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Wine Won’t Do? Jefferson Declares Cider A Substitute

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Even the most dedicated wine lover gets tired of wine on occasion.  It happened to me recently. Other times you end up in a spot so remote and dry that threw is no wine to go with a meal that badly needs it.  What can the wine less do? Turn to Pepsi?

As in most matters concerning wine, Thomas Jefferson left in his letters some excellent advice. As the great wine lover of the Founding Fathers, and the most-informed president on wine and food generally, Jefferson still speaks with authority.

Late in life, as he neared bankruptcy, Jefferson could no longer afford the fine wines he had enjoyed.  He turned to cider for what he called his “table drink” with meals.  And Jefferson’s cider was no ordinary commercial stuff.

As his overseer Edmund Bacon once complained: “Every March we had to bottle all his cider.  Dear me, this is a job.  It took us two weeks.  Mr. Jefferson was very particular about his cider.  He gave me instructions to have every apple cleaned perfectly clean when it was made.”

Jefferson himself left many letters on cider-making, often noting how he enjoyed a “smart cask of cycler.” One written just before he became president in 1800, said the best cider came from a blend of red Hughes and golden Wilding apples, “pressed immediately upon picking,” and “not overripe.” Seventy bushels made 120 gallons.

Jefferson’s most detailed comments on cider came after his retirement, when he had hoped to enjoy a cellar full of fine wines, but was prevented from doing so by the War of 1812, which stopped imports of his favorite French, Italian and Spanish wines for three years.  In 1814, being left “without a drop of wine,” he wrote to a friend in Philadelphia to describe his favorite cider, saying it had “more body, less acid, and comes nearer to silky champagne than any other.”  Jefferson, who loved wine jargon, could not discuss even cider without sounding like a wine connoisseur.

He complained in 1816 that his cider supplies from Norfolk, Va., had been watered by “rascally boatmen” who drank part of the barrels and refilled them with river water. In the year of his death, 1826, when his finances had cut his consumption of fine wine almost to zero, he was still praising cider in a letter to his granddaughter Ellen, calling one sample “more like wine than any liquor I have ever tasted and was not wine.”

Virginia, like the Pacific Northwest, has long been known for fine apples, including colorful-sounding varieties like “Northern Spy.”  In my experience some of the best cider in the world can still be bought, homemade, along rural Virginia roadsides.

But if you don’t have access to such fine stuff, as I no longer do since my family left Virginia, what is next best? There is much good fresh cider from Normandy, center of France’s cider country, available nationwide in the U.S., and English ciders seem to travel pretty well too.

In Vermont and other New England states, small lots of apple wine still are made.  If you like mild brandy, then Calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy is the best.  To my taste however, cider brandy is to wine brandy as cider vinegar is to wine vinegar: a distant second.

For a table drink, when wine is unavailable or unwanted, my favorite is non-alcoholic, sparkling cider.  The easiest to find is Martinelli from California. It has brightened many a meal for us. If you want to see something in your glass that looks like red wine, a decent substitute is cranberry juice, odd as it sounds. But for taste, good cider preferable.

One 19th century recipe suggested adding beat juice to make “red-wine” cider, but that is a bit much.  The thought alone has revived my interest in wine.

— John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com 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.

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