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"No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage." 

Thomas Jefferson, American statesman, President, and patriot.


Wine and Thomas Jefferson

Winery Insight Featured Article - July 2004 by Timothy O. Rice


One day in 1985, a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite was sold at auction for the unheard of sum of 105,000 English Pounds, or $160,000.


The great age of the wine would account for some of that value.   What made it truly special was that it had once been in the cellar of Thomas Jefferson.  His career as third President of the United States, statesman, scientist and philosopher is well known.  Less commonly known is his position as one of the foremost gourmets and wine-lovers of his day.  Often called the Leonardo da Vinci of America, Jefferson was a strong and ceaseless proponent of the American vineyard and wine industry.  Anything associated with his name would go up in value at auction, but perhaps wine more than most things.  Two other bottles of wine that he once owned have sold for fabulous prices: 1775 Sherry at $43,500 and a 1787 Chateau d'Yquem for $56,588, the most expensive white wine ever sold.


In 1773, the young Jefferson convinced Filippo Mazzei of Florence to join him in Monticello.  Mazzei was a fascinating man in his own right: a doctor , a merchant and a horticulturalist.  During the Revolution he became Virginia’s agent in France, raising money to keep our efforts alive.  He arrived with ten vineyard workers, vine clippings, specialized tools and other plants.  Jefferson gave him 2,000 acres to start a vineyard in 1774.  Pestilence and other problems doomed that effort, but in 1985 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation began the process of replanting Jefferson’s vineyards, and today you can buy wine from the vineyard at the Monticello gift shop.


In 1784, the Continental Congress sent Jefferson to France, one of the first diplomats in our history.  During his stay there Jefferson’s already evident love of fine food and wine blossomed into a full-blown passion.  On his return several years later, he brought more than 300 wines with him, and established famous wine cellars in the estate he built at Monticello, and again when he moved into the White House in 1801.  The wine, however, was his: Presidents were supposed to do the entertaining off their salary in those days, and had no expense account.


As part of his Presidency, Jefferson worked to increase the consumption of wine.  In those days, temperance movements favored the consumption of beer and wine instead of outright prohibition of alcohol.  Such wines as were drunk in America tended to be “fortified” with the addition of brandy, because such wines traveled better in the conditions of the day.  American culture had evolved around distilled spirits rather than fermented wine and beer for a host of reasons, ease of production no doubt being one of them and difficulties in transport.  Perhaps most important were two other reasons, one cultural and the other environmental.  The cultural one was that most Americans had come from the British Isles and other northern locales, where wine did not grow.  The other was that native North American grapes did not produce good wine and (unknown to the people of the times) the phyloxera louse attacked the roots of European vines.


The citizens of those days consumed what seem like staggering amounts of whiskey, rum, and other alcoholic beverages.  Among other things, it was considered safer than drinking the local water when traveling.  Encouraging beer and wine was seen as a way to reduce public drunkenness. Jefferson was a proponent, and letters from him on the subject are common.  He encouraged many early attempts and was constantly disappointed.  No American would make a true success of vineyards and wine in America until Nicholas Longworth out near Cincinnati in the 1840-1860 period.  Longworth bought some of his clippings from a Major Adlum in Maryland, and Jefferson had pushed Adlum’s efforts with a grape known as the Alexander.  (The Alexander no longer exists, but is thought to have been an accidental cross of a native American grape, probably a Lambrusca, with a European vitis vinifera, probably from around the estates of William Penn of Pennsylvania.)


Jefferson’s dream for an American wine industry was not fulfilled in his lifetime.  He would have been more than happy with Longworth’s 20 years of success, and undoubtedly appalled by Prohibition.  I think he would be quite happy to see the American wine renaissance of the last 40 years, and more than that to see vines prospering in his old vineyards today.


One more thing: in 2000, Master Sommelier Barrie Larvin actually opened the 1800 Madeira that belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  The cork was crumbling, so he poured the bottle into an airtight decanter and sealed it, perhaps to rebottle and cork later.  But he poured a tiny amount into a tasting glass for the people with him.  Those fortunate few who were with him were amazed at the quality of the wine after all those years.


 Last modified: August 07, 2007