Exploring Thomas Jefferson’s Love of Wine

Thomas Jefferson is said to have quipped that, “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”[1]  It was more than his beverage of choice though.  Based on a foundation of love and a refined expertise, wine consciously assumed other diverse functions for him.  Among these, it was an inviting target for scientific inquiry and experimentation, a potential tool to be used in the delicate sphere of foreign affairs with France, and a utility in efforts at social improvement and improved public health.

From all of this Jefferson developed a reputation as a distinguished oenophile, or lover of wine, both among his contemporaries and in the subsequent historical record.[2]  Indeed, his image as a wine savant is surpassed only by his fame as a founding father and devoted disciple of the Enlightenment, with full books dedicated exclusively to him and wine.[3]  (Of course, it was such a ubiquitous aspect of Jefferson’s life that any historian would be hard-pressed to delve into any meaningful discussion of the man without mention of it, even if only incidentally.)

But the balance of this historical examination concerns itself with how Jefferson consciously enjoyed and viewed wine.  What historians have not done is tie these components into a coherent whole, neglecting to go the extra length and explain how the disparate functions wine served in his life illuminate how he thought and viewed the world and the state of human kind.  History has documented copiously both Jefferson’s political and social principles and his love of wine, but it has not tied the two together and explained how they intertwine and affect each other.  In essence, historians and biographers of Jefferson have detailed his oenophilia without analyzing or making extrapolations from it that help illuminate larger Jeffersonian themes.

Wine, and Jefferson’s love of it, is a window through which we can better see and understand Jefferson in all of his forms: Jefferson the Englightenment thinker, Jefferson the inventor, Jefferson the scientist, Jefferson the prophet of liberty, Jefferson the diplomat, Jefferson the renowned dinner host, and many others.  Jefferson was the quintessential Enlightenment disciple, unequivocally believing in the natural freedom and rationality of humankind that allowed for an open, free-flowing intercourse – commercial, political, philosophical, or scientific – between people of all nations and creeds.  This state of wide-open discourse, if allowed to exist without the interference of petty monarchs and tyrannical governments, would lead to the accumulation of knowledge and the realization of truth in all manner of intellectual pursuit.  It was Jefferson’s “bedrock belief,” as Joseph J. Ellis writes, “that harmony was nature’s way of signaling the arrival of truth.”[4]

Wine was a metaphor for the positive attributes and institutions of human society that Jefferson zealously believed in, essentially standing for everything that he held to be innately good in humankind. Every ideal and noble pursuit that Jefferson cherished in his life was expressed, at one or many points, with and through wine.  At his heart, Jefferson was a romantic and wine was his muse.

Consistent with this, Jefferson fervently believed in the importance of human education and knowledge.  Writing to his friend and mentor George Wythe, Jefferson declared that, “No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness” than the accumulation of knowledge.[5]  Jefferson’s scientific forays into wine elucidate this point.  To Jefferson, free and enlightened men applied all the time they possibly could to intellectual inquiry and discovery, and given his natural fondness for wine he found no venue better for such pursuits.  Throughout his entire life it was a prominent vehicle through which Jefferson put his Enlightenment principles into practice.

In his detailed biography of Jefferson, Willard Sterne Randall takes a few paragraphs to discuss the partnership he had with a “talkative Italian exile turned wine merchant named Phillip Mazzei… [who] had sailed to Virginia to introduce the culture of grapes, olives, and whatever fruit trees would flourish there.”[6]  Randall uses Jefferson’s farm book to briefly describe the extensive agricultural activities Jefferson and Mazzei undertook on Jefferson’s mountaintop farm of Monticello and on Mazzei’s neighboring farm (which Jefferson eagerly sold him upon his arrival in Virginia).[7]

Richard B. Bernstein writes of the innovation of a dumbwaiter the master of Monticello constructed inside his kitchen.  To make the enjoyment of wine all the more convenient, this device would be lowered directly down to his expansive wine cellar below and “a slave would load the required wine bottle into a box and hoist it by a pulley up to the dining room.  Jefferson would open the door of the wine dumbwaiter, remove the bottle, and offer it to his guests.”[8]

Tied together, the experiments with vine growing and the construction of the dumbwaiter demonstrate a behavioral pattern of Jefferson directing scientific pursuits towards wine.  In an extended trip through the Rhineland in 1788, Jefferson’s palate had the opportunity to sample many disparate wines.  “In the Bordeaux region,” writes Stefan K. Estreicher,  he was “enthusiastic about Chateau Haut-Brion, and [fell] in love with the noble rot-wine of Chateau d’Yquem.”[9]

