Independence Day Musings: Cheers to You, Mr. Jefferson

A celebration of America’s independence is again at hand. Insert excessive patriotism here. In today's current political maelstrom, however, many long for more sensible and dignified [pre-Twitter] days. So let's take it all the way back to the Revolution. In honor of Independence Day, I offer a Founding Fathers retrospective. Join, or die...

Pour yourself a glass of claret and ponder this: with which Founding Father would you most want to spend an evening? Tough choice; the Founding Fathers were an impressive bunch. I will give you a clue regarding my answer: he was quite the wine aficionado (of course I would choose the wino).

An 18th Century canon is at the ready.

An 18th Century canon is at the ready.

Most of our Founding Fathers preferred to pair their politicking with an adult beverage. John Hancock was a wealthy shipowner and wine importer before becoming a zealous patriot. His patriotism was initiated in part by his fierce objections to British import taxes on his most valuable commodity, Spanish Madeira. Boston Madeira Party, anyone? George Washington, never without a glass of claret, ordered vine cuttings from Spain to plant at Mount Vernon when conflict complicated his precious wine imports. (Phylloxera unfortunately had other plans for Washington’s winemaking aspirations.) John Adams became infatuated with the first growths of Bordeaux during his visit there in the 1770s, and could be relied upon to find the “occasion for a cask of Bordeaux wine, of the very best quality.” The venerable and beloved Benjamin Franklin was known to indulge with Champagne and mild debauchery during his tenure as American Minister in Paris. Inevitable French frivolity. Sacrébleu!


Thomas Jefferson, the country’s third President, however, rose above the rest as the most distinguished oenophile. For Jefferson, “good wine is a necessity of life for me.” I like him already.

Similar to his pre-revolutionary countrymen, Jefferson was an early admirer of Madeira, sherry and port. Madeira was considered a patriotic beverage due to a technicality that allowed it to pass into the colonies free of British tax. Sticking it to the Crown, one glass at a time. John Adams was also quick to point out that, with a few glasses of Madeira, anyone could feel capable of being president. When the Founding Fathers needed a beverage to toast the Declaration of Independence, Madeira got the call.

“Good wine is a necessity of life for me.” Thomas Jefferson

In 1785, Jefferson traveled to France to assume his new role as American Minister in Paris. While stationed in Europe, Jefferson embarked on a three-month sojourn across southern France and Northern Italy, in what was apparently a combination of “public service with private gratification.” I'd wager that private gratification received a bit more attention through wine country. Although there were indeed justified business and political reasons for his journey, the foray is more profound historically for its effect on Jefferson’s maturation as a wine expert.  

Jefferson’s oenological passion highlights two foundational Jeffersonian traits for which I strive: an unyielding pursuit of knowledge and generous hospitality.

Jefferson the Intellectual

Jefferson was a truth-seeker. A devoted disciple of the Enlightenment, Jefferson fervently defended and promoted knowledge and education. “No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness [than the accumulation of knowledge]." For Jefferson, earnest intellectual inquiry was the pathway to truth and a hallmark of civilization.

“I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend.”
Thomas Jefferson

In addition to being a diplomat and politician, Jefferson was an avid scientist. Wine was thus a natural target for research and experimentation. Wine affords a boundless array of observations and inquiry to satisfy Jefferson’s intellectual proclivities. Terroir, viniculture and viticulture are extraordinarily complex. Jefferson could geek out. A lot. And he did just that. Jefferson studied grapes, regions, and growing methods. Over time, he developed a sophisticated vocabulary for wine.

Jefferson maintained a travel log during his time in Europe that contained detailed notations on numerous aspects of viniculture and viticulture. Wherever Jefferson went, he tasted, investigated, and documented. Jefferson’s wine manifesto illustrated (sometimes literally) his scientific process related to wine. And apparently it was good. Tremendously good. Although he spent a mere four days in Bordeaux, his evaluations of the region are still referenced as authoritative work on the Bordeaux wine trade circa 1787.

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Grapes

Jefferson’s travels expanded his exposure to grape varietals and wine culture. This was invaluable for Jefferson, as there was no Google or for quick and easy access to the world’s wine offerings. With increased exposure came increased sophistication.

