James Conaway on Thomas Jefferson, the oenophile
THOMAS JEFFERSON ON WINE.
By John Hailman.
Univ. Press of Mississippi. 457 pp. $38
Thomas Jefferson is thought of as the father of American wine. He was also an advocate of rural yeomanry that would forever keep the country whole, decent, and egalitarian, and presumably vineyardists were part of this idealistic vision. Jefferson paid a lot of money to import the good stuff, and served it often to grease the skids of civil discourse. He also tried valiantly to grow grapes at Monticello that would make a palatable drink, despite Virginia’s extremes of temperature and humidity. A Chateau Monticello wasn’t in the cards at the time, but wine thoroughly informed Jefferson’s life, in public and in private.
Until now, no one has attempted to view the author of the Declaration of Independence and his times solely through his stemmed glass, but John Hailman does just that. A former wine critic clearly enamored of his subject, he doesn’t shy away from the most incidental mention of anything vinous in the times only tenuously related to wine that together offer a backstairs view of a great man. War, presidential elections, and other big events are mere backdrops to the really important business of choosing the right claret and getting it from Europe to Monticello without its being watered down or imbibed by what Jefferson called the rascally Tidewater bargemen.
In an attempt to make our third president more palatable to contemporary oenophiles, Hailman says that Jefferson’s read remarkably like a Robert Parker news conjuring a Jefferson who talks about oodles of blackberry on the nose, cigar box overtones, and the relative toastiness of plush cabernets. Jefferson was not, in fact, rhapsodic about wine, but merely appreciative, and more concerned with procuring it than describing it. For instance, of Meursault, one of his favorite wines, he wrote simply that he “found it so good that I will take three feuillettes,” which were casks of 114 American gallons.
Jefferson championed wine more by drinking it than by doing anything else, as an emissary sent to Paris in 1784 and later as secretary of state, president, and statesman emeritus. Because of the breadth of Jefferson’s acquaintanceship, we get the incidental views of other dignitaries and demi-mondains on a wide range of subjects, from Benjamin Franklin’s cure for flatulence (dried rhubarb and attar of roses dissolved in—what else?—wine) to John Adams’s opinion of Jefferson’s entertaining (extravagant and tiring).
In addition to the important events in Jefferson’s life, we witness others that are no less interesting: his wine tour of France in 1787, with visits to “Chateau de la Fite” and many other prime vineyards that still attract peripatetic elites; his early orders of wine (Jefferson was a Bordeaux man, and to a lesser extent a Burgundy one, but no snob, finding merit in everything from plonk to Pommery); his list of favorite Bordeaux wines, remarkably similar to the top tier of the official French classification established much later; and the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Monticello in Jefferson’s declining years, during which the Frenchman drank much of what remained in a cellar once stocked with the best of France as well as wines from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Spain, and Portugal.
Thomas Jefferson on Wine has a gently didactic flavor, with old-fashioned subchapter labels (e.g., “The Mysteries of Jefferson’s Bordeaux”) and a modulated enthusiasm that suits the subject. The most interesting president the Republic has yet produced is revealed here as a man who knew both the subtleties and the seductions of an ancient drink, and was afraid of neither.