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Words About Wine

© Copyright 1997 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Jefferson and Wine
Remarks to the Thomas Jefferson Chapter, American Wine Society
Sunday, Dec. 7, 1997
The Rathskeller, The Seelbach Hotel, Louisville
By Robin Garr
Jefferson book

Buy James Gabler's Jefferson book from Amazon.com; List: $29.95 - Amazon.com price $20.97 - You save: $8.98 (30%). (For more Gabler books on wine, see below.)

We are gathered this evening to celebrate the memory of Thomas Jefferson ... author of the Declaration of Independence, America's third president and arguably one of its greatest ... and, perhaps most important for us in this elegant dining room tonight ... one of the most avid and knowledgeable wine lovers ever to hold national office.

A genuine Renaissance man who founded the University of Virginia, Jefferson was recognized in his own time as an expert in science, architecture, philosophy, and the arts. He designed and built his home, Monticello -- "the little mountain" -- on a beautiful hilltop site in Virginia with a glorious view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's a structure so lovely that it's been widely imitated -- here in Louisville at Joshua Speed's Farmington, a house where Lincoln slept; and in modern times in the Napa Valley at Monticello Vineyards, a winery named in his honor. We'll be sampling some of Monticello's tasty products tonight in the expectation that they are wines that Jefferson would have approved.

Jefferson hardly seems a stranger to us here in Louisville. In addition to having Farmington, we live in Jefferson County, and we have suburban cities called Jeffersonville and Jeffersontown. Your organization is named in his honor, celebrating his love of wine. Even my own grandfather, born just over a century ago, was named Thomas Jefferson Mattingly in the third president's honor.

Jefferson's face is familiar to everyone who's seen Mount Rushmore or a picture of it, and to all of us who are old enough to remember when the 3-cent stamp bearing his picture was all you needed to get the mail through. His face, and Monticello, adorn the nickel. He's a little harder to find in your wallet, though, unless you run across one of the rare but useful two-dollar bills.

Jefferson is so noted for brilliance that President John F. Kennedy once joked, at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners, that more brainpower was gathered in the White House for that occasion than ever before in history, except perhaps when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

So who was this genius ... this world leader ... this wine lover? Let's run quickly through his biography before we pick up our knives, forks and wine glasses; then we can spend the rest of the evening focusing on our dinners and on Jefferson's love of fine food and wine.

Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia in 1743, the Age of Enlightenment, an era when revolutionary fervor was beginning to question the divine right of kings. Voltaire was writing plays, Fielding was writing novels, and Bach was writing music ... and the great Champagne house of Moet et Chandon was born in that very same year.

Growing up in that revolutionary spirit, Jefferson held his first public office at the age of 26 as the colonial equivalent of a state legislator, beginning a six-year term in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769. He quickly became a leader of the "patriot faction" that was beginning to view an independent America as a possibility and not altogether a bad thing. As a member of the Continental Congress, he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and in 1779 he began a two-year term as Governor of Virginia, with the Revolution still raging.

Jefferson went back to Monticello in 1781, but shortly thereafter had to flee when a marauding band of British soldiers stormed up the hill toward his lovely home. It's said that the cavalry officers ordered the building spared because of its beauty, but the thirsty soldiers helped themselves liberally to samples from Jefferson's wine cellar.

He was appointed the new nation's minister to France in 1785 and would spend five years in Europe, where he mingled effective statesmanship with frequent trips to the wine regions of France and Germany. He spent a fair amount of his time making arrangements for the purchase and shipment of the world's finest wines in his effort to build one of the best cellars of his time. When he sailed for home in 1789, in the middle of the French Revolution, he boarded his ship at Le Havre bearing wine hampers containing more than 300 bottles of fine French wines ranging from Meursault, Sauternes and Montrachet to the fine sweet Frontignan of the Languedoc.

Appointed secretary of state to George Washington in 1790, Jefferson defended agrarian interests against the Federalist policies of Alexander Hamilton. He was a leader of the political faction then called the Republicans -- which, confusingly enough, later evolved into the modern Democratic Party.

