Today is President’s Day, a holiday that specifically observes the birthdays of George Washington (February 22nd) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). However, for as great and important as these two men have been to our nation, to the American wine enthusiast no Commander-in-Chief may have been as intriguing as our third president, Thomas Jefferson.
A lifelong wine connoisseur, Jefferson was a man of the wine world at large, collecting bottles from all across Europe and sharing them with his friends, while extolling at length about wine’s superiority to other liquors. He was especially enthusiastic about finer French wines—which were probably only magnified by his six-year tenure as American envoy to the royal court of France. It was believed that, while President, the majority of his salary actually went towards the purchase of these fine French wines, which he preferred to buy personally and directly from the chateaus that produced them.
Jefferson did not merely appreciate wine, however. A scientist as well as a gifted politician and philosopher, Jefferson yearned to bring the vineyards of Europe to American soil. At his estate of Monticello, he dedicated two large patches of land to a years-long experiment in cultivating the vitis vinifera—the cornerstone of European grapevines. Unfortunately, a number of conditions in the American environment stymied his attempts to bring the European vine to America, although in 1985 the Thomas Jefferson Society finally succeeded in producing a grafted version on the grounds of Monticello. Not one to be discouraged, of course, Jefferson also experimented with growing New World vines such as the fox grape. Although Jefferson never made his own wine from his estate, his obvious love of wine was infectious, and as a highly influential and respected statesman, it’s very likely that his tastes sparked a trend in American society towards wine just as the country was still in its infancy.
Jefferson believed that wine was a necessity of life—it would be easy to assume that a glass of a fine Bordeaux immediately came to mind for him when he considered that famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, taxation on wine was something he considered distinctly un-American, as evidenced in the below quote:
“I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury. On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens.”
Even if you don’t celebrate President’s Day, if you decide to have a glass of wine, consider raising it to Jefferson…one of the nation’s true wine heroes.