Sipping in style: President Jefferson’s wine bill was equal to $140,000.

In finishing up odds and ends on my dissertation–which is almost done, thankfully–earlier this week I had the occasion, never mind why, to quote a figure I recalled reading years ago about how much Thomas Jefferson spent on wine during his years in the White House. I knew the figure was high, but I couldn’t recall it exactly, so in the text of my dissertation I left a blank there. This week I had to come up with an exact figure. Fortunately, historians know a great deal about Jefferson’s finances; his account books, meticulously kept for decades, were published in the 1990s. Adding up the three pages of detailed wine expenditures for the years 1801 to 1809, the figure I got was $9,253.01.

Adjusted for inflation, that is about $140,000 in 2016 dollars. Now that’s a wine bill!

Jefferson loved wine. I did an article years ago about his oenophilia, which has remained a favorite on this blog year in and year out. Archaeologists have conducted excavations at Monticello, his plantation home in Virginia, and have discovered tantalizing artifacts in what used to be his wine cellar. Though he had a lot of faults and contradictions, I do admire Jefferson, and if I had a time machine one of the first things I’d do would be to go back and have a bottle (or two) of a nice red while chatting with old TJ.

In the early 19th century wine was shipped overseas usually in casks (or “butts”) like these. Jefferson, however, preferred to have it shipped in bottles; some invariably broke, but they were less susceptible to pilferage while en route.

My figure of $9,253.01 is undoubtedly a low-ball. It doesn’t count what Jefferson paid for shipping or customs duties–there were no wineries in America in 1801, so it all had to be imported from Europe–and I’m sure I also missed a few entries. But, among the tallies in Jefferson’s ledger, here are just a few of the specific purchases he made:

  • 60 gallons (!) of a Malaga (Spanish) wine called Lacryma Christi (translates to “The Tears of Christ”). This was a 1755 vintage. Jefferson bought it in 1802 for $106.
  • On February 24, 1802, Jefferson bought several “pipes” of sherry from London. A “pipe” is also called a “butt,” and is about 120 gallons. He had this transferred into bottles, 278 of which he had sent to Monticello in February 1803. Given the terminology, you could literally say Jefferson bought two butt loads of sherry.
  • 150 bottles of a wine called Rozan Margau, for which Jefferson paid $150 in 1803. That sounds like a German white to me, but I don’t know for sure.
  • 123 bottles of Montepulciano, which Jefferson had imported from Florence in June 1804.
  • 36 bottles of Chateau Margaux, 1798 vintage, purchased in December 1804. Chateau Margaux, a famous and ancient Bordeaux winery, is still in business today.
  • Jefferson was fond of a white wine called Hermitage, which he imported from Marseilles. He bought several loads of this in 1806 alone.
  • The final wine purchase recorded for his White House years consisted of 100 bottles of wine from Nice, purchased on April 8, 1808 for $75.58.

Keep in mind that this (equivalent of) $140,000 worth of wine was just for Jefferson’s Presidential years, and it was not paid by the government. In those days Presidents had to defray their own expenses, which is part of the reason Jefferson was broke by the time he left office. Yet he kept buying wine at Monticello in his retirement. He was a man who enjoyed life to the fullest–even when he couldn’t pay for it.

The header image in this article was created by me from public domain images. Other images are Creative Commons 0 (public domain).
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2 Comments on Sipping in style: President Jefferson’s wine bill was equal to $140,000.

  1. Bret Kelly // April 13, 2017 at 6:53 am // Reply

    You realize that he was in office for eight years? That’s an average of only $336/week. Kind of takes some steam out of your story, but interesting nonetheless.

  2. Interesting post! Just a note, I did a quick search for the origins of Rozan Margau (you made me curious), and it turns out it’s actually a French wine from Bordeaux. Apparently, the recognized spelling is/was “Rausan Margaux.” It’s possible that TJ either misspelled it or that the spelling has evolved since the early 19th century. You might find this of interest if you haven’t yet seen it: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-39-02-0405

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