He was vice president under John Adams, and sought election as president in 1800, only to wind up in a tie with Aaron Burr that threw the outcome into the House of Representatives. Jefferson won the Presidency only after fierce debate, finally prevailing on the advice of his political adversary Hamilton, who argued that Jefferson, despite his agrarianism, was "less dangerous" than the truly radical Burr.

Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, a city he had helped to plan; and the Jeffersons were the second presidential family to live in the brand-new White House, which was started by Washington and completed during Adams's term.

A "social liberal and fiscal conservative," Jefferson sought simplicity in government and tried to cut federal expenditures -- demonstrating how far back this concept goes! He believed the federal government should be concerned mainly with foreign affairs, leaving local matters to the states and communities. And, although he was usually strict in interpreting the Constitution, he pushed through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, an action which it did not expressly authorize. It's a lovely irony that this bold political move opened the way for America to reach to the Pacific and take in California, a land that would someday produce wines the equal of the Bordeaux that Jefferson loved best.

Salad and Canape Course
I'd like to comment briefly now on the appetizers and canapes that we've just enjoyed, and the first course that's coming. Then we'll take a break, and I'll come back with a few more food and wine comments and Jeffersonian factoids when the next course is served.

During the silent auction, we enjoyed a selection of White House White Glove Butlered Canapes, which Chef Jim Gerhardt created using Virginia ham and other ingredients that would have been cultivated at Monticello or served there. They were passed by butlers wearing white gloves as might have been done at a formal affair at the Jefferson White House.

The wine was our first of the evening from Monticello, which we'll talk about more a little later on. It was their 1994 Corley Family Vineyards Napa Valley Estate Chardonnay, a wine that received a 90-point rating from Wine Spectator and that the winery describes as "ripe and flavorful, with a pretty array of pear, tropical fruit, apple and spice nuances and finishing with a dash of buttery oak." I'm not a great fan of the buttery, oaky style of California Chardonnay, but ...

WINE NOTE:Pale gold. Light tropical fruit and toasty oak aromas. Full-bodied, buttery, bright fruit and oak flavors. Not as sweet or as fat as a lot of California Chardonnays -- an advantage. But oak remains dominant.

Our salad course, which we'll be getting into momentarily, is a salad of Fall Field Greens served with "Jefferson's Wine Jelly," a great favorite of his, reconstructed in Marie Kimball's 1976 "Thomas Jefferson Cookbook." It's gelatin-based and features, in the original, milk and Madeira wine, lemon juice and sugar. Adam Segar points out that in Jefferson's time, they would have boiled calves' feet and hooves to make the gelatin, but you'll be happy to know that they've skipped that step today.

The wine with the salad course is a French Loire white, the Domaine Neveu 1995 Sancerre Les Manoirs. We know that Jefferson toured the Loire during his years in France, making a side trip through the Duchy of Anjou on his way back to Paris from a wine-tasting visit to Bordeaux. After that visit, he wrote, according to R. de Treville Lawrence's excellent book "Jefferson and Wine," "There is a very good wine on these hills; not equal indeed, to the Bordeaux of best quality, but to that of good quality, and like it. It is a great article of exportation from Anjou and Touraine, and probably is sold abroad under the name Bordeaux ... "

Times have changed, and I doubt that many wine lovers today would mistake a Sancerre for a White Bordeaux. I expect it will be dry, crisp and racy; it should be interesting with the wine jelly, although depending on the vinaigrette, we may want to push it back and take water with the salad.

WINE NOTE: Pale straw color. Light, fresh, pleasantly herbaceous "green pea" aromas. Tart and lean on the palate, well balanced and lingering. Fine wine!

Now let's get started ... I'm about ready for a food and drink break, and I'm sure you are too. I'll be back when the next course arrives.

Jefferson's Stuffed Boned Capon
Jefferson's dinner parties were elaborate beyond modern imagining, and Monticello was designed to accommodate them. He invented and built a dumbwaiter to hoist dishes from the kitchen, and constructed a gigantic lazy susan to streamline dinner service because he didn't like servants interrupting. It's said that he almost always insisted on personally pouring everyone's wine.

