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20 November 2015

"The Tokay is much more superior to what you sent me last year under that name" – Thomas Jefferson and His Hungarian Wines

Thomas Jefferson and His Hungarian Wines: Study of an Attitude1

Jefferson was an ardent patron of American viticulture. As an admirer of any kind of good quality wine, he purchased an enormous quantity from the wine producing countries of Europe: France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany. It is not so widely known that he also had Hungarian wines in the cellar of his beloved Monticello. In this essay I will investigate the problems of how, when and why the third president of the United States felt the need to purchase wines from such a distant and, from the American perspective, relatively unknown land.

The first reference to a Hungarian grape appeared in his correspondence in the autumn of 1793. At that time one of his friends, Benjamin Hawkins sent him “some grape vines” from North Carolina. Hawkins enumerated six different European and native cuttings in his letter and among them he mentioned as “No. 5 Tokay”. This simple word is very important from our point of view since this represents the first documented proof of Jefferson’s encounter with a Hungarian grape. Unfortunately, we do not know if he was aware of the origin of the Tokay grape or not. Eighteenth century North American vine-growers knew Hungary as a wine producing country, particularly as the home of Tokay wine. Hungarian vine cuttings could also apparently reach the shores of the mainland British colonies.2

Nevertheless, Benjamin Hawkins did not feel it necessary to enclose any comment about the grape. Consequently, we could presume with good reason that Jefferson already had some knowledge of the Tokay. Many of the vine-growing pioneers in the United States were recent immigrants, who arrived from Europe at the same time that the fame of Hungarian Tokay wine was conquering the royal courts of the Old Continent. Jefferson as the minister plenipotentiary of the United States resided at the French court between 1784 and 1789, where the most fashionable courtiers and opinion formers were charmed by the sweet Tokay. Jefferson was introduced in the best houses of the French capital and was acquainted not only with some of the leading enlightened intellectuals, but also with prominent vine- growers. Under these circumstances Jefferson undoubtedly obtained knowledge of Hungarian wines though this cannot be documented.

Either at the end of 1802 or in the first weeks of 1803 Thomas Jefferson, the President of the United States, received a box of Hungarian wines from Mr Blicher P. Olsen, the minister of his Danish majesty in Washington. At this time he was surely aware of the origin of the wines. The exact date of the presentation and the reason for the gift are unclear. We can only speculate that it was a gesture on the part of the diplomat in order to remedy an uncomfortable incident. Alexander Bölöni Farkas, a Hungarian nobleman who visited the United States in 1831, mentioned in his book an interesting anecdote about the Danish minister’s first visit to the presidential mansion. After his arrival in the United States Mr Olsen learned that the president was always available at two o’clock. He visited Jefferson,

who engaged him in such an amiable and interesting conversation that a whole hour went by before the minister realised that his visit had lasted long. Finally when the conservation began to lag, the diplomat was waiting for the signal of dismissal. It seemed that the president also wished to terminate the audience. The minister kept waiting for the signal, but could not notice any and he knew that he had overstayed his welcome. Yet he was afraid of the grave violation of decorum to leave without the signal and his anxiety grew. Dinnertime came and the minister became even more embarrassed when Mr Jefferson asked him if he would partake in his modest meal. He stood up, muttered some excuse, and with that he left.3

Mr Olsen was not aware of the moderate republican etiquette Jefferson introduced in Washington. He apologised for his lengthy visit at a dinner party a little bit later, and he wrote to Jefferson on 22 December 1802 that “[t]he emotion your extraordinary goodness and offer have produced on me, is so strong to allow me at the present moment any other expression but that of admiration and gratitude. I respectfully accept and thanks. Yours very humble and obedient servant.”4  On the basis of this letter we could not preclude the possibility that Olsen tried to conciliate the president with the gesture of sending him the Hungarian wines, since he probably knew of Jefferson’s affection for good quality wines.

