Tranquil Pursuits

Thomas Jefferson’s retirement from public service in 1809 allowed him to pursue his passions once again. Unfortunately Jefferson no longer received a steady income, and he was forced to curb his appetite for fine wine. Over his two terms as President, however, Jefferson had amassed an impressive collection of French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese wines.

For the next seventeen years, Jefferson and his many guests succeeded in depleting Monticello’s cellar. Between 1822 and 1824, twelve hundred bottles of wine were enjoyed by Jefferson and his guests. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited his long time friend in 1826, they drank so many bottles of wine that Jefferson placed an emergency order to a merchant in Richmond, fearing he might run out.

Jefferson’s table at Monticello became the epicenter of America’s nouvelle cuisine. Daniel Webster described it as “a sophisticated cuisine, served in half Virginian style, half French style, in good taste and abundance.” Jefferson and his guests never drank wine with their meals. In the English tradition, ciders and malt liquors were served during the main courses, while wine was served only with desserts and after dinner. The ingenious Jefferson built dumb-waiters in the dining room fireplace at Monticello so beverages could be brought up from his cellars without butlers interrupting his gatherings.

While in the White House, Jefferson’s personal French chef, Julian, chose from an abundance of fresh game, fish, fowl, shellfish and vegetables available in the Georgetown markets. After his second term, as with many other luxuries, Jefferson no longer could afford to extend to Julian a permanent invitation to Monticello. Julian, however, did travel to Charlottesville and taught two of Jefferson’s slaves the art of French cuisine. Edy and Fanny came close to replicating Julian’s talents, but Jefferson quietly lamented to a friend, “I envy M. Chaumon [a French colleague] nothing but his French cook and cuisine. These are luxuries which can neither be forgotten or possessed in out country” Jefferson had hoped that another one of his slaves, James Hemmings, who had accompanied Jefferson to Paris and had become quite accomplished in the kitchen, would assume cooking duties at Monticello but Hemmings tragically committed suicide.

Despite the lack of an authentic French chef at Monticello during his retirement, Jefferson still enjoyed a healthy and delicious diet consisting mostly of fresh vegetables and local meats and fish. Writing to a doctor in 1819, Jefferson boasted, “I have been blest with organs of digestion which accept and concoct, without ever murmuring, whatever the palate chooses to consign to them, and I have not yet lost a tooth by age.”

During his retirement, Jefferson again decided to try his hand at viniculture. As President, Jefferson received a steady stream of gifts from politicians and citizens alike. One present in particular left an indelible mark on Jefferson. Retired land speculator and entrepreneur vintner Major John Adlum, also known as “The Father of American Viticulture,” sent two bottles of wine to the President from his own vineyard.

Adlum’s gifts greatly impressed Jefferson and he went so far as to claim that the bottle of red wine was “so exactly resembling the red Burgundy of Chambertin (one of the best crops) that on fair comparison with that…the company could not distinguish the one from the other.” What amazed him was that the wine was made from a native vine, the Alexander grape, or Fox grape as Jefferson called it. Although Adlum later admitted that this amazing vintage was the product of accidental methodology, Thomas Jefferson, upon returning to Monticello, nevertheless ordered vines from Adlum in anticipation of renewing his winemaking effort in Charlottesville.

In 1810 and 1816 Jefferson requested and received vine cuttings from Adlum and planted them at Monticello. Adlum later moved his operation to Washington, DC and descendants of his Alexander can still be found in Rock Creek Park. Neither set of vines achieved any success, and Jefferson finally decided that he was too old to cultivated grapes, leaving the task of winemaking in Virginia to future generations.

Thomas Jefferson may have ended his vine growing in 1816, but he remained a strident promoter of wine and especially of American wine made from native vines. In 1816, Jefferson wrote to Adlum, “I am so convinced that our first success will be from a native grape that I would try no other.”

Over time, Jefferson’s role shifted from critical judge to enthusiastic advocate. Jefferson praised the fruity Scuppernong wine from North Carolina claiming it would be “distinguished on the best tables in Europe.” It was later discovered that the Scuppernong wine that Jefferson had lauded of “remarkable merit” was not wine at all and actually consisted of fresh juice fortified and preserved by apple brandy! Jefferson seemingly maintained enough vision to overlook the quality of such early native wines, as not to dampen the enthusiasm of American winemakers.