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What could Jefferson buy today?

What was US president Thomas Jefferson stocking his cellar with and what would his budget buy him today?

It was recently revealed that The New York Public Library had digitised some of US president Thomas Jefferson’s accounts – including some of his wine purchases in the early years of his presidency.

A well known Franco- and oenophile, the list made for fascinating reading as well as demonstrating the variety and volume of wine the US’s third president had in his cellar.

There were orders for several hundred bottles of Champagne at a time (not surprisingly given 153 bottles broke in one consignment), as well as whole pies of Sherry and Madeira and cases of fine claret, Burgundy, Tokaji and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano.

The accounts show that over the course of one year, from 4 March 1802 to 4 March 1803 he spent US$1,296.63 on wine, which in modern dollar terms is about $28,000.

Naturally, when confronted with data showing Rauzan-Ségla (referred to as “Rozan”) being sold in the US in 1804 at US$1 a bottle (duty and shipping costs included too), the temptation is too strong to begin wondering what fine wines Jefferson could spend his money on today.

Converting historical amounts to modern figures can be an imprecise business so the prices given are slightly approximate. For the purposes of this piece the prices have been calculated using measuring Prices have then been compared to the cost of a “commodity” relative to the “real price” today.

The “real price” uses the percentage increase in the US consumer price index which is measured using the relative cost of a (fixed over time) bundle of goods.

1801: A pipe of ‘Brazil’ Madeira – $350

Madeira was the wine of the American colonies. It was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to christen the USS Constitution and some of the best and oldest Madeira collections in the world still exist in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Being a Virginian it was, naturally, a favourite of Jefferson. In fact, over the course of 1801 he bought a total of five pipes of Madeira from wine merchants Taylor & Newton for the princely sum of $1,750 or $33,600 in today’s money.

Clearly five pipes was enough because he doesn’t appear to have replenished his supplies until 1804 when he bought another pipe from Taylor for the slightly increased price of $354.07 ($7,340).

Intriguingly, what he means by “Brazil” Madeira is not known precisely. Madeira historian, Mannie Berk, told the drinks business it was certainly “not a usual description” for Madeira at this time.

Which means, of course, it’s a very specific type of Madeira. But what? Berk and another fortified wine expert, Richard Mayson, suggest the most likely explanation is that it refers to a ‘vinhos da roda’ Madeira – a wine that had been on a voyage to the tropics and (most likely) passed through Brazil on its way to America.

Berk suggests that other possibilities might include wine aged in wood from Brazil or perhaps a certain type of Madeira popular in the country; there are certainly records from the 18th century of Madeira for sale in the US that has been sourced from cellars in Brazil.

Another US wine historian, Aaron Nix-Gomez, has suggested that the use of some sort of Brazilian wood for colouring the wine could be another explanation, as the colour of Madeira was considered very important at this time, so it may be a stylistic preference.

All three however tend towards the idea that it means the wine came into contact with Brazil in some way on its voyage before landing in the US.

Certainly by the time of Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, “Brazil” Madeira was a recognised style and indicator of quality.

Wine merchant Thomas Newton wrote once to Madison that he had in stock: “Brazil Quality & London Particular, from a Portugeze house; who ships my wine for drinking, the Brasil kind is superior to any other sent here & such as is seldom imported”.

All that aside, it was certainly rather more expensive than the price of more regular Madeira being shipped to the Americas at this time.

A minute from the annals of congress in 1789 discussing wine duty notes that the cost of a pipe of Madeira was $200. Even allowing for a bit of inflation the fact that Jefferson’s “Brazil” was $150 more expensive suggests quality and rarity were at play.

A note must also be made on the size of the ‘pipes’ that Jefferson is referring to. Modern pipes (or ‘drums’) of Port and Madeira are generally 650 litres in size when stored but are rarely, if ever, sold as a whole like that anymore.

As will be seen in the next slide relating to Sherry, Jefferson notes a pipe of Pedro Ximenez he bought in 1801 was 126 gallons in size*.

He is, therefore, referring very likely referring to a pipe in a sense that would have been understood as far back as the 15th century – a pipe being the half a 252 gallon ‘tun’. A 126 gallon pipe in this instance refers to a measurement of 475-480 litres.

To complicate matters, however, when Madeira was shipped at this time, it was shipped in pipes of 110 gallons.

That said, any which way you look at it it’s a lot of Madeira.


$350 today is the equivalent of $6,730 and that is no small amount to spend on Madeira which, like most fortified wines, represents one of the wine world’s best value buys. He might even be able to buy the better part of a pipe today; IF, that is, he could find someone to sell him that much in bulk which is unlikely.

