Today, April 13th, is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Jefferson was the third president of the United States, best known for doubling the size of the country by taking some land off the hands of Napoleon III in the Louisiana Purchase. He also sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. He is also known for writing one of the defining documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence. He did a little of everything for the United States, as a minister and diplomat to France, innovator, architect, and creator of the first lottery. He was the first Secretary of State and the second Vice President. He was even the first wine connoisseur in the United States.
There were plenty of options for drinking in the colonies. Rum and whiskey were the popular hard liquors of the time, and beer and cider was plentiful as well. Punches were incredibly popular, especially in the warmer months. Madeira and port were also available in taverns and bars, but what was sought after by affluent and discerning colonists was European wine. Jefferson came to develop a taste for it while he was a law apprentice for George Wythe. He started his own wine cellar at home, and grew it over the years of his political and revolutionary career. When he took over Benjamin Franklin’s job as Minister to France after the Revolutionary War, his education in wine truly started. He took several tours of the wine regions of France and Germany, taking extensive notes in the regions he travelled and learning all of the subtleties in the production of wines from each region. His peers looked to him as a wine connoisseur, and he advised George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe as to what wines to buy for formal events and what ones to put in the presidential cellar. Jefferson himself spent quite lavishly while he was president on wines for formal dinners, but also felt he got the best deals on wine since he knew the people who owned the vineyards from all of his travels through Europe.
“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Jefferson was quite a consumer and believer in wine. He kept a large stock of it in his home, and his house hold consumed an average of 400 bottles of it a year. This is when a time that people were highly distrustful of water, leading Franklin to quip “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” While he was flush with money, he would buy wines without regard to price, once telling his contact on a particular wine “let the price be what it may, always however considering quality more than price.” As his fortunes waned, so did his dedication to importing expensive wines. It also grew his commitment to making wines at home.
“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.” Jefferson loved to import and wines, but his true dream was to open a vineyard in the United States to create wines that would rival the wines of Europe. He was very serious about it as well, joining forces with Phillip Mazzei, an Italian physician turned merchant, while he was touring America. He spoke with Jefferson about developing the Virginia countryside into a wine making region, purchasing the land around Monticello for Jefferson and his workers to cultivate the grapes that were grown on it. He we able to convince his allies from the war and politics, Washington included, to help him create the Virginia Wine Company. Based on historical records, Jefferson was never able to enjoy a drop of wine made from his vineyards, even with Mazzei’s expertise. Diseases that the grapes did not have to deal with in France, like black rot and phylorexia, killed many of the grapes, as did bad weather and neglect from Jefferson’s long absences. In his diaries he did mention making vinegar, but never anything about wine. It was not until 200 years later and the development of pesticides that wines were able to be made in the United States and Virginia in particular.
Jefferson would be amazed at where the wine culture of the United States is today. California is a major player in the international wine industry, and every state has a winery of some sort. Ohio itself has over a hundred, clustered around every major city. Before Prohibition destroyed most of the alcohol making industries, Cincinnati was the heart of wine country. The semi-sweet Catawba wine produced in the region was in very high demand all over the country from the 1830’s to that fateful period. Heinke Winery in Cincinnati was called one of the top urban wineries in America by Food Republic, potentially bringing back some focus of the wine community to Ohio wines.
If you want to develop your own palate, check out wine tastings at Dorothy Lane Market and Arrow Wine every weekend, or try wine flights at The Wine Gallery downtown and The Wine Loft at the Greene. If you know of another good place for wines in Dayton (like Rumbleseat or the new Deaf Monty’s), add it in the comments below. Thanks to the vision of the Thomas Jefferson, not only do we have an amazing country, we have a thriving wine culture. Have a glass tonight for the birthday boy! Cheers!