There is a phrase in the French language – déformation professionnnelle – which describes one’s tendency to perceive every situation through the biased eyes of one’s profession. But consider the constant shape-shifting of reality for a man with armloads of professions: inventor, farmer, author, diplomat, ambassador, drafter, architect, teacher, United States President, archaeologist and onward.
Jefferson, Wine Lover
Thomas Jefferson was all of these things; he was pretty much whatever he wanted to be, whenever he wanted to be it. And yet he was precise in many ways when it came to wine, one of his great loves. There seems to be a persona, a TJ (as they say in his home state of Virginia) bailiwick that wraps up the presence that wine writers and tasters, even today, strive to accomplish. The man was excellently positioned – in finances, social position, curiosity, taste and perspective – to be the resident wine expert for these United States. Still today he is considered one of the leaders in wine writing, having diligently documented his affairs relating to wine, a resource to which one turns – again and again – to understand the history of drink.
The Drouhin cellars in Beaune, Burgundy are ancient and would have been present when Jefferson visited. Credit: Jill Barth
Jefferson in Burgundy
His love for Burgundy wine was no secret, as his correspondence and writings confirm. From his letters to his connection in France, Etienne Parent , dated January 22, 1789:
For several weeks now, Sir, I have wanted to order from you a shipment of Meursault. But the season has been so rude that I thought it would be better to await milder weather. The delay has lasted to the point that I now find myself with a pressing need. I ask you therefore to send me immediately two hundred and fifty bottles of wine, Meursault “Goutte d’Or”. I have become so attached to that of Mr. Bachey of the 1784 vintage that if he still has any of it I would prefer it.*
Jefferson toured France and parts of Europe during his ambassadorship in 1787 and again in 1788, and it was during the earlier trip that he spent time in Burgundy, on a long-scale road trip from Paris to Aix-en-Provence to attempt to relieve an injured wrist (said to have been hurt while jumping a fence to either impress a lady, or in exuberance for his love of a lady – either way, said lady was married – and English – and by the time he headed for Provence she was gone) in the healing waters found there.
While in Burgundy he took notes, regarding the villages he observed, what he ate and commentary on his surroundings. In Dijon he said, “The people are well-clothed, but it is Sunday. They have the appearance of being well fed.*” He went on to describe the wagons that hauled wine through town. Having visited Jefferson’s Monticello – near Charlottesville, VA – I’ve come to understand something about Jefferson that was made clear in every nook of his home: he was a curious and unlimited inventor, and his inventions were in use on his vast mountain-top farm, often in effort to make life easier, perhaps more enjoyable. In his sunflower yellow dining room (absolutely uncharacteristic and indulgent in his day) there is a dumb waiter, which he conceived and constructed, in order to bring wine up to the table from the wine cellar. The notes on the wine wagon were, undoubtedly noted in order to one day make wine transportation easier, and thus narrowing the chance of an “pressing need” to close in on him again.
He also noted, several times, the stone walls enclosing Burgundy vineyards. Many references were made to nearby waterways and roadways, methods for transporting wine. These themes: the people, how they grow wine grapes (and other crops) and how they transport them – are more prevalent in the traveling notes that tasting descriptions. In some instances he notes a wine a good or bad, but often the price is indicated – from the grower’s point of view, “Montrachet sells at 1200#*.” , for example, rather than, “One can purchase Montrachet for 1200#.”.
In his book, French Wines, author Rod Phillips notes, “On the whole he focused on districts already known for their wines. In Burgundy, he praised wines from Volnay, Beaune, Chambertin and Vougeot…When Jefferson returned to the United States, he imported French wine and perhaps boosted their popularity among better-off wine drinkers of the new republic.”
Jefferson praised the wines of Burgundy, that is certain, and from that praise stemmed what would become a lifetime of creative effort to get these wines to the US. It is written everywhere that Jefferson loved Bordeaux wines, and there is no doubt about this. But it also makes some sense to understand that with Bordeaux’s position on the Atlantic, a Virginia gentleman might have better luck getting a few hundred bottles of Sauternes than a few hundred bottles of Meursault. Consider the times; the expense and risk of dealing with land and sea under all manner of weathering conditions. It is still a risk, in our modern days, to order a delivery of wine on a hot summer day.
Realizing the difficulties of getting excellent wine home to the growing republic, and understanding the value acquired by the sale of excellent wine, it is no surprise that Jefferson looked very close to home for a potential new wine source. Not only was Jefferson interested in drinking, cellaring an obtaining Burgundy wines, but as a farmer he also had an interest in cultivating vineyards during his retirement at Monticello. In 1802 he recorded:
1st row. Very large white eating grapes
2nd row 30. plants of vines from Burgundy and Champagne with roots.
4th row 30. plants of vines of Bordeaux with roots.