Considering the cost of Madeira today, some bottles from Jefferson’s own time go on sale today for £2,000 a bottle at most so Jefferson could pick up a couple of bottles from the 1790s or 1800s for nostalgia’s sake. As he was such a fan of the stuff though he might want a little more.

Good Bual Madeira from the 1950s and 1960s can be found for a couple of hundred dollars a bottle, so a good 20 bottles at $300 a pop might be an option.

Berk makes one final observation on the age of the Madeira would have drunk: “The wine that Jefferson would have been ordering would have been far younger than 50 years old. Typically wine was shipped within two or three years of the harvest, and even an ‘old’ wine might have been only four to seven years old.”

If we plump therefore for Blandy’s ‘Single Harvest Malmsey’ available for an average $26 apiece, Jefferson could stock up on over 250 bottles which should be enough to keep him busy for a while.

*at this time both Britain and the US used the same measurement systems as laid down by Queen Anne in 1707 and which were, anyway, largely an affirmation of systems of measurement in use since the Middle Ages.

1802: A pipe of 10 year-old Sherry – $188

Jefferson does not seem to have drunk much Spanish wine (although his accounts do note 60 gallons of 45 year-old “Malaca”) but he adored Sherry. His chief supplier were father and son duo, Joseph Yznardi,Sr and Jnr, who were from a mercantile family in Cadiz and who both acted as American consuls in the city at various points.

Their access to Sherry certainly did their prospects of advancement no harm.

In 1803 Jefferson wrote to Yznardi that: “Among the wines you were so kind as to furnish me, the one called in your letter Xeres sin color (pale sherry) has most particularly attached my taste to it. I now drink nothing else, and am apprehensive that if I should in the means of getting it, it will be a privitation which I shall feel sensibly once a day. Send me annually a pipe of it, old and fine.”

Jefferson acquired one pipe of Pedro Ximenez from Yznardi on 20 May 1801 for $252. He noted it amounted to 126 gallons (see previous page) so cost $2 a gallon. He adds that in July 1803 424 bottles of it were sent to his country estate of Monticiello in Virginia.

‘Butt’ and ‘puncheon’ are more usual terms for Sherry casks but it’s worth noting that as Jefferson was using ‘old’ terms, a pipe and a butt at this time to English speakers referred to exactly the same volume of liquid – 126 gallons.

In the same order he also bought a keg of “Pacharetti doux” – which was his way of spelling “Parajete” or “Paxarette”, another style of sweet Sherry (typically used as a bulk wine for adding sweetness or colour) that came from a Carthusian monastery near Jerez and Arcos de la Frontera.

In 1802 his Sherry buying amounted to:

  • A pipe of dry “Pacharetti” – $202
  • A pipe of Sherry of “London quality”, 10 –years-old -$188
  • Half a pipe of Sherry of “a different quality” (with 278 bottles sent to Monticiello in February 1803) – $94
  • Half a pipe of “white” Sherry – $84

In December 1803 he acquired another butt of pale Sherry for $194.85 and in 1804 another pipe of dry “Pacharetti” for $194.85.


Jefferson’s pipe translates to $4,290 today. Barbadillo’s Tim Holt notes that a 10 year old Oloroso today would sell in the US for $20-$25 a bottle. On that basis Jefferson would be able to buy 170-210 bottles. No mean amount.

That same wine sold in bulk would cost around $10 a litre ex-cellar. With his ‘pipe’ amounting to 480 litres, at $4,800 it would not quite be possible to buy quite the same volume now for the same price.

Yet this only considers sheer volume. Experienced Sherry lovers will now that with a few thousand dollars it’s more than possible to buy superb quality wine and in fairly generous doses.

1803: 400 bottles of Champagne d’Aÿ – $406.14

Clearly not a believer in doing things by halves, on 1 December 1803 Jefferson’s notes make reference to 400 bottles of Champagne.

What’s particularly interesting in this case is not only that he explicitly states it comes from Aÿ but he also that 153 bottles broke.

Exactly a year earlier he’d bought 100 bottles of Champagne and yet another 400 bottles in July 1804.

His 400 bottles of Aÿ fizz cost him around $406.14, what about now?


When posing this question to auction house Zachys, the answer came back that with $8,780 (you guessed it, the modern equivalent of $406.14) to spend on Champagne, “Jefferson could do some serious damage.”

As with the Sherry before, the decision here comes down to quality or quantity.

