Thomas Jefferson: Wine Connoisseur

by Jennifer Billings

Jefferson’s love affair with France began long before he ever set foot in the country. His desire to travel Europe began while he was enrolled at the College of William and Mary, where his professors inspired his international aspirations.  To Jefferson, travel was of paramount importance – he even refused to make a “proposal of marriage to his youthful flame…because he desired first to go abroad” (Dumbauld 21). It would take Jefferson twenty years and several missed opportunities to realize his dreams of visiting Europe. Whatever he predicted of his European travels, one can assume he never expected his stay in France would transform his life. Although he came to adore all things French, the love of wine that Jefferson cultivated in France was especially significant for it would help restore happiness to his life.

In the years after American Revolution, Jefferson twice refused government appointments overseas due to his wife’s deteriorating health (Dumbauld 22). While he loved Martha, is it clear that he resented not being able to follow his dreams of exploring Europe. He was pessimistic about his chances of ever travelling abroad and conveyed this disappointment in a letter to Lafayette. He wrote: “I lose an opportunity…of combining public service with private gratification, of seeing countries whose improvements in science, in arts, and in civilization, it has been my fortune to admire at a distance, but never to see”(Dumbauld 22). Fawn Brodie argued that Martha Jefferson, who had strong family ties to England, “discouraged the democrat in Jefferson and encouraged the Tory and the aristocrat” (27). This would certainly imply that Mrs. Jefferson would also not be supportive of any political business, especially overseas, pertaining to the survival and growth of the new American republic. Martha died on September 6, 1782, thus allowing Jefferson to later travel abroad on behalf of the United States.

In May 1784, Jefferson was selected as minister to the French court. Congress felt that a southerner should be added to the list of American diplomats abroad, which at this time included John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (Risjord 55). The French embassy was considered a vital post; France was America’s only ally in Europe, and the two countries were still bound by an alliance. Jefferson saw the opportunity to live in France as a way to “move past tragedy and to escape from his memories of Martha at Monticello (Ellis 78). Although in France to break the “British monopoly of American trade” Jefferson also took time to explore the continent he had dreamt of for over twenty years, focusing especially on one item – wine (Risjord 57).

Jefferson’s obsession with wine did not originate in France. He had for years attempted with no success to cultivate his own vineyard at Monticello. However, while in France, Jefferson was able to explore vineyards and learn the craft of wine making first-hand. Jefferson’s travels took him to wineries all over France; at each vineyard he would take meticulous notes about the strength of the wines, which wines to transport by sea and which to transport by land, which wines ripened faster, the prices of particular bottles, the correct way to press grapes, and when to bottle champagne (Dumabuld 84,122). From the moment he arrived in Paris, he began purchasing hundreds of bottles of only the finest wines “before he even had a cellar to store them in” (Adams 47). The proud American’s nostalgia for home was evident, however, as he had “Madeira shipped from New York” throughout his five years in France (Dumbauld 86).

The taste for fine wine would drive him to near economic failure while he was in France. He would frequently complain “that his expenses as minister were leading him to bankruptcy” (Adams 199). Aside from the expense, wine would have an overall positive effect on Jefferson’s life. His passion for wine was the catalyst that accelerated and eased his transition from depressed widower to sociable gentleman. Dumbauld argued that by “[enjoying] thoroughly the esprit and the elegance of French life” Jefferson found joy in his life again, and was finally able to move past the death of his wife (68).

Jefferson went to France as a depressed man still plagued by memories of his late wife. A short time after he arrived in France, he wrote a letter to a Virginian friend confessing that he had “relapsed into the state of ill health in which you saw me…but more severe. I have had few hours wherein I could do anything”(Risjord 56). Despite the struggle with depression early in his term as minister, France restored vitality to Jefferson’s life. His time in France was the realization of everything that Martha hindered him from accomplishing. His position as minister to France gave him the opportunity to freely travel abroad, to create interests outside of Monticello, and to represent the fledgling country in which he was so deeply invested. He returned to America a happy, well traveled and even more successful man. Those who had previously thought him “cold” and “aloof” would have scarcely recognized him. Jefferson, supported by his French chef and household manager, would come to be known for his fabulous wines, extravagant dinners, love of entertaining and impeccable fashion. He was truly a man transformed.

Works Cited

Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997. Print.

Brodie, Fawn McKay. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Norton, 1974. Print.

Dumbauld, Edward. Thomas Jefferson American Tourist: Being an Account of His Journeys in the United States of America, England, France, Italy, the Low Countries and Germany, by Edward Dumbauld. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1946. Print.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.

Risjord, Norman K. Thomas Jefferson. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1994. Print.

Thomas, Elbert Duncan. Thomas Jefferson, World Citizen. New York: Modern Age, 1942. 228-44. Print.

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