Like most of the founding fathers, George Washington was a great wine lover, which bears remembering on his birthday. The fact is too little known today because political myth has long required that he be dehumanized into a goody two shoes, which he never was. In spite of stereotypes, Washington’s favorite supper was a bowl of hazelnuts washed down with plenty of claret.
Long before the Revolutionary War made him famous, Washington was ordering German Rhine wine by the case, noting in letters as early as 1759 that his wines should be “secured from pilferers” on the riverboats. He also ordered dozens of cut-glass wine glasses, demanding in practical Washingtonian terms that they be “rather low and strong as well as neat, with broad bottoms that they stand firm on the table.”
Alarmed at the high cost of importing wine before the REvolution, Washington joined Jefferson and the Royal Governor in planting large vineyards of Madeira wine grapes to make good U.S. wines. Frosts, vine diseases and wars halted this project, causing Washington to depend on imported wines throughout his life.
Washington’s early preference was for strong wines from the Adantic island of Madeira, which were taxed less by the English because technically they were from Africa, not Europe. He loved red Bordeaux, and during the war drank it almost exclusively because his French allies insisted on it. His usual custom was to pass around a bowl of nuts at about 9:30 p.m. while his chief aide, Alexander Hamilton, led French and American officers in toasting each other in silver “camp cups” full of claret.
Records reflect that during the war Washington had better wine than even Thomas Jefferson, America’s greatest early wine lover. But letters reflect that Washington gave away much of his Madeira to his wounded soldiers as “the only pain-killer for poor fellows exposed to the weather.” When the war was over, while posted in Europe on diplomatic missions, Jefferson and John Jay sent their boss the finest wines of France, from great Champagnes and Bordeaux to Burgundies.
Late in life, Washington was warned by his physician that his false teeth had been harmed by “too much acid Port,” but he never gave it up, noting to a friend that at Mount Vernon ” a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready” for visitors. Ever thrifty, however, Washington wrote to a servant at about the same time and ordered him not to serve his best wines to the tourists who had already begun to visit, but to “reserve my old Madeira for my own use when I get home.”
Is it possible for us to recreate a scene today that Washington would recognize? Definitely. He would never know the capital city named for him. All the buildings are new, and he never lived in the White House. But if we laid a table with cut-glass decanters and silver wine coasters and coolers, and filled them with fine Champagne and good red Bordeaux like Chateau Lafite or Chateat Rausan, both of which he liked, George Washington would probably feel right at home.
Here’s to you, George.
John Hailman of Oxford will be joining HottyToddy.com as a regular contributor on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories: From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at Ole Miss.