Zachys noted that two bottles of 1969 Salon recently sold at one of its auctions for $5,635, so Jefferson could happily buy three and even have a little spare change.

Liv-ex on the other hand suggested that Salon 1997 is currently trading at around $2,000 for a case of six. Jefferson could buy four cases. He could buy four or five 12-bottle cases of 2000 Dom Pérignon for roughly the same price.

Or perhaps he’d prefer a smart grower, in which case he could buy nearly six full cases of Jacques Selosse’s 2000 Blanc de Blancs.

1803: 100 bottles of Chambertin – $77.86

Part of the same order as the Aÿ Champagne, the one and only reference to Burgundy – in the notes being considered here – is to Chambertin.

Jefferson picked up 100 bottles for the modern equivalent of $1,680. Unlike the Sherry and Madeira, this is where the president’s historical buying power begins to weaken.

Vosne-Romanée and its climats and crus may represent the pinnacle of Burgundy’s high prices but Chambertin isn’t far behind.

One of Gevrey-Chambertin’s leading estates of the moment is that of Armand Rousseau.


With only $1,680 to play with the upper most peaks of Burgundy and largely out of Jefferson’s reach. The 2013 Armand Rousseau Chambertin is on the market today for just over $1,000 a bottle and the situation is no better when looking at Rousseau’s Clos de Bèze either.

Liv-ex rides to the rescue though, suggesting a case of Jean Grivot’s 2004 Clos Vougeot and a further six bottles of 2006 Corton Charlemagne from Bonneau Martray.

Burgundy is probably the only fine wine region where Jefferson could certainly buy quality but nowhere near the quantity he could still get elsewhere.

1803: 138 bottles of Tuscan wines – $33.17

Jefferson was clearly not the first fine wine buyer to see the value of fine Italian wine and his taste for it was somewhat ahead of his time.

The demand for Italian wine asks for bottles “from Florence” with an added stipulation that 123 of them be “Montepulciano”, which suggests they were the Sangiovese-based Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Jefferson was partial to wines from Piedmont as well, with one letter from 1807 mentioning he was waiting on some wine he had bought from the “Leghorn” (Langhe?) made from “Nebioule” – which needs no introduction.

Montepulciano was clearly a favourite however. On 29 April 1806 he wrote to his contact in Italy, a Mr Appleton, that he had received 473 bottles the previous November and that it was the “best I have ever yet received”. It apparently came from an estate run by “antient Jesuits” and he asked that 400 bottles a year be sent to him each September or early October “in strong bottles” – not in cask which would be more usual.

In another note from 26 October 1806 he wrote again to Appleton to ask if he received his letter in April and that the next 400 bottles from the “antient Jesuits” were on their way. He mentioned again the 473 bottles of Montepulciano he had received in November 1805 – which he had apparently finished and found that only three or four bottles had spoiled.

A mere $33.17 or $687 to us for that quantity of wine is not bad at all but unless he was to buy wine costing $5 a bottle he wouldn’t be able to buy quite that quantity today.


The price Jefferson paid in 1803 doesn’t give him that large a budget today, just $687.

Now, that amount split over 138 bottles amounts to a little under $5 a bottle. Arguably in Italy it would be perfectly possible to buy that volume in bulk for that price.

But what of fine wine? Full cases of Super Tuscans would be tricky but a half case of Tignanello or Sassicaia would be within reach (plus change).

Likewise, bearing in mind his appreciation of Piedmont, a half dozen bottles from Giacomo Conterno Barolo might be in order and a full case – possibly even two – of the Barbera d’Alba would also be doable.

To get the best balance of quality and quantity, Tuscany and Sicily probably present the best options.

1804: 36 bottles of Tokay – $119.16

Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

On 28 November 1804, Jefferson bought a sizeable amount of Hungarian wine from Erich Bollman – who would later be indicted for his part in the ‘Burr Conspiracy’.

Again, letters show that Jefferson became very partial to both dry and sweet Hungarian wine.

The bulk of the wine in the order, 240 bottles, was priced at $1,70 p/b and another 12 bottles referred to only as “other wines” cost $4.36 each which were the most expensive, making their anonymity all the more frustrating.

Mentioned unambiguously though is “Tokay”, 36 bottles priced at $3.31 apiece.

Vinum regnum, roi des vins” and all that as Louis XIV and XV had so memorably termed it, Tokaji was among the most expensive wine Jefferson ever bought.