In his letter of 21 January to Olsen, the president simply stated that he received a box containing 12 bottles, and he supposed that this was the Tokay [emphasis added] that Mr Olsen had promised to be so kind as to send him. Mr Olsen answered the next day. He confirmed that he had sent the box that

contains 12 bottles of Hungarian wine – three large, with a piece of white tape tied round the neck, are a dry wine [emphasis added], from upper Hungaria of very superior quality three other large, without tape a wine from the same country as commonly drunk at table [emphasis added] – and 6 small ones with two kinds of Tokay – perhaps too rich and luscious for the taste of the country in general.5

Mr Olsen specified a Mr Bollman as the source of the Hungarian wines. He did not go into details because the name of Bollman was quite well-known in the United States at that time and Jefferson already knew him.6 The president wrote a letter to Bollman on 6 February without hesitation. He described to Bollman not only the bottles (he even enclosed a sketch of them) but gave a detailed account of the taste of the wines. He characterised one of them as “a gentle sweet wine”, the other as dry wine” and the third as “silky”. Jefferson asked for a catalogue and even offered to send back to Bollman the bottle of the wine he preferred most, so that he could order exactly the same.7

Bollman answered only on 28 February. He informed the president about some basic characteristics of the famous Tokay “which never shines completely on account of its richness”. He wrote that unfortunately he had only “one unopened box of the wine [i.e. the one Jefferson preferred the most] containing twelve bottles”, but he will “forward it to Washington by water with the first opportunity”.8

What could we say about the types of the above mentioned Hungarian wines at this point? The Danish minister sent three kinds of wines to Jefferson. One of them was in large bottles, “with a piece of white tape tied round the neck”, a dry wine from “upper Hungaria”. The president characterised this wine as “silky”. The second was also in large bottles, but without tape, and was “commonly drunk at table”. Jefferson called it a “gentle sweet wine”. In the remaining six bottles there were two kinds of Tokays, but unfortunately we know nothing about the possible differences between them. It is quite clear that Jefferson preferred the first one, since he sent back its bottle to Bollman, who also contrasted the wine in the bottle sent back by Jefferson with the Tokays, and we can conclude that the choice of the president fell on the first dry wine from “upper Hungaria”. Jefferson did not prefer the sweet and rich wines, and Mr Olsen also warned him that the Tokays are “perhaps too rich and luscious for the taste of the country in general”. No wonder that it was not the “two kinds of Tokay” or the “gentle sweet wine” that attracted the third president of the United States.9

Thomas Jefferson was so deeply impressed by the Hungarian wines that he clearly expressed his impatience in his next letter when he had received only Bollman’s letter, but not the promised box of wines. Nevertheless, he asked the German adventurer to “import for [him] some bottles of the same quality”, and he also asked him to try to find out “the particular names or the particular place of growth of Hungarian wines”.10

Bollman answered on 3 April. He assured the president that he had forwarded the box to Washington and that he will order the required wine for him. He also explained to Jefferson that unfortunately “it is not in my power to inform your Excellency by which particular name this wine is designated and which is the place of its growth”, but he said he would ask his agent in Europe. He informed the president that “the navigation of the Danube is not open, for otherwise these wines, as well as many valuable products and manufactures of Hungary and Austria might be imported in this country by way of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean at very modest prices, but I think it is not possible that the Turks will be soon obliged to change their policy or to quit Europe.”11

The bargain was concluded and the subject of the Hungarian wines appeared again in the correspondence of the two men more than a year later, when the Hungarian wines arrived in the States in October 1804. Bollman explained the reasons of the delay to the president in his letter of 10 October: “My friends near the frontier of Hungary knowing the severe cold sometimes injurious to the wines of that country I did not like to forward the parcel ordered by your Excellency until last spring.” Some additional difficulties arose also in Hamburg, but after all,

The wines now safely come in hand in twenty-four boxes containing as follows: 20 boxes of one dozen bottles each, is 240 bottles of the wines of your choice. 3 boxes of one dozen each, is thirty-six bottles Tokay. One box with twelve bottles of various sorts of Hungary Wines of superior quality, under the name of vino de liqueur.

