson ordered an additional 25 dozen bottles for himself.

As President, his salary of $25,000 was used, to huge effect, to entertain, cajole and influence the outcome of many political issues. He had a French chef, and his dinners were famous for being both delicious and generous. Fully a quarter of his salary was spent on fine food in one year, and in another he spent over $7,500 on wine alone. In total, he spent over $16,000 on wine during his presidency. His critics complained that Jefferson’s hospitality had convinced the Senate and silenced opposition – this at a time when a captain in the army made $20 per month.

He bought an entire vintage of one fine white Burgundy, lock, stock and barrel. Despite his reservations about Champagne, he served 207 bottles of it in a single month at the White House. When architect James Hoban was asked to raise and expand the White House, he complained that the work was delayed by Jefferson’s insistence on a much larger wine cellar.

He was an enthusiast of the highest order, and he was never happier than encouraging others to share in his enthusiasms.

But Jefferson himself would not have described wine in this way. “Good wine,” he said, “is a necessity of life for me.” In one year, he calculated that he had consumed some 400 bottles of wine, more than one a day. But he was careful not to overindulge. “I have lived temperately…I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend.”

We would do well to emulate him.

Reprinted from Wine & Dine Magazine.