Dramatic weather in Napa Valley

Dramatic weather in Napa Valley

Friday, May 15, 2020

America's first great wine connoisseur.

Thomas Jefferson has been called America’s First Wine Geek. And although other Founding Fathers were known to have enjoyed wine (John Hancock, John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin), none approached Jefferson’s level of interest, study or commitment.  He was quite frank with this famous quotation: “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”   

I got reacquainted with this topic as a byproduct of my “social distance” Internet reading of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, an interesting and informative book about easily duped wine critics and naïve, deep pocket wine collectors.  The story revolves around sales of fake bottles of wine from 1787 which were represented as having been owned by Thomas Jefferson.

That book led me to John Hailman’s Thomas Jefferson on Wine, a nifty $2.00 Amazon softcover purchase! It’s overly detailed and documented, even for this wine-obsessed enthusiast, but it does reveal how Jefferson, through his relentless pursuit of wine’s various aspects, he personified the topic of what is now known as “wine appreciation.” 

Beginning in 1760, during his two years at William and Mary, his Mentor and Philosophy instructor William Small set the stage for crucial aspects of Jefferson’s life, including his introduction to wine. Small introduced him to his soon-to-be Law tutor (George Wythe), as well as the Governor of Virginia (Francis Fauquier).

The four of them met for periodic chamber music sessions, and invitations to fine wine dinners soon followed. For an aristocratic young man who had seldom strayed from his father’s Virginia plantation, this was an extraordinary and privileged jump start in life. 

It was after his election to the House of Burgesses, and later as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress, that he had more access to better wines than fortified Madeira and simple, whites (in barrel) from Portugal. However, it was during his 1784 to 1789 Paris assignment (to secure commercial treaties with European nations) that his in depth education in wine (and food!) took place, particularly when he replaced Benjamin Franklin as America’s official Minister.

Much as Franklin did before him, Jefferson enjoyed the finest French food and wine, plus other Parisian cultural activities that royalty and aristocrats were routinely accustomed to.  Entertaining or being entertained was the order of the day, all the while ensuring that America’s economic and security interests were foremost.

One aspect of his Paris assignment which has received much attention, is his March, April, May self-guided tour in 1787 of France’s major wine producing regions. 

Meticulously documenting everything in a special journal, he travelled incognito, at his own expense, over twelve hundred miles (by carriage, by horseback and even by muleback!). Using local guides when available, he visited Burgundy, Beaujolais, Rhone Valley (North and South), Southwestern France, and Bordeaux, plus a quick side trip to northern Italy’s Piedmont area.

He came away with a list of the best and most reliable producers to order from (for himself and others) when returning to America.  Moreover, he formalized his competent and very articulate Bordeaux reviews and ratings into various quality levels.  Quite interestingly, they vary little (60+ years later!) from the “Official Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855” announced at that year’s Exposition Universelle de Paris.  (Serious Bordeaux enthusiasts know that the 1855 Classification is still, to this day, the go-to list for the hierarchy of Bordeaux producers.)

If Jefferson were to return to America today, he would experience a number of satisfying discoveries.  With wine producers in all fifty states, (80+ in Virginia and 33 very near Monticello), his dream of America becoming a wine producing nation has come to fruition and then some.  Hailman also believes that if Jefferson were to browse retail wine shops or search the Internet, he would recognize many of his old favorites.

And finally, in a real tip of the hat to America’s first great wine connoisseur, he offers, “And of all the places that he could visit in modern America, he might well find himself more at home in a wine shop than in any other place.”  I can relate to that.