Bollman deemed it advisable to make a short comment on the price: “The wines though purchased on the lowest terms […] are somewhat dearer than I could have wished.” As a good merchant, he attributed the higher prices to the large distance, the difficulties of the transportation and the disadvantageous rates of exchange in Hamburg. The German merchant also added that “the four boxes – including Tokay – which are higher priced, bring curiosity in this country”. The Hungarian wines were bottled in larger bottles than the usual French or Spanish wines of the president. Bollman naturally knew Jefferson’s preference for and love of curiosities, especially in respect of wines.

He did not forget the president’s questions regarding the origins of the Hungarian wines. As he wrote it to Jefferson:

The House which supplies me with these wines […] has been neglectful in not replying [to] some of your particular questions relative to the precise place of the growth of these wines, and the names they are designated by in Hungary, but I shall repeat my inquiries on these points.”12

Thomas Jefferson replied immediately on 17 October: “I am glad to hear of the arrival of the wine.” He lamented for a moment on the higher prices though:

The price per bottle is higher indeed than you have expected; but taking size and quality into consideration it comes welcome. The other kinds of wine being sweet, are not to the taste of this country, and being so high priced are less desirable. But I have no hesitation at relieving you from them. On any subsequent demand we must caution then not to send what is not ordered. If you will be so good as to send the wines by the first vessel [emphasis added] bound to Alexandria, Georgetown or Washington.

He also asked Bollman “if you could advise me how my friend in Hamburg should address himself to obtain the wine of the quality I had chosen. I should deem it a favour merely as it would enable me to get it through another channel in the event of any accident to you, or it’s being out of your line of business.”13

We could come to several conclusions from this last passage. First, it seems clear that Jefferson planned to import more Hungarian wines. Second, he probably intended to get the importation under his own control in order to secure safe shipment.

In all likelihood the wines arrived in Washington on 28 November. Later Jefferson inscribed a list of the “wine provided at Washington” between May 1801 and April 1808 into the empty space after the 1803 entries in his account book. He included in this list the Hungarian wines on the above mentioned date as follows:


bottles of Hungary wine



do. Tokay

3.31 from Bollman 546.43


do. Other wines


It is certain that when the president entertained at his table two Federalist senators and eight members of the House on 3 December, the Hungarian wines were served up. According to the memorandum of William Plumer, a senator from New Hampshire, “His dinner was elegant & rich – his wines very good – there were eight different kinds of which there were rich Hungary, & still richer Tokay – for this last he informed me that he gave a guinea a bottle [little more than a quart]”.14

He possibly transferred the money for the wines to Bollman on 6 December, since he reported to the merchant the arrival of the wines, and also made an entry in his account book on that day.15  It is quite interesting that if we sum up the figures given on the list above, the grand total should be 579 dollars and 79 cents instead of 546 dollars 43 cents. Unfortunately we do not know the reason for the difference and it does not come to light in the correspondence of the two men. The Hungarian wines were really high priced even for Jefferson, who spent more than 8,000 dollars on wine during just his first term as president. The Hungarian wines represented some 6% of his total wine expenditures: he purchased them at the highest price per bottle he ever paid for wine. Probably this is one of the reasons why he was so proud of his Hungarian curiosities as his conversation with Senator Plumer clearly reveals.

Nevertheless, Hungarian wines “prove to be very good […] that of the largest quantity answers in quality to what we had last year. The Tokay is much more superior to what you sent me last year under that name. It is a great pity the wine of the large parcel was so dear. It is very much esteemed by all who drink it and preferred to all others. It comes dearer than you imagined.”16

It is not easy to identify Jefferson’s Hungarian wines. The president liked all Hungarian wines, but he preferred some more than others. As we have seen in the case of the box he received from the Danish minister, there were three bottles of “dry wine from upper Hungaria of very superior quality”, three bottles of “wine from the same country as commonly drunk at table”, and six bottles of “two kinds of rich and luscious Tokay”. At that time, Jefferson clearly preferred the first one and he ordered this wine from Bollman. It means that the 240 bottles of the second transport came from this type. 36 bottles of the remaining 48 bottles were Tokay and the rest was the wine “under the name of vino de liqueur. There were some differences between the wines of the first and the second transport and we can observe a corresponding change in Jefferson’s attitude towards the different Hungarian wines. As we have pointed out, he was quite satisfied with the wine originally ordered by him, since “the largest quantity answers in quality to what we had last year”. But his opinion definitely changed about the Tokay, which was “much more superior to what you sent me the last year under that name”. And the “superior quality wine under the name of vino de liqueur” made a decisive impression on him, since “it is very much esteemed by all who drink it and preferred to all others”.

