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Feature Letter: Strong Views on Fortified Wine

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Hutchins G. Burton, 1 May 1817Earlier in his life Jefferson frequently served and enjoyed the fortified wine of Madeira, but during his retirement at Monticello he found the European brandy-infused beverage “entirely too powerful.” His wine cellar had dwindled due to limitations on trade during the War of 1812. By the end of 1815 Jefferson was ordering wines from France and Italy, but the possibilities of domestic wine production also intrigued him. Having been introduced to North Carolina’s scuppernong wine by John Wayles Eppes late in 1816, by February 1817 Jefferson began asking Hutchins G. Burton, Eppes’s supplier, to procure the beverage for his own use. In the letter below Jefferson both orders a cask and condemns wine additives, remarking that only British and American consumers lacking refined taste desire such adulteration.

 
To Hutchins G. Burton
Dear Sir
Monticello May 1. 17.
 

Your favor of Apr. 2. came to hand two days ago only. I thank you for the kind office of procuring me the cask of wine, and still more for the purpose of placing me in correspondence with mr Pettigrew, thro’ whom I may draw future supplies directly. I have this day inclosed to mr Eppes a draught on mr Gibson for 26.D.I observe the makers of this wine have fallen into the barbarous practice of dosing their wine with brandy. that you sent mr Eppes had but little, but it was sensible. the next sample I saw was Genl Cocke’s, in which there was so much as to drown the flavor of the wine, and I have seen a third sample which absolutely cannot be distinguished from strong brandy toddy. this will destroy the reputation of the wine. this unhappy taste is peculiar to the English, and we derive it by imitation from them. every person in a wine country knows that a single glass of brandy will adulterate the fine flavor of a whole cask of wine, and that a little [m]ore will destroy the vinous flavor entirely, and give to a sensible palate that of brandy only. the truth is that there should not be a single drop of brandy put into it. no money will tempt a European vigneron to put a single drop of brandy into his wine, because it would destroy it’s reputation. this is done by the merchant, and only for an English or American customer, who always requires it expressly. the merchants of Bordeaux expressed to me their astonishment at this singular coarseness of taste. I hope I shall be able to prevail on the Scuppernon vigneron to furnish mine at least without a drop of brandy. with my thanks for your kind attention in ordering this supply, be pleased to accept the assurance of my great esteem and respect.

Th: Jefferson

 


PoC (MHi); on verso of reused address cover of Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours to TJ, 18 Aug. 1816; torn at seal; at foot of text: “H. G. Burton esq.”; endorsed by TJ.

 

 

 

Posted May 2015. Reprinted from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 11:300.

 


 

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