After his jaunts through France, Italy and Germany, he conclusively favored the wines of Rhône, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. He described Hermitage (in Northern Rhône) as “the first wine in the world without a single exception.” Jefferson was eager to introduce these elegant French wines in lieu of the brutish and unrefined Spanish and Portuguese wines that were popular in the colonies. Oh, the ignorance! Fear not; the French will lead us to a more noble vinous path. Santé!

Jefferson was not only a passionate wine drinker; he was an aspiring winemaker. "Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens." To satisfy his viticultural curiosities, Jefferson attempted to harvest grapes at his estate in Virginia. In 1807 alone, he planted 287 vines from 24 European grape varietals. Unfortunately, most of the plantings at Monticello were destroyed by Phylloxera, and Jefferson’s vineyards never produced wine. Sad face.

Jefferson the Host

Jefferson approached wine not only with intellectual ardor, but also with community perspective. He was a generous and elaborate host. Plentiful wine was always a presumption. As Jefferson noted, “my measure is a perfectly sober 3 or 4 glasses at dinner.” A round table visually depicted his philosophy of equal status for all (slavery paradoxically excepted).

As President, Jefferson mastered the dinner party. He instituted a policy of hosting three dinner parties per week at the White House with members of his administration, Congress, and other dignitaries. At times, these dinners were overtly strategic, as Jefferson was adept at utilizing the occasion to promote his agenda and policies. At other times, the evening lacked a precise business or political issue, and Jefferson would simply savor the sharing of food, wine and scholarly conversation with friends. Hospitality meets politics, diplomacy, and (occasionally) mere enjoyment.

“My measure is a perfectly sober 3 or 4 glasses at dinner.” Thomas Jefferson

For all occasions, Jefferson paid significant attention to detail: who to invite, where they would sit, how the conversation would be directed, and what wine would pair best with the guests' palates and the evening's events. The great diversity of Jefferson’s wine cellar demonstrated that he would always have the appropriate wines for any guest or occasion.

I want to be invited to that guy’s house.

Jefferson’s Dream of a Vinous United States

Jefferson deeply desired that the young nation be one of winemakers and wine drinkers. He firmly believed that wine had important health benefits and was a way to connect people and effectively disseminate knowledge.

Jefferson would have been very fond of California's Napa Valley

Jefferson would have been very fond of California's Napa Valley

Although it was not realized in his lifetime, Jefferson’s early vision for the country has finally borne much fruit. Wine is commercially grown in all 50 states, and Jefferson’s favorite wines from Rhône, Bordeaux and Burgundy have their vinous second homes in Napa Valley, Sonoma, the Finger Lakes, Santa Barbara, Lodi, and Willamette Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all varietals Jefferson wanted to produce in Monticello, are the most popular grapes in the United States.

Spoiled for choice, what would Jefferson prefer if he roamed the nation’s vineyards? I suggest two, though I am sure he wouldn’t stop there...

Napa Valley Red Blend

Napa Valley has risen to become the crown jewel of U.S. winemaking. Although often (somewhat unfairly) compared to Bordeaux, the climate and terroir in Napa Valley is much different and more diverse. One key difference is temperature: it is much hotter in Napa Valley, and temperature variation between north and south is significant. As a result, wine becomes progressively richer with ripe tannins as one travels north along Highway 29.

Another key difference is elevation. Napa Valley is bordered by the Mayacama Mountain Range to the west and north, and the Vaca Mountains to the east.  The elevation provides morning sunshine only accessible above the morning fog, and cooling breezes in the afternoon when the Valley floor is at its hottest. This combination results in more structured, complex wines in the mountainous AVAs.  

One final difference is found in the soil. The Valley, once the ocean floor of the Pacific, was formed millions of years ago by the violent convergence of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates, causing violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Out of the chaos was eventually born well-drained soils rich in a panoply of limestone, minerals and volcanic sediment.

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Conn Creek Anthology

Napa Valley was first admired as a wine region in the 19th century. In 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson described its wine as “bottled poetry.” At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, Napa Valley wines surprisingly won 20 awards, including 4 gold medals. Prohibition and natural disasters, however, brought a quick halt to the Valley’s rising prestige. After prohibition, it took nearly three decades for the Valley regain its vinous form.

