SA wine history: On American presidents with good taste in wine

By , 27 August 2019

Last week, US President Donald Trump threatened to tax French wine ‘like they’ve never seen before’ if France goes ahead with a proposal to tax big US technology companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google.

‘I’ve always said American wine is better than French wine,’ Trump had tweeted previously, on 26 July, though one wonders how he would know this, given that he claims never to have had a glass of alcohol…

Nonetheless, the 45th president’s threats and tweets jogged my memory about some very different presidential thoughts and actions, starting with those of the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, a wine connoisseur of note.

It is often said (without substantiation, unfortunately) that Jefferson was a fan of South Africa’s most famous wine, historically speaking, namely Constantia. Although we know that he recorded a payment of 24 pounds for ‘Cape Wines’ in 1779, the year he was elected governor of Virginia, we don’t know what he thought of them. He did, however, class ‘Cape’ among the world’s most expensive wines, alongside Hock, Tokaji, and Malmsey, in his 3 June 1807 letter to Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury, proposing a ‘more equal’ tariff on wines. ‘This slender reed at least suggests he thought well of how [Cape wines] were valued by the market and, stretching it a little, perhaps valued them that way himself,’ wrote John Hailman, author of Thomas Jefferson on Wine, in an email to me some years ago when I was researching the history of Constantia.

It’s also intriguing that Jefferson planted ‘vines from Cape of Good Hope’ at Monticello, his estate in Charlottesville, Virginia, alongside vines from Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux – wine regions that we know he admired – and he did so on at least two occasions: in 1802 and 1812.

As I once explored in some detail for an article in The Word of Fine Wine, Jefferson acquired the vines from a French immigrant named Peter Legaux, who claimed to have propagated ‘plants of the Constantia vine from the Cape of Good Hope’ from a single vine for which he had paid 40 guineas (a considerable sum at the time). According to wine historian Thomas Pinney, Legaux produced his own first six barrels of ‘Constantia’ in 1793 and thereafter ‘sold large quantities of it at premium prices under its attractive foreign name’.

Although Legaux went to his grave in 1827 insisting that his Constantia vine had been genuine, the grapes grown by his many customers, including Jefferson, were eventually found to be a hybrid named Alexander. Still, it’s nice to know that Jefferson at least had the intention of growing some ‘Constantia’ alongside his ‘Burgundy’, ‘Champagne’ and ‘Bordeaux’!

US founding fathers George Washington and John Adams both drank Constantia, the latter with particular relish, while Thomas Jefferson tried to grow ‘Constantia’ at Monticello, his estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.

And if there is no evidence that Jefferson ever drank genuine Constantia, there is consolation in the fact that his presidential predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, both did.

In May 1778, while encamped at Valley Forge as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, fighting for independence from Britain, Washington was sent ‘a small Box Containing one dozen Bottles of Constantia Wine’ by Isaac Gouverneur of Curacao (then a Dutch colony like the Cape) via a merchant (and financier of the revolution) named Robert Morris.

More than 2,500 of his 11,000-strong army may have been dying of starvation and disease, but Washington found time to write to Morris: ‘Your favor of the 9th Inst informed me of the acceptable present which your friend Mr Governeur (of Curracoa) was pleased to intend for me and for which he will through you accept my sincere thanks these are also due to you my good sir, for the kind Communication of the matter, and for the trouble you have had in ordering the Wine forward.’ 

Washington’s eventual successor as US president, John Adams, enjoyed his first (recorded) taste of Constantia on 19 December 1779 while travelling through Spain. His dinner with the Spanish consul, Monsieur De Tournell, featured ‘the greatest Profusion and Variety of Wines I ever saw brought to any table’. In his diary, he recorded: ‘In Addition to the Wines of France, Bourdeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, We had Constantin [sic] and all the best Wines of Spain red and white.’ He noted that the Spanish as well as Irish gentlemen all complimented the consul on ‘the Excellence of his Wines which they pronounced the oldest and best they had ever seen’.

In a separate diary entry for the same event, Adams again listed the wines: ‘We had every Luxury, but the Wines were Bourdeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Sherry, Alicante, Navarre, and Vin de Cap. The most delicious in the World.’

After spending almost a decade in Europe as ambassador to both the Dutch Republic and Britain’s Court of St James’s, Adams must then have been delighted to receive a shipment of Constantia wine from the Dutch bankers, Nicolaas and Jacob van Staphorst of Amsterdam, with whom he had worked to arrange a series of loans to the United States. On 21 August 1788, they wrote a letter informing him that they were sending ‘Two Dozen Bottles Constantia Wine’ as a token of their ‘Remembrance and Esteem’, and he acknowledged receipt of their gift on 2 December 1788: ‘Give me leave to return you my Thanks for the genteel present’.

Needless to say, there would probably be no thanks from the White House should modern producers of Constantia feel inclined to send the present incumbent a similarly ‘genteel present’.

Roll on November 2020…

Gabler, James M: Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson (Bacchus Press, 1995)

Gibson, Joanne: ‘The Cape Grape and the Beginnings of American Viticulture’ in The World of Fine Wine (Issue 42, 2013)

Hailman, John: Thomas Jefferson and Wine (University Press of Mississippi, 2006)

Pinney, Thomas: A History of Wine in America: from beginnings to prohibition (University of California Press, 1989)

  • Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.


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