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Thomas Jefferson on Wine
By John Hailman
University Press of Mississippi Copyright © 2006 John Hailman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Early Wines
To understand the complex and enigmatic Thomas Jefferson, especially in his role as a connoisseur of wines, it is helpful to picture him in his own setting. He was born in 1743 at Shadwell, his father's plantation at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville. The area was then a wild, "silent country of far-flung patriarchal seats." When Jefferson was only two, his family moved to Tuckahoe, the home of his mother, farther east near Richmond.
Jefferson's mother was a Randolph, one of the most powerful and socially prominent families of Virginia's coastal, or Tidewater, aristocracy. His early childhood at Tuckahoe was a privileged one; his first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a servant from one house to another.
When he was nine the family moved back to the more rugged world of Shadwell. There Jefferson learned to ride and hunt with his father, Peter Jefferson, a physically powerful frontiersman whose own rustic background was probably the basis for Jefferson's later democratic attitudes. His father had no formal education, but had great respect for education and loved books.
Peter Jefferson's family was said to have come from Wales, and it was perhaps from this Celtic side that Thomas got his gift for writing, the famous "running pen," which caused Franklin and Adams to choose him towrite the Declaration of Independence. Despite his great strength, Peter Jefferson died before he was fifty, when his oldest son, Thomas, was only fourteen years old.
During his years at Shadwell, Jefferson led an isolated but interesting life. The local Indian tribes were frequent visitors there, and made a lifelong impression on him. The woods which surrounded Shadwell were filled not only with abundant game but with wolves. The entire setting was nearly primeval. Nearby, within sight, was the small, round-topped mountain where he later built the famous Monticello.
In 1760, when he was seventeen, Jefferson began college at William and Mary in Williamsburg, then the colonial capital. Obviously precocious, he was soon playing string quartets with the royal governor, a descendant of French Huguenots named Francis Fauquier. He also attended Fauquier's best dinner parties. An interesting character, Fauquier liked fine wines, leaving to his successor a cellar full of them at the Governor's Palace, a partial inventory of which still remains.
It is likely that Jefferson's first contacts with good wine came through Fauquier, although no written record of it survives. If not from Fauquier, then Jefferson certainly learned of wine from his law tutor, the great scholar George Wythe, whose house is one of the finest still preserved at Williamsburg. Wythe definitely liked fine wines and even had a vaulted brick wine cellar built under his beautiful Georgian house, where Jefferson lived while studying law. Some of Jefferson's later references indicate the drinking of fine wines, especially Malmsey Madeiras, at Wythe's house.
During holidays from school, Jefferson continued to reside at Shadwell, where he had a small cellar of his own. Shadwell burned to the ground in 1770, destroying nearly every paper and book Jefferson owned except for a few of his pocket account books, which are the sole source of his brief comments on wine prior to 1770, when he was already twenty-seven.
His earliest comments on wine are thus lost to us, but the fire did perhaps have a positive side: it was one cause for Jefferson's lifelong habit of keeping an extra copy of everything he wrote, which has made his life one of the best documented of all the Founding Fathers.
Other reliable records of the period still remain to give us a fairly accurate idea of what wines his contemporaries drank. Documents preserved by the Colonial Williamsburg Society show that the best wines in the colony seem to have been in the large cellars under the Governor's Palace. Governor Fauquier's successor, Lord Botetourt, left a cellar list for 1770 showing that the large "Binn Cellar," where brick bins were used for laying down and aging fine wines, contained over twenty-three hundred bottles. Included were not only many dozens of Madeira, Port, and claret, but also eleven dozen hard-to-ship Burgundies and a remarkable twenty-five dozen bottles of Hock, the British term for wines of the Rhine.
In a smaller, vaulted cellar Lord Botetourt listed Malmsey Madeira, three bottles "of Champaine," ... and several bottles of two different kinds of arrack, one of the most popular drinks of the day: Generally speaking, arrack was an inexpensive spirit distilled locally from whatever was hand): Arrack is the Arab word for "juice," which gives a pretty good idea of the local product. Almost unknown in America today, it is still popular in the Orient and parts of the Arab world, where it is made from everything from dates and figs to rice and palm-tree sap. Some of it in the Governor's Palace 1770 cellar, described as "fine," was a kind of rum imported from the East Indies. Its main use was for mixing with water, sugar, or fruit juices in making punch.
Arrack was certainly well known to Jefferson. The land rolls show, in the jocular style of the day, that the price his father paid for the land where Shadwell stood was "Henry Weatherbourne's biggest bowl of arrack punch." Jefferson's early account books show several purchases of arrack.
