Doubtless as Good

One of the most important tasks facing the leaders of the newly independent United States of America was to command respect from their peers in Europe. When Jefferson declared that “we could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good,” he might as well have been talking about America itself. At a time when our new country was trying to distance itself from the motherland, it was simultaneously striving for respectability and a high cultural image that would match its recent military and political achievements.

Upon his return from France in 1789, Thomas Jefferson discovered that he had not only been nominated to be President George Washington’s Secretary of State, but the United States Senate had already confirmed him in his absence. Jefferson immediately set off for the Capitol, temporarily located in New York City, and assumed his political duties. To his delight, Jefferson discovered that one unofficial duty he would be performing was to serve as Washington’s wine consultant. Using his contacts in both France and America, Jefferson ordered hundreds of bottles of wine for himself and Washington, who loved both champagne and Sauternes. A healthy cash flow from his new position fueled his spending, and the discriminating Jefferson always requested “… the best possible…” instructing his merchants exactly how to package his wine and when to send his shipments.

Soon, political tensions tightened between Jefferson and Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. They reached an apex on New Year’s Day, 1794, when Jefferson resigned his position. For the next three years, Thomas Jefferson remained at Monticello. Although his plantation needed a bit of restoration upon his return, his wine cellar remained in healthy shape.

Jefferson made a return to politics as Vice President of the United States in 1797, but it was not until 1801, when he was elected President, that he left his own, distinct mark on the presidency. Jefferson’s wine purchases reflected his new $25,000 annual salary Jefferson purchased so many bottles of wine that Irish architect James Hoban complained that his workers could not finish construction of the President’s house, because Jefferson had ordered a wine cellar sixteen feet deep be built to store his growing collection.

Jefferson, a widower, entertained extensively at the presidential mansion. His personal French chef provided presidential guests with some of the finest food served in America and, according to one prominent senator, “plenty of wines and good.” The political effect of the dinners is perhaps best summed up by Vermont Federalist Senator Stephen Bradley who snapped over an unpopular executive appointment and the lack of Senatorial opposition, “The President’s dinners have silenced them.” In one month, 207 bottles of Champagne were served to 651 dinner guests, and in one year the amount of Jefferson’s salary spent on food topped $6,000. During his first term, President Thomas Jefferson spent $7,597 on wine alone. Jefferson brought both a culinary and cultural sophistication to the Presidency that some say has never been matched.