President's Day is approaching. While most of think of Thomas Jefferson as one of the Founding Fathers of our country, author of the Declaration of Independence, or for his two terms as the third President of the United States, many are unaware that he was also the forefather of the American wine industry. According to the intriguing book, Passion: The Wines and Travel of Thomas Jefferson, author James Gabler indicates that Jefferson was first introduced to wine when he was a law student at Williams and Mary College by the admired Chairman of the prestigious law school. Records indicate that shortly after Jefferson graduated he started his own wine collection.
Jefferson’s real love affair with wine, however, began after he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the United State’s Minister to France. From 1784 – 1789 the newly widowed Jefferson lived in Paris where he immersed himself in French culture, became fluent in French, and developed a keen appreciation for wine.
A fanatical keeper of notes, Jefferson’s records indicate that he traveled to Bordeaux where he visited Haut Brion and Lafite Rothschild (the two most important growers at the time---their wine was also the most expensive). But, Jefferson also admired Burgundy’s wines. In addition to sending home wine for himself, he ordered Burgundian wine for his colleagues John Adams and George Washington. Jefferson also traveled to Champagne and the Rhone where he visited their top estates. His touring of great wine districts, though, was not just limited to France---he visited Italy’s Piedmont and Germany’s Rhine and Mosel.
Thomas Jefferson returned to the US where he partnered with an Italian viticulturalist from Tuscany. Land adjacent to Jefferson’s Monticello was purchased and planted with vineyards. Today this land is a winery known as Jefferson Vineyards.
John F. Kennedy assembled a huge group of the nation’s brightest and his welcome remarks included, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson was not only America’s first wine connoisseur but the founding father of an American wine industry that is now a significant player on the global wine stage.
President’s Day is around the corner. Here’s an early toast to Thomas Jefferson!