We know only about the dry wine ordered by the president that it came from “upper Hungaria”. The term “upper Hungaria” was used by the Danish minister so we do not know exactly what he meant. Probably he obtained the information from Bollman, who had “friends near the frontier of Hungary” and these friends possibly had clearer knowledge about the geography of the country. According to the contemporary usage of the term, “upper Hungaria” referred to the northern, hilly regions of the historical Hungarian Kingdom, which territories are largely the parts of present-day Slovakia. At that time two vine growing regions were traditionally regarded as parts of “upper Hungaria”: Pozsony (present day Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) and Tokaj-Hegyalja. It is unquestionable that Jefferson purchased Tokay wines from the Tokaj-Hegyalja district. Since the wines of this region were much more superior in quality and since these wines were better known outside the borders of Hungary it is highly probable that Jefferson’s other Hungarian wines also came from this region.

It is relatively easy to identify Jefferson’s Tokay wines. Outside Hungary this name referred not to all the wines of the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, but only to a very special type called in Hungarian tokaji aszú. In eighteenth-century Europe the Tokay was equivalent to the tokaji aszú. Consequently, it is very likely that the two kinds of Tokay sent by Olsen should be different puttonyos aszús. Probably this is also true for the Tokays of the second shipment. The wine compared to the vino de liqueur and mentioned last by Bollman should be a strong, sweet and rich wine, since the vin de liqueur is a special wine made in France by the adding of grape spirit to grape juice. As a consequence, this wine of Jefferson’s is probably a very strong and sweet 5 or 6 puttonyos tokaji aszú, while the remaining 36 bottles of Tokay should be 3 or 4 puttonyos aszú (the number of puttonyos being an indication of the sweetness of the aszú wine).

It is much more difficult to identify Jefferson’s other Hungarian wines. Jefferson called the dry wine from upper Hungaria a silky” one. If we accept the supposition that this wine also came from the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, then this should be the so-called vinum ordinarium (ordinary wine). As a matter of fact, very good wines were made in the region from grapes unaffected by the noble rot. The name vinum ordinarium referred simply to the differences of the wine-producing method from the very special techniques of the aszú and not to the quality. These were mainly good quality dry or sweet wines. According to István Bartha, in the first decades of the nineteenth century almost two thirds of the wines exported from the Tokaj- Hegyalja region were vinum ordinarium and approximately one third of it was aszú and a small quantity of other wines. Jefferson imported this wine in the largest quantity and this may confirm the supposition that this had to be good quality dry vinum ordinarium. Accordingly, the “gentle sweet wine” sent by Mr Olsen, which was “commonly drunk at table” was probably a sweet version of the same vinum ordinarium.17

Another interesting question is how Hungarian wines arrived in America. We only know that they left Europe from Hamburg. At the time Hungary was part of the Habsburg Empire and imperial economic policy preferred in many ways the export of Austrian wines on the Danube River. As a consequence some duties and taxes were imposed on the Hungarian wines exported on this route. The government reduced the duties only at the end of 1804 when the harvest in the Austrian provinces was very poor. As we have seen, the Hungarian wines arrived to Jefferson in October of the same year. It means that it is not likely that Jefferson’s wines left Hungary by this route. Another possibility was the traditional northern passage. After the accession to the throne of Frederick William III of Prussia (1797–1840) the Prussian authorities reduced radically the duties formerly imposed on Hungarian wines. After crossing the Carpathian Mountains, the wines were transportable by the rivers of Oder and Elbe to the port of Hamburg. As a consequence, it seems more likely that Thomas Jefferson’s Hungarian wines arrived in Hamburg via this particular route.18

