America’s Wine Loving President: Thomas H Jefferson

Book Review: ‘Thomas Jefferson on Wine’, by John Hailman

457 Pages. University Press of Mississippi / Jackson. First published in paperback in 2009. Kindle Edition $19.76.

Thomas Jefferson was an important man: one of the founding fathers of the US, the principal author of its ‘Declaration of Independence’, US Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and, finally, the third President of the United States. He was also a wine lover. During his lifetime Jefferson made himself the greatest wine expert in America. This was in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s – before America had a wine industry and or even wine shops!

So what was Jefferson drinking over 200 years back, and what made him the original American wine connoisseur? The answers are contained in John Haliman’s 457-page biographical book, ‘Thomas Jefferson on Wine’. You need to be at least one of two things to enjoy the book: a wine lover, or a history lover. If you happen to be both, the book is a treat comparable to the best Bordeaux or Burgundy! Though you must read the book for real inspiration, here is a primer of lessons I gleaned from reading it.

Jefferson established a cellar early (as early as 1769, when he would be 26 years old!) and stocked it with the best wines he could obtain: A dozen bottles of Lisbon wines, and Madeira are mentioned in his first available account book – written in his own hand.  Modest or grand, every aspiring connoisseur must have his or her own wine cellar. Start small if you must – even Jefferson did!

He kept detailed notes of his purchases, and regularly made inventories of his cellar: this note-making discipline of Jefferson has allowed Hailman to write his book and for us to learn much about the wines Jefferson drank. Is it necessary to write down what we bought, where, and at what price? It certainly aids reflection – a necessary part of evaluating our own evolving tastes. Interestingly, Hailman writes ‘It is noteworthy that Jefferson always kept track of his empty bottles almost as closely as his full ones. In eighteenth-century America, especially during the Revolution, glass was hard to obtain, and bottles often cost as much or more than their contents”. It really did take commitment to be a wine lover in that age!

He travelled to vineyards, studied the terroir and educated himself about wine: In 1784, Jefferson went to live in Paris on a diplomatic assignment. In 1787, he undertook a three-month long ‘wine tour’. Hailman writes that ‘the tour changed Jefferson’s habits as a wine drinker forever, and was the greatest single factor in his becoming the foremost American wine expert of his age’. He travelled ‘incognito’ hiding his status as America’s minister to France. Hailman writes that Jefferson started in Burgundy. In Jefferson’s own words, he “rambled thro’ their most celebrated vineyards, going through the houses of the labourers, cellars of vignerons, & mixing and conversing with them”. In his journal Jefferson wrote “The wines which have given such celebrity to Burgundy grow only on the Côte, an extent of about 5 leagues long, and half a league wide. They begin at Chambertin, and go on through Vougeau, Romanie, Veaune, Nuys, Beaune, Pommard, Voulenay, Mersault and end at Montrachet. The two last are white; the others red.” These names are equally familiar today to any lover of Burgundy’s wines. Hailman writes that ‘In the margin of his journal, Jefferson made a small diagram of the layout of the villages and their vineyards in relation to the road through Burgundy’.

Jefferson finally arrived in Bordeaux in May 1787. Hailman writes that ‘In just four days, from May 24 to May 28, he learned about and committed himself to writing a thorough evaluation of the wines of Bordeaux which is still quoted today as an authoritative work on the Bordeaux wine trade as it stood in 1787.’ Jefferson observed and wrote down everything he could, from the method of the grafting of the vines, to the age of the vines, yields, whether the vineyards were farmed by the owners or the labourers, how much the labourers were paid for a days work (with differences noted in the wages for men and women)! From Jefferson’s journal, in his own words almost a 70 years before the 1855 classification of the Medoc Chateaux:

“Of RED WINES, there are 4. vineyards, of first quality, viz.

  1. Chateau Margau, belong to the Marquis d’Argicourt, who makes about 150. tonneaux of 1000 bottles each. He has engaged Jernon a merchant.
  2. La Tour de Ségur, en Saint Lamber, belonging to Monsieur Mirosmenil who makes 125. tonneaux.
  3. Hautbrion, belonging 2/3 TO M. Le Comte de Fumelle, who has engaged to Barton a merchant, the other third to the Comte de Toulouse. The whole is 75. tonneaux.
  4. Chateau de la Fite, belonging to the Président Pichard at Bordeaux, who makes 175 tonneaux. The wines of the three first are not in perfection till 4 years old. Those de la Fite being somewhat lighter, are good at 3 years.”

He also wrote about the soil: “The celebrated vineyards before mentioned are plains, as is generally the canton of Medoc, and that of Grave. The soil of Hautbrion particularly, which I examined, is a sand, in which is near as much gravel or small stone, and a very little loam; and this is the general soil of the Medoc.”

Hailman wonderfully sums up the effects of Jefferson’s journey: ‘Whatever the hardships of his trip, and whatever the lessons he learned from it, Jefferson the wine drinker would never be the same. His horizons on the subject had been infinitely expanded. Back in Paris he began writing about the new wines he’d learned, ordering Bordeaux, Burgundies, Muscats, and Champagnes. He also began recommending wines to other, as he was to do for the remainder of his life.’

He took pains to procure his wines, usually directly from winemakers: The lack of wine shops, the dearness of bottles, the absence of price lists, difficulty of communication, the necessity to order in writing via post, the long lag times between ordering and receiving the wine, difficulties of shipping, and piracy on the high seas: these were just some of the obstacles that Jefferson faced. These difficulties, however, did not prevent Jefferson from collecting thousands of bottles of wine. As Hailman writes: ‘Jefferson’s cellar was surprisingly diverse, and not limited to French wines. Even among his French wines, not all were famous names.” Customs duties and taxes in India are high, and we lack good wine shops in India as Jefferson did in his day. To the willing however, Jefferson’s example is instructive: against all odds, Jefferson managed to cellar and drink the best wines of the world!

Hailman’s book provides further insights on Jefferson’s wine drinking habits: Jefferson never compromised on quality, and was always concerned about serving each wine at the right temperature and age. These are all lessons that we can draw. However, going from being a wine lover to becoming a true connoisseur is a personal journey that each of us must undertake on our own. Jefferson provides the example. The world of wine is as open to us today, as it was to Jefferson in his day.

About Gaurav Anand

Certified Sommelier Gaurav Anand is an India based wine writer, consultant, educator and founder of Wine Forays. He earned his Sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds the WSET Advanced certification in Wines & Spirits. Above all, he is a wine lover on a full-time mission to taste and discover the best wines in the world.
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