The Williamsburg Society has published lively accounts of dining and wine-drinking customs of the period, based on contemporary diaries, in a book entitled Colonial Virginians at Play. It gives a vivid image of drinking habits during Jefferson's youth and young adulthood. One major wine-drinking occasion prior to the Revolution was a royal birthday, always celebrated by large parties featuring much honorary cannon fire and the drinking of "loyal healthes" in Madeira, claret, and arrack. Surprisingly modern sounding were the barbecues and fish fries, which also featured the same drinks, to the extent that some observers called them mere "drinking parties."
While attending sessions of court or meetings of the House of Burgesses, colonial Virginians like Jefferson and George Washington did not maintain town houses but stayed in local inns and taverns called ordinaries. Both of them noted fees for tavern clubs, dinners, arrack, and wines. Jefferson customarily stayed at the small inn of Mrs. Anne Ayscough, who had been the cook for Governor Fauquier, which no doubt reflects that Jefferson liked her cuisine and even followed it. While I have not found a record of it, one would probably be sate in assuming that her wine list was one of the better ones, given her past experience.
There are also excellent records of the lists of wines offered by early Virginia taverns both before and after the Revolution. Food and beverage prices at the time were fixed by law in each county by the local court, which issued decrees as to how much innkeepers could charge for each item of food, drink, or lodging. The Williamsburg Society has kindly furnished copies of several of those decrees for various Virginia counties for the years 1760-1780.
Those tavern prices reveal much about the society of the day and the role of wine therein. They also tend to show comparative values of products. Wine, for example, was apparently something of a luxury item then, as it remains to some extent today. In nearly every county, even the worst bottle of wine cost more than a full meal or two nights' lodging. Of course, it is also true that in some ordinaries "lodging" meant sleeping four or five to a bed, crossways, so it is hard to put an accurate value on such accommodations.
The first ordinary list available, that for coastal Lancaster County in 1760, shows only three wines: Madeira, Port, and Claret. Prices are quoted not only in English pounds, shillings, and pence, but also in pounds of tobacco, indicating this agricultural region still relied in part on a barter economy. The list shows that hard liquors, especially rum and rum punch with "loaf sugar," were more popular than wine. It reveals likewise that brandy, and expensive brandy at that, was already being made in Virginia.
A slightly more varied list from Richmond County in 1763 offered "French" claret. While there was no promise that it came from Bordeaux, there was at least hope that it was made somewhere in France. On the Richmond list appeared "good" French brandy and "French white wine." The origin of the latter was decidedly vague, but it cost more than Madeira, so it must have had some pretensions to quality.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the price of the arrack, which was nearly three times as expensive as the wines, equalling both West Indian rum and even French brandy in price. The Richmond list, like the others, showed on the whole a populace in the taverns with little taste for lighter, drier wines, but a great thirst for something high in alcohol which would intoxicate quickly and effectively. The colonists also had a pronounced sweet tooth, or else their wines were not that good and the sweetness was needed to mask the flavors.
One exception was the 1767 list for coastal Middlesex County, reproduced here in full because of its inclusiveness. Of all lists of the period, it comes closest to representing the variety seen in the great private houses of Virginia, even if not quite up to the cellars of the Governor's Palace. Only on the Middlesex list were the wines given pride of place at the head of the list. Also specified were such luxuries as "clean sheets" with the lodging, and the specific varieties of apples used in the ciders were listed. All in all, a Middlesex County tavern sounds like not such a bad place to be in 1767.
The Middlesex list shows the importance of water transport in the eighteenth century. All of the wines came from areas on navigable rivers easily accessible to an ocean port. Many came from islands in the Atlantic even nearer America. A prime example is Fyall, now spelled Fayal, named for the island in the Azores where it was made. Several Azores wines appear on Jefferson's lists, and he bought Fayal even when he was in Paris and had access to French wines. Today, although the U.S. maintains an air base on those strategic mid-Atlantic islands, few of their inexpensive wines are exported here, most being drunk locally or shipped to Portugal.
Malaga, also known as Mountain and so called by Jefferson while president, was and is a sweet dessert wine from the town of that name in deep southern Spain. Although relatively high in alcohol, 15-16 percent, it customarily did not have brandy added, which was Jefferson's taste. The best-known wine of Spain, Sherry, was later to become a real Jefferson favorite while he was president. Rhenish, the old term for German Rhine wine, was praised by him during a visit there in 1788, but he later described it as too acidic, especially the quality of it available in America.