When guests were on hand, he usually served several meat courses, although we're limiting it to just two tonight -- three if you count the ham in the capon stuffing. Puritanical critics accused Jefferson of "having too much fun" on these occasions, which he often joked were governed by three rules: No Healths (toasts) ... no politics ... and no restraints!

In spite of this joyous rule, however, the record seems clear that Jefferson was a man of moderation. In a letter written late in life, he told a correspondent, " ... you are not to conclude that I am become a drinker. My measure is a perfectly sober one of 3 or 4 glasses at dinner, and not a drop at any other time. But as to those 3 or 4 glasses I am very fond." Furthermore, the six original Jefferson wine glasses that remain at Monticello are small by modern standards. Not tulip-shaped but tall and narrow, almost like tiny pilsner glasses for beer, they hold only two to three ounces even if filled almost to the top. The author James M. Gabler, whose excellent new book, "Passions, the Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson," was very helpful in preparing these remarks, wrote: "Assuming Jefferson drank from the larger wine glass (a reasonable assumption given his love of wine) and that he drank three to four and a half glasses of wine a day, his daily wine consumption was in the range of a third to a half of a bottle of wine."

Our first main course tonight upholds this moderately restrained tradition. It is a capon stuffed with Virginia ham and chestnut puree, artichoke bottoms and truffles and a bit of cream, white wine and chicken stock. It's served with a Calvados sauce, assuming that Jefferson would surely have brought the great apple brandy of Normandy back from his travels in France.

The wine with the capon is Monticello Vineyards' 1993 Estate Pinot Noir, rated a "top ten" wine by Bon Appetit magazine. It's made from grapes grown in Monticello's Oak Knoll vineyard. The winemaker's notes suggest that we'll find toasty oak aromas with sweet strawberry and ripe black-cherry flavors. Let's see ...

WINE NOTE:Clear garnet. Fresh black-cherry on the nose and palate, juicy and tart. Pleasant, if not deep.

Boeuf a la Mode
We'll be enjoying another Monticello wine with the beef course, so let's talk a little about this winery. Its founder and owner, Jay Corley, a businessman from Southern California, retired to the Napa Valley and started growing wine grapes in the early 1970s. He opened his own winery in 1980, choosing the name Monticello and a Jefferson theme in honor of Jefferson's love of food and wine as well as recognizing Corley's own family heritage in Virginia.

Monticello now grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot on its 80-acre Monticello Estate vineyard at the winery in Napa's Oak Knoll region. Its 25-acre State Line Vineyard, formerly Egan Vineyard, a few miles to the north, in Yountville, is in a slightly warmer microclimate, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown there.

Its central building, as I mentioned earlier, is an approximate replica of Jefferson's Monticello. Called "Jefferson House," it accommodates the winery's offices, hospitality center, culinary center and dining room, and aging cellar.

Monticello's wine maker, John McKay, has made wine at Charles Krug, Vichon, Merlion and Shadow Brook, and has consulted with such Napa notables as Swanson and Pahlmeyer.

If you're out Napa way, the winery is very conveniently located for visits, on Big Ranch Road just a short distance north of the town of Napa, about halfway between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. It's open daily for tastings and tours, includes a pretty picnic grove, and its book store and gift shop feature a variety of Jefferson-related books and memorabilia ... not to mention wine!

We'll be drinking the Monticello 1993 Jefferson Cuvée Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with our main course, Boeuf a la Mode with Monticello Vegetables.

This is a simple dish, akin to roast tenderloin or chateaubriand. The entire recipe, in Kimball's Jefferson cookbook, needs only three sentences to tell the tale: "Take 4 pounds of round of beef, lard well and season with 1 teaspoonful of salt; 1/2 teaspoonfull of pepper, 1 bay leaf. Put it into a pot, brown well, add one glass of wine and the juice of a lemon. Let simmer until tender. Period, end of story. We'll soon learn whether Chef Gerhardt stuck to tradition or gussied it up, but I'm sure it'll be good either way.

Mr. Segar tells me that the vegetable accompaniment is based entirely on the veggies that Jefferson is known to have liked best: fresh green peas, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, all things that he grew in his own garden.

