The first American Presidents plant vineyards, promote viticulture and serve Scuppernong wine at the White House
George Washington favored developing viticulture and winemaking in America in the 1760s before our nation was founded. The debate in the Virginia Colony at the time focused on whether to plant vineyards with native grapes or vinifera varieties imported from Europe. According to entries in Washington’s diary dated November 20, 1771, he started planting 29 rows of native “winter grapes” and five rows of native “summer grapes” at Mount Vernon, completing the task in December. However, he was not there for the 1775 harvest because Washington was elected Commander in Chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress in May of that year. He took command of his troops in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3 to fight the British for the next six years.
Thomas Jefferson, a native of the State of Virginia, was President (1801-1809) at a time when winegrowing was just starting to flourish in his state. Jefferson is remembered as “the greatest patron and promoter of American wine for Americans.” His long and distinguished career included the signing of the Declaration of Independence as well as its principal author, serving as governor of Virginia, appointed as the U.S. minister to France (at the time the appointment was known as the U.S. minister to the Court of Versailles), and founder and designer of the University of Virginia. Jefferson served as the minister to France from 1784 to 1789 and it was during those years that his knowledge of winemaking developed by touring wine regions and interviewing the winegrowers in both France and Germany. Jefferson established a fine collection of French wines and declared, “good wine is a daily necessity for me.”
Jefferson planted every available native and vinifera variety at his own estate in Virginia, Monticello, between 1771 and 1822. There is no evidence that he ever made wine himself but he is remembered as the President who hosted dinner parties where each course was paired with wines, mainly from France. He was known for his hospitality and elegance as President from 1801 to 1809. Jefferson established the first wine cellar in the White House and according to the California Wine Advisors (CWA) that wine cellar in the West Wing “held up to 20,000 bottles of wine”.
Jefferson founded the Agriculture Society of Albemarle County in 1817 and contributed a list of “the whole family of grapes” for the Society’s “attention and enquiry” according to wine historian Thomas Pinney,
James Monroe, Secretary of State and President of the United States (1817-1825), “had a fine collection of vines which he selected and brought with him from France with a view to making wine,” according to Thomas Jefferson.
An early American dessert wine served in the White House by many Presidents was made from a grape grown in North Carolina, known as the Scuppernong grape. This grape was a variety of Muscadine or Vitis rotundifolia. It is native to the southeastern and south-central United States. The grapevines are known for producing a high yield. The grapes ripen individually in small loose clusters.
It became a White House tradition to serve Scuppernong wine as a liqueur with dessert on state occasions as “a never-forgotten piece of Presidential etiquette” according to wine historian Thomas Pinney. This tradition was honored during the Presidencies of James Madison (1809-1817), James Monroe (1817-1825), John Quincy Adams (1825-1829), and Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). Scuppernong was the first American wine to be served as an established tradition at the White House. Scuppernong wine continues to be enjoyed in the South as it has for the last 211 years.
Scuppernong Wine made by winemaker and former President Jimmy Carter
A wine historian can never stop looking for untold history. The research of the Wine History Project staff uncovered an interview with former President James Earl Carter Jr. published in Wine Spectator on February 7, 2005. Journalist Ryan Issac interviewed Jimmy Carter who revealed he is a third-generation winemaker. His grandfather had 15 acres of vineyards on his farm in Plains, Georgia and he used the full harvest to make the sweet Scuppernong dessert wine, the first American wine served as a tradition in the White House. His winemaking methods were passed down from his grandfather to Jimmy’s father and later on to Jimmy along with a large number of 5-gallon jugs for wine storage. Jimmy refined his grandfather’s recipe, and eliminated the large amounts of additional sugar added during fermentation. He developed a dry Scuppernong wine. About 75 per cent of his production is red wine and the rest is white, which requires much more skill to make. Every five years he bottles, rather than “jugs” the wine, giving gifts to friends and family as well as auctioning Scuppernong wine to benefit his non-profit, the Carter Center.
Ryan Isaacs asked President Carter what grapes he uses and received the following answer. “I just use local Scuppernong grapes and Muscadine grapes. I never have had regular vintners’ grapes. I generally get my children and grandchildren to come down to Plains, usually in August, and we go out into the local vineyards and pick around 50 gallons of grapes. I’ve got an ancient wine press – probably about 250 years old – that someone gave to me, and I’ve made the rest of my equipment myself.”
President Carter made some major changes in White House traditions during his administration. He tells journalist Ryan Issacs, “We made one major change when I reached the White House that caused a lot of controversy. We stopped serving hard liquor in the White House – which had been standard practice for my predecessors. And in that decision we saved about $1 million a year for White House meal expenses, but we did serve wine. We served very good wine. It was all domestic wine. I guess, at that time, in the beginning we got maybe two-thirds of it from California and the other third from New York state. Eventually, I think we ended up about 50-50.” The Wine History Project has not been able to identify any local wines served at the White House during his administration.
President James Earl Carter Junior and First Lady Rosalynn served from January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981. He was born in 1924 and is the oldest living President, a farmer and a major philanthropist.