5th row …
6th row 10. plants of vines from Cape of Good Hope with roots*
Also written by Jefferson in July 1808:
We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good. Yet I have ever observed my own countrymen who think its introduction important, that a laborer cultivating wheat, rice, tobacco, or cotton here will be able with the proceeds to purchase double the quantity of the wine he could make.
He’d be happy to see the success of Monticello’s now-neighbors, with vines growing in the vista from his mountain at Jefferson Vineyards, and to the west King Family and Stinson. And to the north, Barboursville, now an American legend for their Italian varietals. And the dozens of other exceptional wineries in the Monticello AVA…an appellation named for the vision set forth by Jefferson when he decided a farm on the top of a mountain was the only appropriate place to settle, where he lived until his final days.
Just as Jefferson did, over 200 years ago, I have traveled from Paris to Provence (several times). My pursuit was not to gain relief from healing waters, but same as Jefferson the trip took shape around the estates, domaines and vineyards along the way. I too, stopped in Beaune and took notes (and pictures, imagine if Jefferson had a camera). I visited ancient cellars and vineyards and also pined with an “urgent need” to fill my cellar with Bourgogne wines. I’ve also made annual trips to Monticello AVA, and there I’ve met the winemakers, tromped the vineyards and tasted a wagon-full of bottles.
The cellars at Monticello are quiet and dark, but not overly substantial. Smaller than one might expect. I visited when they were empty, though Jefferson kept the cellar stocked until his death – though at that point he was severely in debt (his Monticello would be sold to alleviate his estate several years after his death). By this time the contents of the cellar had shifted to those available at more reasonable prices – no more expensive Burgundies. However, there were high-quality wines from Bellet, Rousillon and Limoux…all on my list of favorites in places that have influenced the majority of my wine writing and education.
Burgundy will always be a leader. The quiet family lines, the austere stone walls, the elegance and poise of their people and their dedication to history and reliability are constant inspirations for those of us that love French wine. Jefferson loved French wine, and though he had the world at his fingertips, it is true that so do we.
Earlier this spring I visited a local winemaker that had made a dumbwaiter out of two automatic garage door openers, in order to send wine from his bottling room to the cellar. We talked of Lodi Zin, and federal regulations on labeling and Abraham Lincoln. I can’t help but draw a connection of gratitude to Jefferson for many things, many aspects of American winemaking that he never would have imagined.
I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. ~Jefferson in a letter dated 1816*
There are now 30 wineries in the Monticello AVA….must be a rich spot of earth.
Wines to Try from Jefferson’s Tour through Burgundy
Château de Meursault Meursault 1er Cru: Harvested from Charmes and Les Perrières vineyards – most Meursault 1er Cru comes from Charmes – this wine has strong aromatics, complexity and structure. Reasonably priced at around $60 for the 2010 vintage.
Maison Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 1er Cru Rouge: Grown at the southern end of the Beaune appellation, this wine is biodynamically grown. This bottle will run at least $100 depending on vintage, but this was one of my ah-ha Burgundy wines – please try!
Domaine Bachey-Legros Vieilles Vignes Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Morgeot’: From the estate of “Mr. Bachey” requested by Jefferson in his letter indicating pressing need, this wine comes from vines planted in 1950, but reminiscent of the distinguished quality Jefferson found in the region.
The French Winophiles
For those of you unfamiliar with The French Winophiles, it’s a formatted program that occurs on the third Saturday of each month. Members include wine, food and travel writers and enthusiasts who share a link to their themed food and wine pairing post with the group prior to the scheduled date, then meet for a tweet-up on that date. This May 20th and June 17th the topic is Burgundy, hosted by L.M. Archer at binnotes.
On Saturday, May 20th, we’ll crack out our tastevin for some food and wine pairing through Chablis and the Côte d’Or. You can join us at 10 am CST on Twitter at #Winophiles.
On June 17th, Part 2 takes us on a tour of food, wine and travel through the Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais, and Beaujolais.
Jeff Burrows of foodwineclick lures us to “Northern Burgundy Served Up With Rabbit.”
Jill Barth of L’occasion schools us on “Thomas Jefferson in Burgundy.” (thanks for being here)
Michelle Williams of Rockin Red Blog tipples towards “A Journey Through Burgundy, Part 1 Chablis and Côte d’Or.”
Lynn Gowdy of Savor the Harvest hosts “Saint-Aubin in Burgundy Invites You To Dine.”
Martin Redmond of Enofylz Wine Blog throws down “Back to Back White Burgundy: Chablis vs. Côte” d’Or.”
Gwendolyn Lawrence Alley of Art Predator serves up “Chablis and the Sea.”
L.M. Archer of binnotes mulls over “Burgundy: Wines of Intention.”
…and Jane Niemeyer of Always Ravenous ladles up “White Burgundy paired with Corn Soup.”