As you ponder the proportions of beef to vegetables on your plate during this course, please keep in mind a letter that Jefferson wrote to a Dr. Vine Utley in the early spring of 1819:

"Like my friend [Dr. Benjamin Rush], I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet. I double however, the Doctor's glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend; but halve its effects by drinking the weak wines only." Even so, Monticello's records indicate that the retired president and his guests consumed 1,203 bottles of wine in just over two years' time, between January 1822 and February 1824. He was a firm believer in wine's curative powers, and once wrote President James Madison to extoll the virtues of a cup of rice and a glass of Madeira every two hours as a cure for typhus.

Jefferson's cookbook, by the way, declares that lard is by far the tastiest medium for frying vegetables, but I suspect the Oakroom staff has chosen to spare us those calories tonight.

Short of one of the first growths of Bordeaux that Jefferson loved, hardly anything could be more appropriate with this course than the Jefferson Cuvée Cabernet, which Adam tells me has been a deservedly popular item on the Oakroom's wine list for a year or so.

WINE NOTE:Monticello 1993 "Jefferson Cuvée" Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Jefferson's writings leave no doubt that he was a turophile -- fancy word for "cheese lover." Americans of his period were wild about British cheeses, particularly Single and Double Gloucester, the latter of which a contemporary American encyclopedia declared "a cheese that pleases almost every palate." Jefferson used to order it in 12- and 16-pound units, and built sturdy shelves in his wine cellar for storing the weighty rounds of cheese.

For tonight's deliberations, however, the Oakroom has chosen to evoke Jefferson's years in France with an offering of two fine French cheeses, Roquefort and Saint Andre Triple Creme.

Roquefort, of course, is the great blue-veined cheese of Southwestern France, made from sheep's milk and purportedly rooted in ancient Roman times. The blue veins are a beneficial mold akin to penicillin, and the name "Roquefort" is protected by laws as stringent -- and about as effective -- as those governing the trademark Derby Pie.

St. Andre is a triple creme, a description that's pretty much as the name implies: It is enriched with pure cream to the level of 75 percent butterfat. A very small bite will probably give us our entire day's allocation of saturated fat, but it also makes the cheese seductive, creamy and sweet, so let's enjoy it ... and hope that all the antioxidants in all this wine will serve to slow down the cholesterol surging through our veins.

The wine with this course is an American "Port," which is no more a Port than Danish Blue Cheese is a Roquefort. But it's a good one, made by Ficklin, a respected winery in Madera, in the searing-hot California Central Valley, a locale ill-suited to table wine grapes but just about perfect for the production of Port-style wines. A third-generation family winery, the Ficklins grow the genuine Oporto grapes -- Tinta Madeira, Tinta Cao, Touriga and Souzao, and they make Port-style wines that demonstrate how imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tawny Port is aged in wood, in contrast to Vintage Port's bottle aging; and the happy result is a wine that's rich and sweet, soft and easy to drink the day you bring it home from the store, in contrast with the vintage variety, a noble wine that requires years of cellaring before you dare approach it.

WINE NOTE: Ficklin 10 Year Tawny Port
Clear, dark amber. Pleasant stone-fruit aromas, same on the palate, sweet and warming, with a decent acidic "grip." Surprisingly faithful California imitation of a genuine Tawny Port.

Quite frankly, although Jefferson's writings indicate that he was no stranger to Port, he would have been much more likely to choose Madeira than Port when he was in the mood for a fortified dessert wine.

Such was the popularity of Madeira in the United States in Jefferson's time, writes Jancis Robinson in "The Oxford Companion to Wine," that whole gatherings were devoted to the drink. "The custom has occasionally been revived, thanks to such associations as the Madeira Club of Savannah, Georgia. Standard late 19th century practice was to assemble eight men round a table and circulate decanters of five or six different and increasingly rich madeiras clockwise to the accompaniment of biscuits, nuts, cigars and discussion."

Dessert and Coffee
Jefferson was very fond of ice cream ... the Kimball cookbook lists not one but three separate ice cream recipes, all very rich concoctions full of eggs and heavy cream. Adam Segar's research reveals that Jefferson also loved plums, so they've put together a dessert that he surely would have loved, featuring vanilla-bean ice cream with plums and berries marinated in whiskey from Jefferson's native Virginia soil.

