Every February the United States celebrates President’s Day, which has become more of a long, holiday weekend rather than an observance of our past Presidents. This month though, I’d like to celebrate those Presidents who impacted the wine industry with a little American wine history lesson for you guys.
First off, we all need to thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt for being the President who repealed the 18th Amendment, which did away with National Prohibition. He did this in the first 30 days he took office!
But the President who really shaped the American wine industry is Thomas Jefferson. Many people know Thomas Jefferson as one of the Founding Fathers, the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, the second face on Mount Rushmore and our third President. Yet, many don’t know just how much he inspired the growth and exploration of producing and growing wine in the colonies even before the American Revolution and more so once the country earned its independence.
He is still the most wine-savvy POTUS we’ve have to date and America’s first great wine connoisseur. You’d think Donald Trump might be a contender for this role given he owns the Virginia winery, Trump Winery. But, alas he has “never had a drop of alcohol”. TJ remains on top!
We could, in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe: not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good. yet I have ever observed to my countrymen who think it’s introduction important, that a labourer cultivating wheat, rice, tobacco or cotton here, will be able, with the proceeds, to purchase double the quantity of the wine he would make. – Thomas Jefferson
So what makes Thomas Jefferson the most wine-savvy POTUS still? I’ve laid out six reasons. There’s more of course but these are my favorite ones. If you’re looking to learn even more about TJ and his love affair with wine, check out the book Thomas Jefferson on Wine but John Hailman.
Created the Trend of Blending Work with Wine Country Getaways
In 1785 Jefferson moved to Paris to begin his role as America’s Minister to France. During his time in this role, he spent three months touring the country for American trade interests. But, it was his personal interest in wine that set the itinerary to go through some of the best European wine regions in France and Northern Italy – Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone Valley, Beaujolais, Piedmont and Bordeaux.
Responsible for Virginia’s first established American Viticultural Area
For nearly 30 years Jefferson planted French, German, and Italian vines at his home Monticello, located in Virginia. But, he never actually produced wine – all his vines died. Every year. Freezing temperatures in the winter, the American Revolution and Phylloxera were all to blame. Keep in mind, Vitis Vinifera (wine grapes) didn’t grow on the East Coast until hybrid grapes were formed. One of the first American hybrids that grew successfully for winemaking in Virginia is the Norton grape.
Jefferson was right in his persistent vision of Virginia – and the U.S. – producing a “great a variety of wines”. His dream of producing wines at Monticello lives on at Jefferson Vineyards, which is part of the original vineyards he had laid out. The surrounding area where Monticello is located is now home to 33 thriving vineyards and the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA), the first of seven established AVA’s in Virginia.
Today, a variety of grapes are grown in the Monticello AVA. A few of these include Petit Manseng, Vionger, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, with Chardonnay the most widely planted.
The boundaries of the Monticello AVA were inspired by the historical significance of Thomas Jefferson’s vision for American wine and how he had planted vineyards at his mountaintop home, Monticello. To date, Virginia is the 8th U.S. state with the most wineries.
Jefferson Knew the Health Benefits of Wine
There are countless studies today coming out regarding the health benefits of wine in moderation. Thomas Jefferson helped kick these studies off with his own personal experiments. In letters to his friends and doctors, Jefferson boasted that, “wine from long habit has become indispensable for my health.” Given he lived until he was 83 – a huge accomplishment during that era – he had time to test this theory. The prescription he outlined in one of his letters might be one to follow. Keep in mind the “friend” he’s referring to is likely a glass of wine.
I double however, the Doctor’s glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend. – Thomas Jefferson
Brought Direct to Consumer Sales and Bottling to the US
I mentioned earlier that Thomas Jefferson spent a lot of time in France exploring – and falling in love with – European wines. Given he couldn’t easily get the wines he loved when he returned to the U.S., he placed large orders and had them shipped. He personally had 600 bottles a year sent from France to the U.S.! However, he lived by the concept of “Don’t go to the middleman”. Instead, buy directly from the winery and have them send the wine in bottles.
I know in today’s mindset that sounds like a given. But, in the 1790’s wine was not often bottled since it added to the cost. However, by doing this, it not only protected the wine but it kept thirty sailors from sipping on the barrels during the journey. The sailors were known to water down the wine to cover it up.
Believed in Keeping Taxes Low on Wine
The first thing the newly formed American government did was establish a tax on alcohol. This in turn helped the nation not to ever need an income tax until those silly Temperance folks pushed for National Prohibition. This lead to the formation of the federal income tax. But, Jefferson strongly believed that keeping taxes low on imported wines was essential for a strong, prosperous country.
No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. – Thomas Jefferson
In essence, he didn’t want people getting drunk off whisky or cheap booze, but instead Champagne or a nice glass of wine from Bordeaux.
Unintentionally Responsible for the Explosion of Counterfeits in the Wine Trade
On December 5, 1985, Christie’s in London sold the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction – at the time. The price was $157,000 for a wine believed to be from Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection but it turned out to be a fake. Since then, there has been an explosion of counterfeits in the wine trade. The New Yorker goes into detail on the fake Jefferson wine.
The bottle was handblown dark-green glass and capped with a nubby seal of thick black wax. It had no label, but etched into the glass in a spindly hand was the year 1787, the word “Lafitte,” and the letters “Th.J. – The New Yorker
For those of you who really do want to know Jefferson’s favorite wine… We know from his letters – and his uber specific wine records – that he made several trips to Bordeaux, and bought bottles from Château Lafite, Château d’Yquem, Haut-Brion, and Branne-Mouton, to name a few. Pick one and enjoy this President’s Day weekend. Or, if you need a less costly option, but still want to stick with a French Bordeaux, try one of The Legende wines produced by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Château Lafite was regularly noted as one of TJ’s favorites… The Legende Bordeaux collection is amazingly approachable (and affordable).