Thomas Jefferson on wine
University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2006, 457 pp.
Reviewer: Domenic V. Cicchetti
This fascinating book chronicles the evolution of Thomas Jefferson’s love and appreciation of fine wine. As such, the text is divided into the following relevant content areas: Jefferson’s introduction to oenologic pursuits, judged to be somewhere in his twenties; his attempts, without much real success, to develop vineyards at Monticello when he was only 27 years old; his first wine trip to France, where he lived between 1784 and 1788; the stocking of his Paris wine cellar, between 1787 and 1788; his touring and tasting in the vineyards of the Rhine, the Mosel, and Champagne (1788–1789); his return to America (1789–1800); the wines he served as the third U.S. President (1801–1809); and his retirement years at Monticello between 1809–1826.
A central theme that permeates the pages of this book is how remarkably well Jefferson’s oenological pursuits foreshadowed much more recent events. Thus, Hailman notes (p. 3) that “Jefferson’s letters about wine, in the scope and variety of their curiosity, read remarkably like a Robert Parker newsletter or Wine Spectator article.” Jefferson wrote a manuscript for use in Connecticut, Vermont, and New York, this during the early 1790’s. He used a three tiered rating system (Good; Middling; Bad) that is considered today as a precursor to the much later development of the French Michelin in 1900.
Of much more oenologic interest, it is quite remarkable that in 1787, nearly 7 decades prior to the famous 1855 French Classification of Bordeaux First Growths, Thomas Jefferson classified the same four châteaux as such, namely, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Lafitte-Rothschild! It is of historic note that Madeira was the most beloved of wines during Jefferson’s era, with the Founding Fathers considering it their wine of choice. In fact, it was for a time considered patriotic to drink the famed Portuguese fortified wine in order to avoid having to pay taxes to the British Crown!
Continuing on the Bordeaux theme, in 1787, and over a span of a mere four day period, Jefferson wrote a comprehensive evaluation of the wines of Bordeaux, a document that is still cited and quoted as an authoritative guide to the French wine trade at that time.
Well beyond this oenologic prowess, Heilman, as well as other independent authors, provide historical data that depicts Thomas Jefferson as one who easily meets criterion as a multi-faceted Renaissance man whose skills and knowledge covered many diverse fields of inquiry. Thus Jefferson, at various periods in his life, served in the roles of architect, paleontologist, and linguist (he began studying Latin, Greek, and French when he was but nine years of age; and he was, as an adult, fluent in both spoken and written French). He was also an author, inventor, horticulturist, and musician (he was the “best fiddler and finest violinist in Virginia” – p. 14).
It is in such a comprehensive backdrop that we also begin to understand and appreciate Jefferson’s commanding knowledge and enjoyment of wines from throughout the world. As Hailman notes “Jefferson became the foremost wine expert of his time, while holding the most demanding public offices, because he was unique in his energy, talent, and ability to concentrate.” It is also noteworthy that the famous Monticello Vineyards in Napa Valley, California was modeled after Jefferson’s ideas, and produces Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, and late-harvest wines that he was never able to grow successfully in Monticello, Virginia. All this said, Hailman, quite a wine connoisseur himself, describes the current 1999 Sangiovese Monticello as an “excellent” wine produced by the Italian winemaker Gabrielle Rausse in Jefferson’s home state.
During his long and very productive life, Jefferson stocked three wine cellars, one in Monticello, another in Paris, and a third in Philadelphia. He was a generous and convivial host who served the very best of wines to accompany gourmet food. He was also the inventor of three dumbwaiters, one of which, in Lazy Susan fashion, enabled the dirty dinnerware and glassware to immediately reach the waiting hands of kitchen staff, this to avoid the uneasiness of guests who desired to share stories that were not meant for others outside the circle of friends and colleagues to hear.
Lest one believe that Jefferson’s taste was more or less limited to French wines, it is important to stress that he also had a commanding knowledge of major grape varietals in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Jefferson’s favorite Italian wine was Montepulciano. Jefferson also lauded the carignane grape that has recently come into its own as the carignano varietal. The grape has its historical roots in Sardinia when this Italian island was a colony of the ancient Phoenicians, who then referred to native Sardinians as Shardana.
It is important to note, as Hailman reminds us, that during Jefferson’s era there were, in fact, no opera houses, theaters, or other such modern cultural institutions, ones that are so much an integral part of social life the world over. And so, fine wines, good dinners, and spirited conversations were the center of communal activities at that time.
It is fascinating to become acquainted with the somewhat arcane terminology that was used to order large quantities of wine during Jefferson’s era. Perhaps the most interesting was the so called pipe of wine that translated into a 110 gallon barrel which is the equivalent of 550 standard 750 ml bottles of just under 48 cases of wine.
Finally, given the somewhat now well established health benefits of moderate daily consumption of red wine, it is quite instructive that Jefferson fervently believed this to be the case (no pun intended!), as he railed against what he considered to be the poisonous and ruinous effects of hard liquor, as in the form of whisky consumption. And so as an unabashed and confirmed oenophile, I thought it might be fitting to use Jefferson’s own words, as he expressed them in a letter to a friend in France, on December 13, 1818:
“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey” (p. 353).
It is befitting, although quite surprising, that Thomas Jefferson, the principal signer of the Declaration of Independence, died in 1826, at the age of 83, but on July 4th, as fate would have it!
The most recent example of our continuing to feel the “presence” of Jefferson’s oenologic influence on a global scale is the controversy first reported in a 2006 New Yorker article, in Appendix B of this book, and most recently in the September 3, 2007 issue of the New Yorker. There is now an embittered legal battle over whether or not some recent wines sold at auction are or are not originally from ones of Jefferson’s cellars. Without giving away the intrigue of it all, the importance of it is hardly diminished by the tasting and high praise given to some of these wines by such notables as Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker’ and the purchase, at astronomical prices, of some of these wines by noted wine connoisseurs. Thus, Dodi al Fayed, who died in that tragic car crash along with Princess Diana, was reported in both the Wine Spectator and The New York Post to have purchased a supposed Jefferson cellared 1784 Chateau d’Yquem, with the letters Th.J. for the staggering amount of $56,628. It has further been reported that a 375 ml or half bottle alleged to be a 1784 Margaux bearing, once again, Thomas Jefferson’s initials, was auctioned off to the owner and publisher of Wine Spectator for the astonishing amount of $30,000. This represents the fifth-highest price that anyone has been known to pay for a half bottle of wine. Quoting Hailman again, “Mr. Shanken stated that he did not plan to drink or even open the bottle, but to put it on display at the New York headquarters of M. Shanken Communications as “an important part of American history.”
In closing, I tip my oenologic cap to John Hailman for providing such a lucid, comprehensive, penetrating, and utterly delightful account of the wine knowledge and taste of one of our cherished Founding Fathers. I learned much from this book and would recommend it without reservation to all who have not yet had the sheer hedonic pleasure of savoring its contents.
Domenic V. Cicchetti