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Wine Talk: Jimmy Carter

The former President of the United States is now an amateur winemaker

Ryan Isaac
Posted: February 7, 2005

Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, was born in Plains, Ga., in 1924. His father was a farmer and businessman, and his mother was a registered nurse. One of the many things that his father passed down to him was the family's winemaking tradition. Carter has been involved with wine in one fashion or another for much of his life, and he has found that it's served him well throughout his travels.

Today, he is the Chair of The Carter Center, which is "committed to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering." The efforts of Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Smith Carter, the Center's Vice-Chair, have improved lives in more than 65 countries.

The 13th annual Carter Center Winter Weekend begins on Saturday, Feb. 12. All silent and live auction items, including President Carter's homemade private-label red wine, can be bid on by fax, phone or online until 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday. Additional information is available at www.cartercenter.org.

Wine Spectator: How active are you in selecting the lots for the Carter Center Winter Weekend's auction?
Jimmy Carter: I give things to the Carter Center. When we have special items in our personal belongings that we no longer need, we give them to the Carter Center if they have a historic value. We've taken photographs with me and Reagan and Nixon and George Bush, Sr., and all the wives, and we've personally signed those photographs. We limited the number, so each one of us has very few of those photographs. I give those to the Carter Center, and they bring several tens of thousands of dollars.

I'm an avid furniture maker. I've made about 150 piece of furniture. For about 10 years, I gave a piece of furniture I made to the Carter Center, along with photographs of me making the furniture. And the last two years--last year and this year--I've been doing oil paintings and donated them. For a number of years now, I've given one or two bottles of my wine. I have a beautiful label that my kids gave me about 10 years ago.

WS: Winemaking is a bit of family tradition, isn't it?
JC: My grandfather made wine on a very large scale. He had about 15 acres of grapes [in Georgia], and he made all of that into wine--which is a lot of wine. Then, my father and my uncle both inherited my grandfather's recipe, and I inherited the big 5-gallon jugs from my daddy. I've been making wine now for 15 years. About every five years or so I make around 100 bottles of wine, just to give to my family and friends and lately to donate to the Carter Center. This past time when I made wine, I made 75 bottles or so of red wine and about 25 bottles of white wine.

I've modified the recipe dramatically because in the past, as you can well imagine, the custom was--and the taste then was--to put an excessive amount of sugar in the grapes. So when all of the available sugar changed to alcohol, you had a lot of sugar left over, with a very sweet wine. And so I've tried to balance by studying French winemaking books and talking to some of the major winemakers. I've developed a recipe for a very dry wine, which is what most people's palates now prefer. I've enjoyed doing that.

WS: It sounds like you enjoy studying the winemaking process. How much research have you done?
JC: I have three or four books on winemaking, and, of course, now I use the Internet. There's a store in the northern part of Atlanta that sells winemaking equipment. I have gone to them for advice when I had a problem, and that's generally where I buy my modern equipment and my corks and things like that. There's a large wine company up on Interstate 85, northeast of Atlanta, and I've been up there, and they've taken me through their winemaking facility. Of course, that's on a commercial scale.

I generally get my children and grandchildren to come down to Plains, usually in August, and we go out into the local vineyards and pick around 50 gallons of grapes. I've got an ancient wine press--probably about 250 years old--that someone gave to me, and I've made the rest of my equipment myself.

WS: Are you constantly refining your process?
JC: Well, I've never had any trouble, really, with red wine, because it's robust enough to withstand slight variations in taste and so forth. But the white wine, I do the best I can to have absolute purity and to avoid any sort of extraneous odors or flavors that might go into it. But I have, I'd say, about a .500 batting average on white wines.

WS: What kind of grapes do you use?
JC: I just use local Scuppernong grapes and Muscadine grapes. I never have had regular vintners' grapes.

WS: Was wine on your dinner table often?
JC: No, that wasn't a custom then in my house. In fact, I never really started drinking wine until I went into the Navy. My uncle never drank any alcohol; in fact, he never drank a Coca-Cola. My father drank a lot of wine, but he never felt constrained to share them with his children. In fact, I left home when I was only 16, so it really wasn't appropriate.

WS: But once you entered the service, you began drinking?
JC: Oh, yeah, and when I came back home. After I returned to Plains from the Navy, I began to make wine fairly soon after that.

WS: What did you serve in the White House?
JC: We made one major change when I reached the White House that caused a lot of controversy: We stopped serving hard liquor in the White House--which had been standard practice for my predecessors. And in that decision we saved about $1 million a year for White House meal expenses, but we did serve wine. We served very good wine. It was all domestic wine. I guess, at that time, in the beginning we got maybe two-thirds of it from California and the other third from New York state. Eventually, I think we ended up about 50-50.

WS: Through your years of diplomacy, have you been able to use wine to find a common ground?
JC: I think so. We travel a lot. My wife and I have been in more than 120 nations. They have developed some superb wines. For instance, I was recently in southern Africa, and they make outstanding wines in South Africa. I was just, two weeks ago, in Palestine, helping to monitor the Palestinian election, and they make very good wines in the Holy Land now.

We all know about New Zealand and Australia and Chile, in addition to the standard wines we used to get from Italy, France and Germany. So, there are good wines to be obtained all over, and it's always a matter of harmonious conversation between me and a president or king or prime minister or whomever I happen to be dining with to talk about the origin of wines. They're always intrigued that I, as a former president, actually make my own wine. It makes a good conversation piece.

WS: Is it a topic that comes up often?
JC: I would say at most major banquets. Of course, in China or maybe Japan, you would probably drink sake or something like that instead of wine. But as a matter of courtesy, when a Western leader like me comes to a banquet, they almost always have Western wines with which we are familiar in this country.

By the way, when I'm in Third World countries, like when I'm in Timbuktu or Mali or Ethiopia, or when I'm in the depths of a desert in southern Sudan, I don't drink local wine, because it can be abominable. So, as an alternative, because we don't drink any sort of water, we drink beer. I do quite often, more so than I do in this country. I don't drink beer much in this country, but when I'm overseas and want to drink something and want to be able to depend on it, I drink a beer.

We have tried buying wine a couple times. A few years ago, we had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and we went to a local resort, and they said they had some very fine local wine, so Rosa and I bought a bottle of wine for our table. When we tasted the first tiny bit, we told the waiter to--as a matter of great generosity--to deliver our bottle of wine to the off-duty Secret Service people. So we shared our wine with them.

When we go to a country like the ones I've mentioned, we try as best we can to immerse ourselves in their culture. We accommodate what they serve, and it's very interesting and also very gratifying to us.

WS: What have you learned from other cultures?
JC: We generally make a commitment before we get to a banquet that they have in honor of me and Rosa and the former First Family that we'll eat whatever they put in front of us. We've eaten some things overseas that we wouldn't think of eating here: sea slugs and bird's nest soup and other things of that kind that would be almost unidentifiable. And we sometimes make a joke out of it, even with our host, and we all laugh, and it adds an additional dimension to the conversation and also to the camaraderie that we experience. In fact, most of it is salutary to your palate, and some of it is strange, but it's no more strange than people that come to Plains experience, when they come to Plains and drink buttermilk and eat collard greens and grits. Each locality, even in the United States, has its own dietary idiosyncrasies. We try to be very broad-minded, and even if something is not particularly enjoyable to us the first time, when we eat it, we try to let the host feel that they have served us something we appreciate.

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