After his retirement from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson forwarded his remaining Hungarian wines to the wine cellar of Monticello. In spite of his preparations, according to what we know today, he never imported Hungarian wines again, probably on account of the relatively high price and his growing financial difficulties. This does not mean that he lost all connection with Hungarian grapes and wines. In the spring of 1804 Thomas Appleton, the consul of the United States at Leghorn, Italy, sent him some cuttings. As he wrote to the president,

I have taken the liberty to forward you by the same vessel a barrel containing 225 vine cuttings of 9 different qualities, taken from the botanical garden of Florence. They were chosen and presented to me by my particular friend Mr Lastri, Director of the same […] all these plants produce dry wine. The Tokay [emphasis added] has been transplanted to Etruria with the utmost success and the wine is so perfectly similar to the finest of Hungary that the most intelligent cannot discover the smallest difference.19

According to this letter Jefferson was informed from an alternative channel about Tokay and the Hungarian wines at the very time of his deal with Bollman.

The cuttings sent by Appleton to Jefferson were either Italian Tocai vines, or a grape similar to the Hungarian furmint imported from Hungary some time earlier. In some way or another, it is almost certain that they did not originate directly from Hungary. The shipment sent by Appleton arrived in America only a month before the landing of Bollman’s wines, and this is the reason why the name of the Tokay appeared on the documents of Jefferson’s most ambitious vine growing plan. In 1807 he prepared a plan of two large vineyards in which he would acclimatise 287 cuttings of 24 different European vines. According to this plan he intended to plant six Tokay cuttings on the eighth, and thirteen Tokay cuttings on the ninth terrace of the North Eastern vineyard and “4. Tokays, same as 9th of N. E. Vineyard” on the ninth terrace of the South Western vineyard. He clearly differentiated two kinds of Tokay cuttings, which suggests that he probably received two kinds of cuttings from Appleton under the name of Tokay.20

An American pioneer vine grower, John Adlum discovered a grape in 1819. He wrote a very interesting letter to Jefferson about his findings:

I send for your acceptance through the Post Office a bottle of wine made last September, from a grape I call Tokay [emphasis added]. A German priest who saw the grapes ripe said they were the true Tokay, such as he had seen growing in Hungary. I have no doubt that these grapes are like them, but I have a strong supposition that they are native. I found them at Clarksbury in Montgomery county at a Mrs Scholls and she does not know where they came from. Mr Scholls in his lifetime called them the Catawba grape. This wine is made without brandy, but there was twenty five lbs. of sugar to the barrel. This was the first year of the vines bearing, but I have no doubt that in two years no more sugar will be required.21

The Catawba grape as it was called later on is similar to the furmint of the Tokaj- Hegyalja region to some extent, but it is a hybrid of some unknown European vitis vinifera and a native vine. But the name of the Tokay and of Hungary appeared again in the correspondence of Jefferson strengthening the image of the country as a leading wine making nation. Adlum was eager to know the opinion of Jefferson about the “Tokay”, since he probably was aware of the fact that the Sage of Monticello was among the few persons in the United States who had already tasted the real Tokay. It is a little bit surprising that he was not very enthusiastic at this time. He wrote a favourable but quite reserved answer to Adlum as compared to his sometimes rapturous greetings of the former American experiments, probably as a consequence of his aversion to the addition of sugar.

I received successfully the two bottles of wine you were so kind as to send me. The first, called Tokay, is truly a fine wine, of rich flavour and as you answer me there was not a drop of brandy or other spirit in it. I may say it is a wine of a good body of its own.22

But he was probably influenced by the memories of the real Tokay in the formation of his opinion.