Native to Bordeaux, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape found its second home in Napa Valley, where its opulence and power is wonderfully expressed through the warm sunshine and soils of Northern California. Cabernet, however, usually prefers to invite a few of its friends to the party. Although most often comprising the majority of the bottle, it is frequently blended with up to 15 percent or more of other Bordeaux varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec). Even in small percentages, these blends provide supplemental flavors and aromas, softer structure, and increased complexity.

2008 Conn Creek Anthology Red Blend

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Conn Creek Anthology

Given his affinity for Bordeaux, I chose a traditional Bordeaux-style blend with a healthy measure of California charm. It is also aptly named for the occasion; Anthology is a Greek term referring to a collection of literary or artistic works. This red blend (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 11% Merlot, 7% Petite Verdot, 4% Cabernet Franc) is a true Left-Bank, Bordeaux-style blend.

Bright aromas of dark berry fruit with floral characteristics, baking spice, vanilla, subtle tobacco and oak jump from the glass. On the palate, ripe black fruit of blackberry, currant, and blueberry accented by smooth chocolate and vanilla flavors. Firm round tannins pleasantly coat the mouth, all culminating in a long, lingering finish. Wonderful complexity and depth of flavor. Truly a remarkable wine. Jefferson would be proud.

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Similar to California’s Napa Valley, most of western Oregon’s present-day wine country was once submerged in an ocean basin with active subsurface volcanoes. The remnants of Willamette Valley’s ancient beginnings can still be found amongst the soils. Ocean basalt, siliceous lava and other volcanic deposits, combined with sedimentary wash from the ice age, produce well-drained, mineral-rich terroir.  

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Beaux Frere Pinot Noir

Today, the region is a focal point for world-class Pinot Noir. Clouds and humidity from the Pacific sweep east across the Valley through breaks in the Coastal Range, resulting in cool summers and wet autumns. As a result of the climate and terroir, Pinot Noir produced here is softer, more fruit forward, and matures earlier than its European counterparts.

2014 Beaux Frères Upper Terrace Pinot Noir

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Beaux Frere Pinot Noir

To satisfy Jefferson's Burgundian cravings, I chose this 2014 Beaux Frères Upper Terrace Pinot Noir. This wine has a subtle nose of minerals, cola, and dark fruit of cherry, plum skin, and dates. On the palate, the dark fruits open up over time, accented by mineral and damp earth components that balance the flavor. This Pinot falls squarely between Burgundy (characterized by pronounced earthy and barnyard characteristics) and California (which tend to be big and full of ripe fruit). The wine possesses pleasant, soft tannins and texture with a nice balance on the palate between Old and New World. Appearing a touch hot at first, the wine opens nicely with a little patience and the fruits become more pronounced. This is definitely a wine that could use a few more years in the cellar, but overall it has good depth, smooth finish, and fine potential.

The Bane of [Jefferson’s?] Whiskey

Jefferson viewed wine as a sophisticated and healthy alternative to whiskey and other hard liquors that were widely produced and consumed in the colonies. Jefferson emphasized that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.”

Given his disdain for whiskey, it is somewhat ironic that today there is a bourbon bearing his name. So, naturally, I would be remiss to pass it by.

Musings by the Glass - Cheers to You Mr. Jefferson - Jefferson Very Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

Jefferson’s Very Small Batch opens with aromas of vanilla, caramel, honey and citrus peel, with a touch of spice. On the palate, it is definitely pushing the sweeter side of the bourbon spectrum (which is already on the sweeter side of the whiskey spectrum). It coats the mouth with notes of burnt caramel, cinnamon, subtle leather and oak. It finishes nicely and is relatively well-balanced. Overall, it is pleasant but ultimately uninspiring. It might be best that Jefferson is not around to comment. At around $30 per bottle, I suppose one shouldn’t harbor high expectations. If possible, I would suggest paying the additional fee for Jefferson’s Ocean, which is a worthwhile step up in quality.

Your turn: with which Founding Father would you most want to spend an evening?