Wine Ink: America’s first wine geek was Thomas Jefferson
Under the influence
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Thanks to the brilliant Broadway play written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton has become America’s current favorite founding father.
But for those who love a little wine with their liberty, the most noted patriot would be Thomas Jefferson. TJ, as we’ll call him, is recognized as a leading light in our emerging nation for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his role as the guiding author of the Declaration of Independence. But it’s his reputation as one of America’s first wine connoisseurs and vine viticulturists that is of interest here.
TJ was born in 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia. Though he was a notoriously fastidious keeper of notes on his daily doings (for much of his life he made duplicates), there is no written record of how his love of wine first evolved.
But in pre- and early revolutionary times (1763-1783), the art of drinking, particularly ports and Madeira that had made it to these shores from Portugal, was a shared pursuit. Taverns dotted the 13 colonies and it is thought that TJ was influenced early on by the cellars of mentors and college tutors.
In any case, when the young man began to build his home on land he had inherited from his late father, what we now know as the iconic Monticello, his first order of business was the construction of a wine cellar.
John Hailman, in his fine book “Thomas Jefferson on Wine,” cites a notation in an account book that Jefferson kept of the project that reads: “four good fellows, a lad and two girls of abt. 16 each in 8 ½ hours dug in my cellar of mountain clay a place 3 f. deep, 8 f. wide and 16 ½ f. long.”
That was in 1769, when he was just 26 years of age. He was laying the foundation for a life in wine that would last until he died on the Fourth of July 1826, at the ripe old age of 82.
This was a “starter” cellar for TJ. Later in life, as both his collection and his home grew, he built another wine cellar in the passageway of Monticello.
This one, somewhat larger, was restored in 2010 and is famed for featuring a dumbwaiter that allowed him to summon bottles from the cellar directly to the living room. Very modern.
THE FRENCH WINE COUNTRY SOJOURN
TJ’s real wine education began when he was fortuitously named as the United States Minister to France, for a four-year period from 1785 until 1789.
This was his golden time abroad before he returned home to become the first Secretary of State, the second Vice President and the third President of the United States. His Paris post is well chronicled in the film “Jefferson in Paris.”
Jefferson embarked from Paris in 1787 to see France’s great wine regions first-hand. The journey took three and a half months by horse drawn carriage and covered over 3,000 miles. His trip took him through Burgundy, the Rhone and Bordeaux.
While he was tasting the fruits of the vineyards for certain, he was also enthralled with the opportunity to learn the lessons of wine production, taking copious notes on vineyard techniques, which grapes were best suited to which soils, and how the vignerons made their wines. This was knowledge that he would export to the U.S.
He also learned about vintage variations and how the Bordelais classified their vineyards and their wines. And he learned about wine fraud, choosing to purchase his bounty directly from the vineyards themselves rather than through middlemen. When he left for America, he took with him many bottles of wine from vineyards that would become First Growth Bordeaux.
THE JEFFERSON FAKES
In 1985, Christopher “Kip” Forbes, of the Forbes Magazine family, purchased a bottle of 1787 Château Lafite at auction that was engraved with “1787 Lafite Th.J.”
It was sold as a priceless relic from TJ’s private stash. Subsequently, four bottles of Bordeaux, with what was depicted as the same provenance, were sold to collector Bill Koch, the subject of last week’s story.
The problem was the wines were deemed to be fakes. A fraudster named Hardy Rodenstock said they had been found in Paris and subsequently had sold them for record prices. The fuss over the TJ wines started what has been a decades long obsession of a few collectors to stamp out the trade in counterfeit wines.
Last March it was announced that Matthew McConaughey would star in a Sony Pictures film about the scandal made by Will Smith’s Production Company, Overbrook Entertainment.
What would TJ think?
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass, Colo., with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.