In 1820-something, John Adlum, one of America’s first wine geeks and sometime correspondent of our TJ’s, writes to his friend Nicholas Longworth, “In bringing this grape [by which he meant the Catawba] into public notice, I have rendered my country a greater service, than I would have done, had I paid the national debt.” Twenty years later, in corresponding with one C.W. Elliott, Longworth repeats Adlum’s comment. Elliott publishes his correspondence with Longworth – including Adlum’s comment – in The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste. The comment is also subsequently published in all sorts of fora, including Patent Office documents, wine encyclopedia, and other journals.
Fast-forward to 2009: every single wine website on the planet is trumpeting the quote, “By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt…” – Thomas Jefferson
How did this come to be attached to Jefferson? As I said, he did correspond with Adlum, and on the subject of wine. Perhaps someone saw the statement out of its original context and assumed it appeared somewhere in Adlum’s letters to Jefferson – a not-unreasonable assumption, actually. It’s only a short leap from there to attaching the statement to Jefferson himself. Generally speaking, I suspect that the obscure and feeble chain of this quote’s true genealogy was no match for the gravitational pull of Planet Jefferson.