The travel journal Jefferson kept during his journey is replete with pages upon pages of detailed notes on all manner of items related to wine culture, from growing practices, soil quality, and bottling procedures.  It is a striking manifestation of Jefferson’s devotion to scientific examination, specifically into wine.  On April 11 he observed that though “they begin to make wine … at Cologne … it is only from Rudesheim to Hocheim that wines of the very finest quality are made … And even in this canton, it is only Hocheim, Johansberg, and Rudesheim, that are considered as of the very first quality.”[10]  The next day he visited the hamlets of Maynce, Oppenheim, Dorms, and Manheim, where there “are three cantons, which are also esteemed as yielding wines of the second quality … With respect to the grapes in this country, there are three kinds in use for making white wine, (for I take no notice of the red wines, as being absolutely worthless.)”[11]  During his stay in Epernay on April 22, Jefferson became truly excited, “this being precisely the canton where the most celebrated wines of Champagne are made.”  He then followed this exclamation with a “Topographical sketch of the position of the wine villages, the course of the hills, and consequently the aspect of the vineyards.”[12]  In a summary reflection of his travels he mused that,

Many circumstances derange the scale of wines.  The proprietor of the best vineyard, in the best year, having bad weather come upon him while he is gathering his grapes, makes a bad wine, while his neighbor, holding a more indifferent vineyard, which happens to be ingathering while the weather is good, makes a better.[13]

Jefferson then took much of what he had observed of European wine and applied it in his perpetual designing and redesigning of Monticello.  “His experiences with … European wines did in fact transform life at Monticello,” writes Damon L. Fowler, “where the house, gardens, and wine cellar were redesigned and augmented after his return from France.”[14]  The wine-related activities begun at Monticello before Jefferson’s stint in France accelerated once he returned, augmented by the knowledge and ideas he had accumulated from it.

It did not stop there.  Since Jefferson’s Enlightenment-bred zeal for the accumulation of knowledge was for the ultimate improvement of mankind, he consequently and quite naturally carried wine over directly to his theories of social improvement. Charles B. Sanford writes that Jefferson’s experience and understanding of wine in its diverse varieties led him to wage a quasi-social/political crusade to encourage broader public consumption of wine as a means to social improvement and refinement.  “He deplored the ‘poison of whiskey,’ which was desolating American homes, but approved of wine as a moderate drink.”[15]  Jefferson’s expansive experience and knowledge led him to conclude or envision wine as a means to temperance, which itself was a means to improved public health and welfare.  In their book Thomas Jefferson Treats Himself, John M. Holmes and Ann A. Hunter largely point out the same.  “Jefferson did … believe weaker wines to be beneficial to health and digestion and, as such, promoted their use among his family members.”[16]

In an epistle to his treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, President Jefferson discoursed on the salutary effects he believed a reduced tariff on wine would incur.  Namely, it would be a “great gain to the treasury, & to the sobriety of our country.”[17]  In 1818 the tranquility of his Monticellan retirement was deeply disturbed when some in the federal government openly suggested a higher tariff on wine.  To Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford he wrote in alarm:

I think it 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.  It is a legislative direction that none but the richest of them shall be permitted to drink wine, and in effect a condemnation of all the middling & lower conditions of society to the poison of whiskey, which is destroying them by wholesale, and ruining their families.

The issue struck a nerve in Jefferson, very clearly appearing to him not only as a wholly terrible idea but an outright heresy against all that he stood for.  He went so far as to compare it to some of the “most oppressive and arbitrary abuses” of the old British government he had denounced in his days as a revolutionary leader.[18]

The notion of wine as a utility also seeped into his political thought.  He held that wine played a key role in the delicate entente between the infant United States and revolutionary France, between whom tensions were slowly escalating through the course of the Washington Administration.  Deeply committed to the success of the French Revolution, and indeed an active participant in its early stages, Jefferson was especially keen that relations remain healthy between the two countries in his role as Washington’s secretary of state.[19]  Given that wine had permeated so much of Jefferson’s thought at this point in his life, it is no surprise that he viewed it as a tool in insuring that bilateral comity.  Writing to his successor as minister to France, Gouvernor Morris, he asserted that a recently enacted reduction on tariffs on cheap French wine was “likely to introduce in abundance the cheaper wines of France … I hope these … friendly dispositions … will induce them to repeal the very obnoxious laws respecting our commerce.”[20]