Canary, or the wines of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa near Madeira, were of two types in Jefferson's time. The "modern" type was a dessert wine with brandy added. The earlier Canary was a light, quaffable beverage wine like the "Canary Sack" immortalized by Shakespeare's Falstaff two centuries earlier. As Mistress Quickly described that kind of Canary wine in Henry IV, Part Two:
But in faith, you have drunk too much Canaries, and that's a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say: What's this?
Canary Island wines were proclaimed "better than any in Spain" as early as 1564 by Sir John Hawkins on a visit there. They were very popular in the American colonies, and both Jefferson and George Washington noted purchasing them, although Jefferson never had much comment on what he thought of them. In 1785, while Jefferson was living in Paris as American minister, only sixteen thousand gallons of Canary were exported to England. By 1815, however, when Jefferson was retired at Monticello and ordering Canary wines again for his cellar, the islands exported over seven hundred thousand gallons to England. Whether the wines had improved that much in thirty years, or had been modified by brandy to please Anglo-Saxon tastes, or made more available by wars and politics, they were certainly exceedingly popular. Alex Henderson said in his History of Ancient and Modern Wines, published the year after Jefferson died, that his contemporaries thought Canary wine to be
the richest, the most firm, the best bodied and lastingest wine, and the most defecated from all earthly grossness of any other whatsoever. It nutrifieth also, being a glutinous, substantial liquor.
If good wine carrieth a man to heaven, surely more English go to heaven this way than any other, for I think there is more Canary brought into England than to all the world besides.
Today the Canary Islands produce over nine hundred thousand gallons of wine each year, but hardly a drop reaches the United States, much of it being drunk in the islands themselves, and tourists there are just about the only living Americans to have tasted real Canary wine.
Another intriguing entry on the Middlesex list is the "Madeira wine made into Sangaree or Lemonade." In no record does Jefferson mention Sangaree, or Sangria as we know it today, but it was widely popular in his day, so he no doubt tasted it, and it deserves a mention in light of its popularity in our own time.
Sangria, or Sangaree, comes from the Spanish word sangre, meaning blood. Not a very appetizing name at first, it means simply that the drink originally was made from red wine. Today it is still normally made from red wine with either orange or lemon juice and sugar added, as well as spices and all manner of other ingredients. Since its purpose was to make a not-very-good base wine more palatable, it was a natural for the eighteenth century when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it began its evolution:
1726. Mr. Gordon, a Punch-seller in the Strand, has devised a new Punch made of strong Madeira wine and called Sangre.
1796. Sangaree = water, Madeira wine, nutmeg and sugar.
1843. Which enabled the fortunate owner to take his last tumbler of port-wine Sangaree.
1865. The Anglo-Indian is generally believed to be a luxurious idler, whose life is spent in hookah-smoking and sangaree-drinking.
Despite its lapses into small beer, Sangaree, and boiled cider, the Middlesex list appears to have offered as much variety as Jefferson could have hoped to find in the taverns he frequented while studying and practicing law prior to the Revolution. It should also be noted that, as any modern restaurant patron knows, just because certain wines were on the list does not mean that they were actually available in stock at any particular tavern.
The other lists showed only slight variations on the same theme: lots of liquors and few wines. The Louisa County list for 1768 showed Western Island (Azores) wines, Spanish brandy, London beer, "continent" rum, English cider, and "whiskey." Richmond County for 1769 added Teneriffe, another Canary wine named for the capital city and chief port of the islands, a wine which Jefferson was still cellaring nearly twenty years later in Paris. The York County list for 1772 had Welsh ale and Virginia "middling" beer.
By 1777, just after the Declaration of Independence, wine prices had climbed by 50 percent, but variety had decreased only a little. But by 1780, with a full-scale revolutionary war raging, and shipping interrupted, prices had jumped on all wines and spirits by over 1,000 percent. A quart of any good wine, which had cost only four shillings in 1767, cost eighteen pounds by 1780. More ominously, the 1780 tavern lists did not mention a single wine by name, giving only the reference "wine per quart."
When one considers the ordinary lists of the period, it is obvious that the elaborate connoisseur's vocabulary and enjoyment of comparative tastings which Jefferson exhibited later had no place in the revolutionary Virginia of his young adulthood. It is no wonder that he left few specific comments about wine before departing for France in 1784.
Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson on Wine by John Hailman Copyright © 2006 by John Hailman. Excerpted by permission.
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