Founding Fathers and Wine

Jun 28, 2001
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Founding Fathers and Wine

By Matthew DeBord

America might not have become enthusiastic about fine wine until recently, but that certainly never stopped some of the Founding Fathers from exploring their passions for the grape. The best-know enophile among them was, of course, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, tireless pursuer of happiness, renaissance man -- and Vintner-in-Chief.

Jefferson designed a dumbwaiter for the dining room at Monticello, his Virginia estate, that rose directly from the wine cellar. His deep devotion to wine while in office introduced Americans to the concept of deficit spending: He left behind a wine bill for $10,000, a considerable sum in the early 1800s.

Jefferson benefited enormously from the intersection of his own ideals and a wine-loving lifestyle. His vision of the perfect democracy called for an agrarian republic governed by citizen farmers who, among other things, would cultivate grapes and produce wine. "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap," he once declared. He set about proving that axiom by planting vines in his native Virginia, a state whose winemaking potential he thought could lead to an American Burgundy.

His fear was that the less wealthy inhabitants of the young nation would be lost to the evils of what he considered lesser drinks. He believed that a tax on wine would rule out its availability "to the middling class of our citizens, and a condemnation of them to the poison of whiskey, which is desolating their houses."

Patriotic as that all sounds, Jefferson was an absolute failure as a vintner, despite his considerable efforts. The European grape vines he attempted to nurture were attacked by the root louse phylloxera, and what wine he was able to make was disappointing. He eventually gave it up, but he continued to promote wine's virtues.

Jefferson was an early advocate of the link between wine and longevity -- "Wine from habit has become an indispensable for my health," he maintained -- and was perhaps America's most devoted early collector. He adored Madeira and was no stranger to Sauternes. (A few of his bottles are still kicking around today, wildly expensive refugees from his legendary cellar).

It took a while -- 200 years, more or less -- for the rest of the country to catch Jefferson's vineyard fever, but if the state of California is any indication of America's viticultural achievements, then maybe Jefferson was on to something (just a few thousand miles too far east). So the next time you crack open a Cabernet Sauvignon, raise a glass to the gentlemanly Virginian who inspired it all.

And by the way, Jefferson wasn't the only Founding Father who had a thing for wine. If Jefferson was our First Vintner, then Ben Franklin was our Secretary of Epicureanism (which might help explain why he never ran for President). He, too, enjoyed convivial meals lubricated with good wine. But he also emphasized temperance, as did Jefferson. And while Jefferson believed that wine successfully produced would serve as evidence that the American democracy was thriving, Franklin aimed a little higher. Wine, he argued, is "a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

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