The month of February, for all its brevity, has more than its share of holidays. Celebrations include the weather predictions of a famous woodchuck, a day dedicated to romance and a commemoration of the country’s presidents.
The history of our chief executives has been studied extensively, but what about their wine preferences? I believe that February is the perfect month to consider our presidents and their wines.
Our first president, George Washington, was known to be a wine lover. His inventory contained the best that France had to offer, but his favorite was the dessert wine, Madeira. This fortified quaff originates from the Portuguese island off of the coast of Morocco, where the wine was carried to the New World in the hulls of sailing ships inside casks of 92 gallons known as “pipes.” The wine became the darling of the upper classes in the fledgling country and import houses sprung up in all major ports. This was at a time when most people drank rum with the cultivation of sugar cane in the southern states and the Caribbean islands. Raising a glass of Madeira this month is a worthy tribute to the father of our country.
Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, could be considered the first “oenophile in chief.” Not only did he enjoy the wines of France when he was ambassador to the court, but he took copious notes of soil types, grape varieties and vinification techniques. He traveled the major regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, where he developed an appreciation for the greatest wines of the age. Jefferson ordered barrels of wine from the wineries he loved and had them shipped to Monticello, his estate in Virginia. Interestingly, he had his wine bottled and then shipped. An unusual practice at the time, this ensured that sailor crews would not be able to tap the wine casks and then top them off with water. Jefferson planted grapes extensively in the Charlottesville, Va., area to try and develop wine regions in this country that would rival those in Europe. Alas, the fragile vinifera could not survive in a climate where pests and diseases thrived. The next time you pull a cork from a bottle of wine, tip your hat to Thomas Jefferson.
Over the country’s history, wine often has been a part of diplomacy. Richard Nixon, a Californian, was known to love Bordeaux, but, when he famously visited China in 1972, he took along Schramsberg blanc de blanc sparkling wine to be served at dinner with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The details of that trip may have been forgotten but the wine never will. Other California sparklers served at the White House in recent years include bottles from Iron Horse, Chandon, Gloria Ferrer and Roederer Estate. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our presidents than by popping open a bottle of California bubbly.