The wellspring of Jefferson’s fixation with wine, and his association of it with his Enlightenment principles, ran deep within his own memory.  As Jefferson would attest in the middle years of his life, “No attachments soothe the mind so much as those contracted in early life.”[21]  Wine was omnipresent in many of the experiences of his formative years that he would come to cherish for their symbiosis with his highest ideals.  In turn he would come to associate wine with those ideals, which became the impetus for his oenophilia and the ease with which he would eventually use wine as vehicle to put those principles into practice.  Wine quite literally became a symbol to Jefferson of all that which he idealized and cherished.

As a student at William & Mary he came under the tutelage of a cast of instructors who embodied the enlightened intellectual he would eventually become.  “It was my great good fortune,” Jefferson fondly wrote in his autobiography, “and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. Wm Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, & an enlarged & liberal mind.”[22]  Another was George Wythe, a legal titan within the colony, who “continued to be my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life.”[23]

These men inculcated within Jefferson a passion that he would always hold onto: a love of small dinner parties with small groups of friends full of discussion on any number of intellectual topics.  Integral to this was the introduction they gave Jefferson to the royal governor of Virginia, William Fauquier, “the ablest man who had ever filled that office.  With him, and at his table, Dr. Small & Mr. Wythe, his amici omnium horarum, & myself, formed a partie quarree, & to the habitual conversations on these occasions I owed much instruction.”[24]

As much a vestige to these dinner parties as learned companions and intellectual discussion were the bottles of fine wine that Jefferson would soon go to great expense providing at his own dinner parties.  In fact, it was in this setting that Jefferson often tried to do business, so to speak; there being no better way for rational men to come to wise decisions or resolutions than being seated at an elegant table imbued with fine food and high-minded discussion while “sitting at our wine.”[25]

As the revolution in France gained momentum during Jefferson’s stay it was at the dinner table in his Parisian home where the contents of that country’s new constitution were discussed and debated.  “I received one day a note from the Marquis de la Fayette, informing me that he should bring a party of six or eight friends to ask a dinner of me the next day.  I assured them of their welcome.”  Once the plates had been cleared the business of the evening was taken up.  “The cloth being removed and wine set on the table … the Marquis introduced the objects of the conference.”  Jefferson was pleased to be a

silent witness to a coolness and candor of argument unusual in the conflicts of political opinion; to a logical reasoning, and chaste eloquence, disfigured by no gaudy tinsel of rhetoric or declamation, and truly worthy of being placed in parallel with finest dialogues of antiquity, as handed to us by Xenophon, by Plato and Cicero.[26]

From such a dinner party he could expect nothing else, using the evening as an opportunity for the notables involved to escape the tumult of the Revolution and sit down for a tranquil and reasoned discussion of the issues before the new republic.

When Jefferson ultimately returned home from his diplomatic sojourn he was promptly appointed Secretary of State by President Washington.   Soon thereafter the nascent government became paralyzed by a bitter debate over Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plan for the United States to assume all the remaining state debt from the late war.  Hamilton saw this plan as a means to resurrecting the republic’s international credit; southern congressmen were convinced that it was an attempt to increase the size of government and pad the pockets of northern bankers.

Eager to end the acrimony – which very well might have destroyed the fragile government – and broker a compromise, Jefferson invited the treasury secretary and Congressman James Madison, the leader of the southern opposition to the plan, to dinner.  The gambit worked: Madison agreed to allow Hamilton’s assumption plan to pass the House and in return Hamilton pledged to secure northern support for the permanent relocation of the national capitol to the Potomac River region of Northern Virginia (Madison’s and Jefferson’s home state). Writing of it later, Jefferson gloated that he “thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the Union.”[27]  The soiree only re-confirmed his bedrock belief in the efficacy of the dinner party.

Even when there was no business or specific issues to be decided, his dinner table was the venue in which Jefferson both loved, shined at, and used to his advantage.  During his time as president he instituted a policy of hosting three dinner parties in the White House each week with members of his administration, Congress, and other luminaries as his guests.  He shrewdly used these occasions to promote his authority and prestige within the capitol and to simultaneously promote his ideal of harmonized intercourse.  As Joseph J. Ellis writes, “they enhanced the prospects for creating personal bonds and emotional attachments that helped override political disagreements.”

