by Anthony Enright
It’s that time again America – time for the annual celebration of blowing up small rocket propelled incendiaries while grilling and drinking beer. But why beer? Mostly because the land of advertising seems intent on convincing the masses that beer is America’s drink of choice. What could possibly be more patriotic than cracking open a cold Budweiser to celebrate the independence of our country from the tyranny of English overlords? (Come on, it has a flag right on the can!)
Not to sound like a snob, but I think nearly anything you can crack open would be a better choice, and I swear I’m not the only one who does. You may be shocked to learn that the founders of this country were not necessarily ale drinking plebes, but rather aficionados of fine wines, many of which came directly from – wait for it – France. (I know, it’s shocking – don’t tell the Tea Party.) In fact, though the tastes of most early Americans tended toward sweet fortified wines such as port, sherry and Madeira (likely because they were more stable when shipped long distances) founding father Thomas Jefferson was a tireless activist for the fine dry wines of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, serving them in great variety at his Monticello estate dinners for the most prominent early Americans.
Jefferson’s passion was clear in the countless letters to importation agents in Europe where his orders for recognizable and sought after wines were complimented by interests in more common or esoteric regions. Here’s a quote regarding his Italian shipment from 1805: “For the present I confine myself to the physical want of some good Montepulciano…this being a very favorite wine, and habit having rendered the light and high flavored wines a necessary of life with me. It was most superlatively good.” Another quote is regarding the white wines of the Northern Rhone: “The fine wines of your region of country are not forgotten, nor the friend thro’ whom I used to obtain them. And first the white Hermitage of M. Jourdan of Tains, of the quality having ‘un peu de la liqueur’ as he expressed, which we call silky, soft, smooth, in contradistinction to the dry, hard or rough. What I had from M. Jourdan of this quality was barely a little sweetish, so as to be sensible and no more, and this is exactly the quality I esteem.” The range and exploratory nature of Jefferson’s tastes mirrored the intellectual curiosity characteristic of America’s founding fathers. He was always on the lookout for the best, and though he certainly collected some of the prestige wines of the times, it’s his willingness to push out from those obvious boundaries and try the less celebrated corners of the wine world of the time that most impresses me. Some of Jefferson’s favorite old world wines are represented below.
In addition to a highly evolved appreciation of fine wines, Jefferson advocated for the planting of vineyards in the new world in an attempt to bring a wine culture and industry to America. He was successful in producing good wines at his own estate, though it took a until the late 20th century for America’s wine culture to really come into its own and begin to rival the classic wines of Europe. Nevertheless, Jefferson can rightly be called the founding father of America’s wine industry.
So what have we learned here? Well, I think it’s only right if this Independence Day rather than cracking open a beer, we celebrate America by quaffing a glass of wine on the 4th. Jefferson would be shocked and impressed by the quality, diversity and range of wines being made in his beloved America and no doubt pleased by the democratically affordable quality of so much of that production. Below are a few suggestions for affordable, easy to find and crowd pleasing American wines that will compliment your Independence Day BBQ or whatever else you have planned for the 4th.
Monterey County Chardonnay
A crowd pleasing white if ever there was one, this Chardonnay is slightly sweet and rich but not at all oaky and has enough mineral and acidity to keep it light and fresh. This baby goes with everything and is easy to find nearly anywhere, which makes it sound kind of slutty but in a good way.
Sonoma Coast (or County) Pinot Noir
I’m partial to this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as I believe it has a lightness that too many California Pinot Noirs are lacking. The Sonoma County version from Sebastiani is equally fine with a bit more weight and black cherry and herb flavors that should work well with most foods and be enjoyed by even wine novices. It’s a sophisticated option to bring to the family picnic – just don’t let your aunt add 7UP to it!
Old Vine Zinfandel
This rich and spicy wine has enough grip to take on tangy barbecue or grilled burgers. It has enough fruit to keep the crowd happy and is a brawny, smoky joy to drink. It’s the essence of America, wild, untamed and loud with a hint of class (but not too much).