Thomas Jefferson was a man of many passions as well as talents. In addition to being the author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and third President of the United States, he fancied himself a gentleman of refined European habits, and as such he had a fondness for wine. Indeed, he was one of America’s very first oenophiles (wine lovers), and indulged his passion for vino as robustly as he did his passions for many other things–books, science, travel and Sally Hemings, among them.
Jefferson drank a lot of wine. When he left the White House in March 1809, his unpaid bill for wine ran to $11,000–the equivalent of about $158,000 today. When he was home at Monticello, his household consumed about 400 bottles per year. All came from Europe, because in the early 19th century wine grapes couldn’t yet be grown in North America. Not for lack of trying–Jefferson attempted to grow a lot of European crops in Virginia, but the vines didn’t thrive. Even the labor of his slaves couldn’t save them.
It seems that Jefferson was first introduced to wine during the Revolutionary War, and ironically by the enemy. In various stages of the war the British hired German mercenaries–they’re usually called Hessians, though not all of them came from Hesse. Evidently some Hessians were being held prisoner near Monticello and somehow Jefferson came in contact with them. They introduced him to German wines, almost certainly whites, as few decent red varietals grow in Germany. This whetted Jefferson’s appetite, but it wasn’t until he arrived in Paris in 1785, appointed U.S. Minister to France by the Confederation Congress, that his taste for wine really got started.
Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 to serve in President Washington’s cabinet, and he brought wine home with him. He also ordered it from overseas suppliers. He was unusual in insisting that it be delivered in bottles, not casks. Although bottles were subject to breakage on the rough transatlantic voyages, they were at least secure, and couldn’t be watered down or filched by unscrupulous merchants or thirsty crew members. Jefferson evidently paid through the nose for these luxury items. Archaeological digs at Monticello have revealed pieces of broken wine bottles under the floor of what was once Jefferson’s cellar.
Speaking of Jefferson’s cellar, it has been painstakingly restored and is now open to the public at Monticello. What sort of wine did he have down there? According to this article he liked Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Lafite, all the finest French vintners of the day. I personally know French wines far less than I should, but I do know that Chateau Lafite exists in some form today; the exquisite wine Chateau Lafite-Rothschild continues to make some of the finest wines available in the world. I’ve never had it, but I’m told a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1976 is one of the most amazing wines that still exists on planet Earth.
A few bottles of wine owned by Jefferson are said to have survived into fairly recent times. I recall reading about an incident in the late 1980s where a collector paid a tremendous amount of money for a bottle of Jefferson’s wine. He intended to serve it at a party to his friends. As it was being served, the person holding the tray tripped and fell and the wine bottle smashed on the floor. According to the story, the spectators immediately dove to the floor and began sucking the carpet with their mouths just to get a taste of Jefferson’s wine. This may be an urban legend, but it’s a hell of a story.
If I could go back in time I’d love to share a glass–or a bottle–with the Sage of Monticello.