Hungarian grapes and wines had been placed in his mind at least from 1803 to the end of his life and they really influenced his personal views about grapes and wines in general. When his tavern owner friend Samuel J. Harrison asked him to describe his favourite wines he answered that “I can assure you that they are esteemed on the continent of Europe among the best wines of Europe, and with Champagne, Burgundy, Tokay [emphasis added] are used at the best tables there.”23

In this letter Jefferson declared Tokay one of the best wines of Europe. At the end of his life he summarised his opinion about European grapes and wines in a letter to Samuel Maverick as follows: “The wine is congenial to every climate in Europe from Hungary [emphasis added] to the Mediterranean.”24

Hungarian grapes and wines influenced not only his general views about viticulture but also contributed importantly to his knowledge of Hungary and Hungarians. As a minister of the young American republic at the French court and also as Secretary of State he of course obtained a lot of diplomatic information about the Habsburg Monarchy and definitely about Hungary too. But this information was mainly in connection with the proposed commercial treaty with the Empire or with the role of the Habsburg Monarchy in European great power politics. In fact Jefferson’s knowledge of the country obtained from diplomatic channels only infrequently referred to Hungary directly and of course lacked the “intimacy” of the “wine connection”. Probably Tokay and Hungarian wines would have been at the top of his mind if someone had asked for his opinion about Hungary. It is unquestionable that he had a very clear knowledge of the country as one of the leading vine growing and wine making nations of Europe. He considered Hungarian wines among the best wines of the Old Continent and he put the country on one of the fundamental poles of his visionary world map of good quality wines.

1 This study is a modified version of the paper I published in English under the same title in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, 8/2, 2002, 85–94.

2 Benjamin Hawkins to Thomas Jefferson, 28 October 1793, Julian P. Boyd et al. eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 27 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950–), 278; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America from the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1989), 57, 92, 109–111.

3 Alexander Bölöni Farkas, Journey in North America (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1977), 184–185.

4 Blicher P. Olsen to Thomas Jefferson, 22 December 1802, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, hereafter DLC 22095.

5 Thomas Jefferson to Blicher P. Olsen, 21 January 1803, DLC 22279; Blicher P. Olsen to Thomas Jefferson, 23 January 1803, DLC 22245.

6 Justus Erich Bollman (1769–1821) was a physician of German origin who was very popular in the United States due to his attempted rescue of the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the American and the French Revolutions from his captivity in Austria.

7 Thomas Jefferson to Justus Erich Bollman, 6 February 1803, DLC 15445.

8 Justus Erich Bollman to Thomas Jefferson, 28 February 1803, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, hereafter MHI 9654.

9 Bollman to Jefferson, 28 February 1803; Olsen to Jefferson, 23 January 1803.

10 Jefferson to Bollman, 4 March 1803, DLC 15515.

11 Bollman to Jefferson, 3 April 1803, MHI 9635.

12 Bollman to Jefferson, 10 October 1804, MHI 15329.

13 Jefferson to Bollman, 17 October 1804, DLC 18495.

14 William Plumer’s Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate 1803–1807, ed. E. S. Brown (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 212.

15 Jefferson to Bollman, 6 December 1804, MHI 15623; Recd. from bk. US a draught on do. at N. York for 546.43. Enclosed the same to J. Erich Bollman for Hungary wines, in Memorandum Books, 1141.

16 Jefferson to Bollman, 6 December 1804, MHI 15623.

17 István Bartha, A borkereskedés problémái a Hegyalján a XIX. század első felében,” [Problems of Wine Trade in the Region of Hegyalja in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century], in: Agrártörténeti Szemle (1974, 1–2), 265. On the different wines of the Tokaj–Hegyalja region see Iván Balassa, Tokajhegyalja szőlője és bora [Vines and Wines of Tokaj-Hegyalja] (Tokaj: 1991).

18 On the transportation problems see Piroska Feyér, A szőlő- és bortermelés Magyarországon 1848- ig [Vine-Growing and Wine Production in Hungary Before 1848] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1981), 212, 230–232, 239–240, 286–287.

19 Thomas Appleton to Thomas Jefferson, 15 March 1804, DLC 24032.

20 Peter J. Hatch, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 136, 158.

21 John Adlum to Thomas Jefferson, 14 March 1823, DLC 30797.

22 Jefferson to Adlum, 11 April 1823, DLC 30824.

23 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel J. Harrison, 18 September 1817, Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia, hereafter VIU 56297.

24 Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Maverick, 12 May 1822, in Thomas Jefferson’s Correspondence, Printed from the Originals in the Collections of William K. Bixby, ed. W. C. Ford (Boston: 1916), 270–271.

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