“A very favorable wine is a necessary of life.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) – Third President of the United States
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – The wine cellar at Monticello provides a glimpse into the daily living and dining customs of one of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson not only described the basis for America’s legitimate claims to self-government in the Declaration of Independence, but his cellar and the bottles shelved there make the statement for the ages that this remarkable man was a champion of style and grace who placed entertaining right alongside farming, governing, architecture, and law. Wine with Thomas Jefferson consisted of dining with fine wine was de rigueur wherever he lived.
Jefferson cultivated his love of the fine wines while living in Paris. Later, he advised America’s presidents about serving and pairing wines, often providing them with wines from his well-stocked cellar. One entry in his journal described an experience with Nebbiolo, a sparkling Italian Piedmont wine, as “superlatively fine.” His earlier introduction to Nebbiolo in Turin was remembered as “about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine.”
Serving as the nation’s first ambassador to France, Jefferson lived comfortably on the Champs-Elyss and traveled to the vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Champagne, through Provence, into Italy along the Italian and French Riviera, through Languedoc on the Canal-du-Midi, touring, and tasting along the Rhine stopping off at famous German vineyards. The experiences assured that his dinner guests in Paris and later at Monticello and the White House would enjoy the world’s finest wines.
In his heart, Jefferson was a Francophile. In 1824, Daniel Webster noted that dinners at Monticello were “served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance.” Dinner at Monticello was described by Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, as a “feast of reason,” where between sips and bites, ideas were freely shared and discussed. To minimize disruptions, to keep wine constantly available, and to prevent bottles from being shaken by servants, bottles were re-supplied by dumbwaiters used to bring undisturbed wine up from Monticello’s heralded cellar.
During the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, I attended a seminar in New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter at the Cabildo where this land transaction was consummated. The lecture was about Jefferson’s favorite wines. Regarding red wines, they were likely Bordeaux. Bottles were opened and poured from some of the Chateaux’ that Jefferson visited, allowing me to experience what impressed Jefferson’s very advanced palate.
In Burgundy, Jefferson was enamored with Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, and Vosnee-Romanee and praised Montrachet the best white wine of Burgundy while maintaining a fondness for Meusault. Jefferson frequented the vineyards of the Rhone Valley and championed dry white Hermitage “marked with a touch of sweetness” that he called it the “first wine in the world without exception.”
Jefferson’s favorite Bordeaux included Chateaux Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Rausan-Segla, and Chateau Carbonnieux. His preferred Sauternes was Chateau d’Yquem.
Today, Jefferson Vineyards is a mile from Monticello and does what Jefferson was unable to do, make wines from grapes grown from Thomas Jefferson’s original vineyard sites. The vineyard is part of the designated Monticello American Viticulture Area, an important part of Virginia’s claim as the nation’s 5th largest wine producer.
Jefferson words remain relevant today:
“…you are not to conclude I am a drinker. My measure is a perfectly sober 3 or 4 glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time. But as to those 3 or 4 glasses I am very fond.”
Jefferson’s wine legacy is part of what American’s claim as our right to pursue happiness.