Thomas Jefferson was the nation’s first ambassador to France and it was there he developed a pronounced interest in wine.
He was quick to give a political bent to his delight in the lighter, continental grape writing, “the taste of this country [America] was artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain”.
As his career progressed, he continued to write down his thoughts on wine – and to spend money keeping his cellars stocked. During his first term as president $7500 was spent on wine.
Despite his preference for French wines, his meticulously-kept records show orders for many “pipes,” or 125-gallon containers, of Madeira – the drink used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
His well-honed wine-buying strategy included buying by the bottle rather than by the crate; though glass was more fragile, shippers could siphon off or water down wine kept in barrels. When buying wine, he advised a friend: “Go straight to the manufacturer. The middleman is going to take advantage of you.”
His enthusiasm was not quite shared by his contemporaries. “There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines,” John Quincy Adams noted after an 1807 dinner with Jefferson. “Not very edifying.”
But Jefferson’s opinions on wine rolled on through the years and have even impacted the modern market. In 1985 a bottle of Jefferson’s 1787 Chateau Lafite went for £105,000 at Christie’s London and remains the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction.