A Toast to John Adams

ja wineHappy 280th birthday to President John Adams: lawyer, statesman, and…wine connoisseur? He began a crisp New England morning like today with a tankard of hard cider, but Adams’ years in Europe primed his palate for fine French wine.

His appreciation grew with age. Descendant of a Puritan maltster, John cherished rosy memories of visiting the family’s Elm Street malthouse. Later, like many, he became troubled by the effects of popular indulgence in “demon rum” and other distilled spirits. As a young lawyer, the temperance-minded John even (fruitlessly) sought to map out and ban the taverns of native Braintree and neighboring Weymouth, Massachusetts. Few places, he thought, were “so fruitful of destructive Evils” and “likely to become the eternal Haunt, of loose disorderly People.”

Once abroad, dining in Paris and Amsterdam, Adams came to savor the heartiness of a robust red, or the exotic delight of a white Bordeaux. He was new to the world of wine, and his wine habits tell us how American taste changed as revolution segued into republic. There were fits and starts of grape-growing in Pennsylvania and California between 1740 and 1770, but America’s first commercial vineyard did not flourish until 1798. Under the guidance of John Dufour, it had mostly withered away by 1809. In the antebellum period, Adam’s sometimes-friend Thomas Jefferson and others grew fascinated in the agricultural improvements and industrial techniques of wine-making, a popular interest that coexisted in the early republic with the onset of the temperance movement. By 1830, Nicholas Longworth had set the American wine business back in motion, using the Catawba grape to produce a range of popular sparkling wines.

The time he spent in France, reunited with wife Abigail and family, marked one of the happier parts of his diplomatic career, and even the prickly Adams celebrated—in moderation. At Auteuil and later, at the Grosvenor Square legation that doubled as the American minister’s residence and headquarters, John and Abigail served a range of wines that complemented the likes of turtle soup and apple pan dowdy. Good claret also gave Adams a much-needed respite from the coffee-and-tobacco, tea-and-cards-fueled meetings that comprised his diplomatic mission there.

Wine merchants like Anthony Garvey and Jonathan Williams came to know Adams’s tastes.“I have ordered your Bordeaux, so you will soon have some excellent wine to give your friends,” Williams wrote in 1780. “I have been so particular in this, that if you only say, it is as good as any body has, I shall be disappointed, I mean it to be better.” Adams was taken with Bordeaux wines, red and white, and generous in discussing them in his letters. Correspondence shows that he was especially familiar with wines from Château Canon. From a close friend, the Comte de Sarsfield, Adams learned of the nearby St. Emilion Bordeaux: “Mr. Adams knows the wine from Canon and the white wine that Mr. Sarsfield orders for him,” the aspiring philosophe wrote to the American revolutionary. “The Saint-Emilion wine is not as well known as the Canon, but it is less expensive and quite good.”

As America’s difficult peace with Britain took hold, John Adams perceived the importance of the wine trade to the young nation’s future. A perennial fan of Madeira, Adams agreed with Robert R. Livingston, who stated in 1783 “that Madeira, was esteemed above all other wine.” As a beverage for all seasons, Livingston noted “that it was found equally wholesome and agreeable in the heats of Summer, and the Colds of Winter, So that it would probably continue to be preferred, tho there was no doubt that a Variety of French Wines would now be more commonly used than heretofore.” And so, a birthday toast to John Adams!

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