We'll be pulling back a bit from Jefferson's dessert tradition, though -- it's reported that he sometimes served thirteen dessert courses at banquets. That's not a tray of 13 desserts to choose from, mind you ... we're talking about 13 separate dessert courses!

We'll be finishing up with a German wine, reflecting Jefferson's diplomatic and wine-touring trip through Holland and then down the Mosel and the Rhine in the spring of 1788.

German wines have changed dramatically since those days, when even the whites were tannic and acidic and required at least five years' cellaring before they were anywhere close to being ready to drink. The biographer Gabler notes. "The Moselle and Rheingau wines that Jefferson drank 200 years ago, although made from the same grape, the Riesling, were far different than today's sweet wines. Their dryness exceeded the French white wines, and they were aged for long periods of time, often not being served until 50 years old!"

Jefferson stopped in Bernkastel on his tour of the Mosel, and may well have tasted the ancestor of tonight's wine. His notes indicate, however, that he gave the nod for best Mosel village not to this historic region but to Brauneberg further up the river, which he described as "quite clear of acid, stronger, and very sensibly the best." He classified the Mosels in order from Brauneberg to Vehlen, Graach, Piesport, Zelting, and Bernkasteler last.

Fortunately for us tonight, Bernkasteler's 20th century reputation is much improved. That being said, however, and at the risk of sounding ungrateful to our hosts, I'm approaching this Auslese with restrained expectations: Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay is a "Grosslage" wine, neither an estate nor a village wine but one made from grapes grown over a broad region; and the shipper, Schmitt Söhne, is not one of the more highly regarded. Working in its favor, though, 1994 was an exceptional vintage in the Mosel, and any wine, no matter how humble its background, has to pass stringent tests to earn the Auslese rating.

WINE NOTE: Schmitt Söhne 1994 Bernkasteler Kurfurstlay (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) Auslese
Watery pale. Faint citric aroma leads into a one-dimensional flavor of simple sugar syrup and undifferentiated fruit. Light-bodied, vanishes on the palate. Disappointing, but not surprising in this modest Grosslage wine from a low-end shipper.

It'll be interesting to see how it works with the dessert. I'm a little wary about matching any wine with ice cream, where the sweetness and rich dairy character may war with the rich dairy flavors of the dessert, not to mention the whiskey marinade. But we won't know until we try it, and I respect the Oakroom for taking a risk. If it doesn't work out, we can always push back the wine glass until the ice cream's gone, then enjoy it with our final serving, Roast Fresh Ground Coffee with Chocolate Shavings and Virginia Whiskey Sugar.

And this pretty much wraps up our story of the wine-loving president who once declared that wine was "a necessary of life for me."

Perhaps because of his joyously moderate consumption, Jefferson lived a long and happy life. He left the White House in 1809 -- the year Lincoln was born in Kentucky -- and returned to his beloved home, Monticello, where he continued his appreciation of good food and great wine.

He marked his retirement only by a subtle shift from Bordeaux and Burgundies to lesser-known selections; his cellar records show a new interest in the wines of Southern France, especially Languedoc. A visitor to Monticello shortly after his retirement noted that, instead of pricey French and Italian vintages, Jefferson served "Madeira and a sweet ladies' wine."

Gabler, the biographer, tells us that the ex-president remained remarkably active in retirement, but along the way he began to feel that old age was depriving him of some of the sensual enjoyments of life. He wrote to the former First Lady Abigail Adams, "To see what we have seen, to taste the tasted, and at each return, less tasteful; o'er our palates to decant, another vintage."

Jefferson died in 1826 at the ripe old age of 83. He died on the Fourth of July, the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. John Adams, his political ally and predecessor, died on the very same day, uttering as his last words, "Jefferson still lives." In fact, the third president had breathed his last at Monticello just a few hours before.

More Gabler wine books:

  • How to Be a Wine Expert, 2nd ed., by James Gabler. List: $12.95 - Amazon.com price: $10.36 = You save: $2.59 (20%).
  • Wine into Words: A History and Bibliography of Wine Books in the English Language, by James M. Gabler. List: $38 - Amazon.com price: $38.00.
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