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America's First Wine Connoisseur

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At the height of his career, he spent almost 13 percent of his salary on wine, some $3,200 in one year. In today’s dollars, that would be over $40,000. Sounds like a troubling habit, eh? And yet, America holds him in perhaps the highest esteem of all its legendary figures.

The gentleman’s name? Thomas Jefferson, of course.

Jefferson was a polymath with interests and achievements in a breathtaking array of disciplines. He was a scientist, horticulturalist, naturalist, political philosopher, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, and inventor just to mention a few of his interests.

In his spare time, he served as Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, the first Secretary of State, second Vice President of the United States and our third President. In his later years, he founded the University of Virginia.

One of his favorite quotes was from the Greek playwright Euripides, “For with slight efforts how should one attain great results. It is foolish to even to desire it.” He obviously lived the quote.

In 1962, when President Kennedy was hosting a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners, he commented, “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever gathered together in the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Indeed.

In his eighty-three years of life, there is no record of him wasting a minute of it.

Among his seemingly endless pursuits was a lifelong passion for wine and the ardor to convince the rest of his fellow citizens to grow it and consume it for their enjoyment and health.

“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,” he wrote. The consumption of hard liquor was rampant in colonial America and he once commented that he never saw a drunkard while living in France.

A Disappointing Grape Growing Legacy

And yet, while Jefferson was successful at almost everything he engaged in, wine production was not one of them. In thirty years of growing grapes at Monticello, he never produced a single bottle of wine. Grapes indigenous to Virginia grew in profusion around his estate but did not produce a palatable wine.

It was the European grapevine that he passionately planted and assiduously tended only to see each attempt fail. The delicate vine could not thrive in Virginia’s harsh climate or compete with the army of insects and wildlife ready to nip any young vine in the bud. In 1802, and again in 1807, he planted the classic grapes of France and then Italy, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and others. All of them died.

His love of French wine deepened while he was both a Commissioner to France and later an Ambassador. Two weeks after arriving in Paris in 1784 as a Commissioner, he went shopping for wine, scooping up 276 bottles in a matter of days. The word passion is not an overstatement when it comes to his love of the fermented grape.

Jefferson traveled extensively around Europe visiting dozens of wineries and developing a list of his favorites. During his presidency, he used this knowledge to provide White House dinner guests some of the best wines available in America. It was in his first year as President that he expended the princely sum of $3,200 of his own money to buy and serve world-class wines at his numerous White House dinners. An invitation to dine with Jefferson was coveted.

While he ordered wines directly from numerous chateaux in France, he also purchased it by the barrel and then bottled it on site at Monticello. Over time, he increasingly ordered bottled wines because of his unfortunate experience with barrel deliveries. It was not unusual to receive a barrel of wine that had been ruined when thirsty sailors partook of the tasty contents and then refilled the part empty vessel with saltwater. Wine delivered by the bottle could not so easily be tampered with.

Originator of Vintage Labeling?

Some experts claim it was Jefferson who created vintage labeling when he suggested to European winemakers that they identify annual productions by etching their bottles with the year the wine was produced.

His consumption of wine centered on the evening dinner. He did not drink any other time of the day. And interestingly, he often served wine after the table was cleared. Cider and beer---both of which he also produced---were served with food. Wine was poured after dinner while his guests engaged in lively conversation.

Today’s focus on pairing wine with food held little attraction to Jefferson. He believed wine was best enjoyed slowly, sipping it on a full stomach while engaging in convivial post-dinner conversation with friends and colleagues. Given the difficultly and expense of importing wine, he wanted to devote his full attention to its consumption without the interference of food.

He was reputed to be a moderate drinker. But, he once told his doctor he regularly drank two or three, 3-ounce glasses daily, but never on an empty stomach. And double that amount if enjoying wine in the company of a good friend. And on occasion, even triple that amount. You have to love the man’s honesty.

Nonetheless, he had a well earned reputation for not overindulging. One of his servants wrote years after his death that he, “… never saw Mr. Jefferson disguised in drink.”

After years of wine growing failure, he admitted that the emerging French-American hybrids appeared to hold promise as cultivars of decent wine and should be pursued to create a domestic wine industry. With accurate prescient, he predicted it would take centuries to adapt the European grape to the soil and climate of Virginia.

Today, Mr. Jefferson would be impressed with the explosive growth of Virginia wine. He would feel vindicated that his predictions were coming true and that the Old Dominion was producing wines equal to that of the best regions in the world.

Perhaps he might even acquiesce to attend one of the numerous wine dinners held regularly around our state, showcasing the culinary delight of well-matched wine and food. After all, he never stopped embracing change and today Virginia wine exemplifies the word.

And if he was seated at the head of the dinner table, surely his first toast of the evening would be, “Cheers to Virginia wine!”

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At the height of his career, he spent almost 13 percent of his salary on wine, some $3,200 in one year. In today’s dollars, that would be over $40,000. Sounds like a troubling habit, eh? And yet, America holds him in perhaps the highest esteem of all its legendary figures.

And he died about $100,000 in debt (in 1826 dollars).

"You know, if you let me write $200 billion worth of hot checks every year, I could give you the illusion of prosperity too."

-- Lloyd Bentson

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