13 July 2011

Thomas Jefferson: Oenophile

During his first term as President, Jefferson spent seventy-five hundred dollars—roughly a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in today’s currency—on wine, and he is generally regarded as America’s first great wine connoisseur.
Patrick Radden Keefe, "The Jefferson Bottles"
Thomas Jefferson has long been one of the most interesting American leaders. He wrote the Declaration of Independence with a small amount of editing help from his colleagues. He designed his own home, a marvel of architecture. He argued persuasively with Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, perhaps the leading theorist concerning evolution a century prior to Charles Darwin, but who made some astounding statements concerning the deficiency of North American air and its lack of large fauna. Jefferson gathered specimens of fauna that dwarfed those in Europe to prove Buffon wrong. Jefferson played the violin, studied languages, experimented with agriculture, and maintained a life-long correspondence with his rival in the most fiercely contested election in the early national period of United States politics, John Adams.

Thomas Jefferson also loved wine.

In keeping with the focus of Patriots and Peoples, I scanned the indices of A Patriot's History of the United States and of A People's History of the United States for references to Jefferson's oenophilia. The term wine is not indexed in either book, but both contain ample references to Jefferson. Howard Zinn focuses on Jefferson's contribution to politics, saying nothing about his architecture, science, or social views with two exceptions: he credits the spirit of the times rather than personal views of the man for the fact that Jefferson remained a slave owner to his death (see "Thomas Jefferson: Abolitionist?"). The second reference to his cultural values comes in a section concerned with the "cult of domesticity," where Zinn notes Emma Willard contradicting Jefferson's views that women's education should emphasize "the amusements of life ... dancing, drawing, and music" (as quoted in A People's History, 118).

Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen offer a thumbnail sketch of Jefferson the man in A Patriot's History. They mention his interest in wine in a single sentence: "After the war, as American ambassador to France, he developed a pronounced taste for French food, wine, and radical French politics" (133). For much of the targeted audience of the ultra-conservative Patriot's History, this sentence is sufficient to damn Jefferson.

My interest in Jefferson and wine was provoked last week when I started reading The Billionaire's Vinegar (2008) by Benjamin Wallace. There are indications scattered around the web that a film based on Wallace's book is in development. Reports of the movie rights being optioned were released in January 2008 before the book's release. Movie Insider gives 2012 as the tentative date for the movie's release. There's certainly plenty of drama in the story as William Koch spends more than a million dollars hiring former FBI investigators and similar sleuths to build evidence against Hardy Rodenstock, the man behind the sale of dozens of bottles reputedly once owned by Jefferson. Kip Forbes bid 106,000 pounds for the alleged
1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux that instantly became the most expensive bottle of wine in history. Koch spent many thousands less for the bottles that he bought.

The Billionaire's Vinegar opens with a description of the auction where Forbes set a record bid. Much of the story of the auction itself derives from "A Piece of History" in The New Yorker, 20 January 1986. This opening chapter narrates the development of the wine expertise of auctioneer Michael Broadbent, whose opposition to his portrayal later in the book led to a lawsuit that led to Random House agreeing not to distribute the book in the United Kingdom (one wonders whether the film will suffer similar barriers).

The second chapter focuses on Jefferson. I started this book as one of several Kindle samples dealing with history and culture of vitas vinifera cultivation, wine production, and consumption of the beverage that led to Benjamin Franklin's frequently corrupted line, "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!" Freakonomics has a brief entry by the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), Fred R. Shapiro, concerning the origins of Franklin's quote, the process of authenticating this little detail of the past, and the corruption of Franklin's expression by beer-swilling enthusiasts.

The Kindle sample offers a few pages of this chapter, just enough to hook this angler. I shelled out the $12 needed to get to the end of the chapter and gain access to the notes. Having done so, I read the rest of the book. I learned more about the world of rare wines and forgeries than I had anticipated as among my interests. Having read this book, there's a lot more that I'll be attentive to when the next issue of Wine Spectator arrives in the mail box. Meanwhile, I'm now attending to more Kindle samples:

John Hailman, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (2006)
Charles A. Cerami, Dinner at Mr. Jefferson's: Three Men, Five Great Wines, and the vening that Changed America (2011)
Tyler Colman, Wine Politics: How Governments, Environmentalists, Mobsters, and Critics Influence the Wines We Drink (2008)

Another book of interest is not available as an ebook, but may arrive via the mail in hardcover sometime in the near future.

James Gabler, The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson (1995)

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