Part and parcel to Jefferson’s ideals of human freedom and harmony was his idealization of harmony and bliss within the home, which he also associated with wine. According to family lore it was with a fine bottle of the drink that he and his wife Martha christened their marriage on one of their first evenings as newlyweds.  “To happy in each other’s love … to be long troubled by the ‘dreariness’ of a cold and dark house, and having found a bottle of wine ‘on a shelf behind some books,’ the young couple refreshed itself with its contents, and startled the silence of the night with song and merry laughter.”[28]  Scenes and memories like this crafted an ideal of domestic felicity in his mind and was “the kind of sentimental scene that Jefferson always idealized,” Ellis points out, allowing “us to visualize the domestic sphere not just as a special place … but also as the innermost chamber of Jefferson’s private utopia.”[29]

In the twilight years of Jefferson’s life, wine assumed another role, becoming not only a subconscious association with the Enlightenment and an outlet for putting its precepts into practice, but even a metaphor or medium through which he could consciously express appreciation for the institutions of life that gave him the greatest pleasure, especially friendship.  “I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend.”[30]  Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush, he equated the very essence of friendship with wine, both being “raw when new, ripened with age, the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”[31]

By this point the permeation of wine into all of the facets of Jefferson’s thought and his conceptualization of the world and mankind was complete.  It was not simply a favorite beverage or a leisurely hobby, as history would leave it.  Instead, beginning with his experiences in the formative years of his life, wine became an entity Jefferson associated with his fundamental Enlightenment dispositions and his personal and social ideals.  From this basis he naturally selected it as a vehicle through which he could put those principles into practice, both as a subject of his own open intellectual inquiry and as a mechanism to be used for social, political, filial, and personal improvement.  His principles and his oenophilia were inextricably connected, and a better understanding of Jefferson is more fully realized by an understanding of this elemental fact.


[1] Glen’s Place, “Wine Quotes.”  http://www.glensplace.com/index.html

[2] No less a personage than America’s first president and founding father George Washington asked him to procure the finest bottles for his wine cellar at Mount Vernon.  Thomas Jefferson to William Short, September 6, 1790, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 6, Paul Leicester Ford, ed. (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1904).

[3] See John Hailman, Jefferson on Wine (Jackson: University press of Mississippi, 2006); and James M. Gabler, Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson (San Francisco: Bacchus Press, 1995).

[4] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 106.

[5] Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786. in Ibid., 859.

[6] Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 181.

[7] Ibid., 182.

[8] Richard B. Bernstein, The Revolution of Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 134.

[9] Stefan K. Estreicher, Wine: From Neolithic Times to the 21st Century (New York: Algora Publishing, 2006), 109.

[10] Thomas Jefferson, “Travel Journals,” in Ibid., 641.

[11] Ibid., 644.

[12] Ibid., 652.

[13] Ibid., 657.

[14] Damon L. Fowler, Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005), 2.

[15] Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1984), 45.

[16] John M. Holmes and Ann A. Hunter, Thomas Jefferson Treats Himself (Fort Valley: Loft Press, Inc., 1997), 77-8.

[17] Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, June 1, 1807, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, Paul Leicester Ford, ed. (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1905).

[18] Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, November 10, 1818, in Ibid., 111.

[19] See Merrill Peterson, Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 28-62.

[20] Thomas Jefferson to Gouvernor Morris, April 28, 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0419. Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 1 January–31 May 1792, ed. Charles T. Cullen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 467–469..

[21] Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, February 7, 1788, Works, 920.

[22] Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography,” in Works, 4.

[23] Jefferson, Ibid., 4-5

[24] Jefferson, Ibid., 4.

[25] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, January 16, 1811.  In The Works of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Paul Leicester Ford, no. 11.  New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1905.

[26] Jefferson, “Autobiography” in Works, 95-6.

[27] Jefferson, “The Anas,” Ibid., 669

[28] Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1871), 45.

[29] Ellis, Sphinx, 108.

[30] Thomas Jefferson to Doctor Vine Utley, March  21, 1819, Works, 125.

[31] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, August 17, 1811, Works.

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Exploring Thomas Jefferson’s Love of Wine

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1 Comment

  • Is there a dark side to Mr. Jefferson’s love of wine? He was not able to free his slaves in his will (like Washington) because he had spent so much money on French wines. Granted, some of his debt he inherited from his Father-in-law; but he died with more than $100,000 worth of debt, meaning his slaves remained in bondage.

    Neither Adams (John or John Q) left any debt to subsequent generations.

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