Consider, briefly, that the Sherry and Madeira he liked so much came in at a few dollars per gallon, the Chambertin just a few cents a bottle. The Rauzan-Ségla we shall see later was reasonably more expensive at $1 a bottle but the Tokaji is a heady $3!


This fabulously extravagant buy would have cost him $2,470 today, which doesn’t seem quite so much but in fact would still buy him a sizeable amount of Tokaji.

With a bottle of five puttonyos Tokaji Aszu, even with a bit of age, retailing in the US for around $42-$44 a bottle, 36 bottles would cost around $1,500.

1803: 50 bottles of white Hermitage – $45.80

The river Rhône from the top of the Hermitage hill

Jefferson was something of a fan of this white Rhône, considering (along with Champagne) one of the best white wines of France. He also loved the view from the top of the hill of Hermitage and often recommended it to friends.

Another note of his records how only three of the hills around Tains produced wines “of the first quality and of these the middle regions only.”

White Hermitage at the time was often made rather sweet, while another style was made fully sweet.

Jefferson seemed to prefer the more intermediate style but he did not like it too dry and when, around 1807, his regular supplier, the Jourdan family, began to pursue a drier style he, no doubt sadly, began buying less.

Interestingly, in a letter of 1807 he says that the white Hermitage he last received was “dry and hard, more resembling Sauterne or Barsac.”

The bottles were bought at 91½ cents a bottle with duty and freight costs included, which is a bargain really.


Rhône, particularly white Rhône, continues to be well-priced in most cases. $45.80 in 1803 would be the equivalent of $990 now.

It would be relatively straightforward to buy a good chunk of top Rhône with that budget even if 50 bottles might be a bit of a stretch.

At the upper end of the spectrum, six bottles of Janasse’s 2009 Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf du Pape has a growing rate of $942

For example, two cases of 2012 Saint Joseph from Dard & Ribo would cost $824 according to the average list price on Liv-ex.

If it didn’t have to be white Rhône then two cases of 2012 Crozes Hermitage from the same producer would cost $900 or two dozen of the 2011 for $692.

You could buy one case of Guigal’s Côte Rôtie Ampuis from every vintage dating back to 2004 with the exception of the 2010.

Or perhaps a couple of cases of Guigal’s Hermitage blanc, the 2007 is on the market for $375 a case.

If you wanted to outdo Jefferson for quantity then you could always buy nine cases of Chapoutier’s 2000 Crozes Hermitage, Petite Ruche (blanc) at $103 a case.

1803: 150 bottles of Rozan-Margaux – $150

Rauzan-Ségla at $1 a bottle? Duty paid? Oh to live in the 19th century, you couldn’t quibble about buying en primeur then.

“Rozan-Margaux” as Jefferson refers to it is indeed the Margaux-based second growth. Again, we have correspondence between Jefferson and the château’s owner, Marie-Anne de Rauzan, dating from September 1790 when he ordered 10 cases (of 12).


In modern currency Jefferson’s purchase of 150 bottles – or 12 and a half cases – in 1803 cost him $3,240.

As the average price of Rauzan-Ségla is €55.7 p/b or €668.4, with the current euro exchange rate to the dollar Jefferson would be able to buy a little over four cases today – a third of what he bought over 200 years ago.

You could get a better deal if you were more vintage-specific however. The best current list price of the 2014 Rauzan-Ségla is $543 per dozen (as of 9 May). So one could buy five cases with change, the equivalent of 60 bottles. That, though, is probably the best you could do.

Looking around a bit, a $3,000 budget would buy one a nice trio of aged claret. Liv-ex recommends a case of 2011 Pavie, a case of 2004 Gruaud Larose and another dozen of 2008 Grand-Puy-Lacoste.

1804: 36 bottles of ’98 Margaux – $252

Château Margaux

In 1804 Jefferson paid the equivalent of $5,220 for three cases of 1798 Château Margaux – which was widely recognised at the time as a great vintage.

Château Margaux itself was recognised by Jefferson, who visited in 1787, as a vineyard of “first quality”.

How much Margaux would $5,000 buy you today?


Well, if he wished to buy the modern equivalent of the ’98 (1998), the best list price on Liv-ex is $4,624 (as of 25 April) so he could buy one case with change.

In 1804 of course the 1798 vintage was six years old. What vintage is six years old today? None other than the (in)famous 2010, one of the most expensive Bordeaux vintages ever.

Even though the price of 2010 Margaux has tumbled over 40% since its peak, a case still costs upwards of $7,800 so rather out of Jefferson’s budget.

He could, however, buy a half case which trades for the more affordable sum of $3,891.

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