Wine has often been seen as a sign of wealth, prestige, and excellent taste. People have been collecting wine since the time of Ancient Rome. Wine can last for long periods if adequately stored and maintained, making it a highly desirable collectible. Not all collectors seek wine just to drink it, of course. With other collectibles, the item’s provenance can affect its value and desirability as much as the item itself.
Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson was one such collector of wine. According to him, “in nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines.” Jefferson’s appreciation of wine and its complexities resulted from his trip to France in 1784. Before then, he enjoyed wine but, like many before and after, did not fully understand the complex nature of various vintages.
As his knowledge expanded, Jefferson maintained an extensive stock of wines at his home, the Monticello, where he would often entertain guests. As a result, his collection included wines he thought other people might enjoy, as well as those that fit his taste. We get a window into his perspective from his musings on the subject.
Jefferson’s opinion on wine selections
For example, in 1803, when writing to someone in Spain, he noted his enjoyment of pale sherry. In 1805, he said his enjoyment of Italian Piedmont sparkling wine. He was also a fan of port. Though his wine could come from Europe, his leading supplier was situated in Marseilles.
For his supply, he had a tight working relationship with an American in the city, and once wrote to him to place an order for “the white Hermitage of M. Jourdan of Tains…which we call silky, soft, smooth, in contradistinction to the dry, hard, or rough.” Additionally, he was looking for red wine from Nice, and a third wine whose name, “I am less able to specify to you with certainty by it’s particular name. I used to meet with it at Paris under the general term of Vin rouge de Roussillon; and it was usually drunk after the repast as vin de liqueur, as were the Pacharetti sec, & Madeire sec: and it was in truth as dry as they were, but a little higher colored.”
Jefferson worked hard to keep his wine supply stocked, but world events prevented some orders from getting filled. In 1985, the most expensive bottle of wine was sold at an auction. The bottle, dark green and hand-blown, bore the initials of Thomas Jefferson. Dating from 1787, the wine within the bottle appeared to remain in excellent condition, rendering it potential for consumption and its value for collection.
Other wines from the collection were not only obtained but sampled. These samples remained in exceptional condition, lending well to collectors of wines for provenance and the wine itself. To drink the wine of a Founding Father, it is little wonder the prices for an auction reached such heights. The bottle that reached those record heights sold for $157,500. The wine from this collection is especially nostalgic for historians, as it is from an order that never reached the New World. While the Jefferson wine at Monticello no doubt was enjoyed by the family and their friends, the bottle in question, and others in the collection, never crossed the ocean.
The collection was supposedly discovered within the walls of an old cellar in Paris. However, the collection’s authenticity came into doubt, and extensive controversy on whether or not the wine, purchased when Jefferson worked in the French Empire and left undelivered in the wake of the French Revolution, was part of Jefferson’s order for wine. If anything, such controversy only added to the provenance, though that meant little to those who already purchased the wine. The debate has yet to be revealed, though sentiment is generally against those who put up the collection for auction.
This Day in Wine History:
September 28, 1789 – Thomas Jefferson, Ambassador to France, departs for his new appointment as Secretary of State under the President and fellow Founding Father, George Washington. The French Revolution took some time to build steam, but Jefferson foresaw the warning signs before leaving the nation. The revolution in France would prevent his latest purchase from reaching the United States.
November 9, 1799 – Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France. The Napoleonic Wars that followed would upend Europe in multiple ways, including severe wine production and trade hardships. For his part, Napoleon is often considered more of a brandy drinker than a fan of wine.
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