Vail Wine Ink column: Jefferson’s love of wine made him America’s first wine geek
READ the book
“The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Wine,” by Benjamin Wallace — Benjamin Wallace wrote the book on the wine scandal that rocked the world of high-end collectors and the auction houses where many of the world’s most expensive wines are traded or bought and sold as commodities.
But the beauty of his book is the timeless nature of the prose. He tells the story of the collectors, the wine critic Robert Parker, the thief Hardy Rodenstock and even Thomas Jefferson himself in this quick-to-read page-turner. It is his extraordinary ability to easily explain the motives and the history of each player that makes this such a must-read.
Good luck to those who are making the film. It will be a challenging task.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
“M5” 2013 by Margerum Wine Co. — What could be better than watching the Warriors and sipping a great California wine? This beauty from Doug Margerum is a blend of five grapes (hence the name) sourced from 11 different vineyards in Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo County, Sta. Rita Hills and Foxen Canyon. A quintessential Rhone blend with California flair, the grenache leads with perfume on the nose and hits hard with lush, dark berry flavors on the palate. Chocolate notes are enhanced by the syrah, and there is a hint of the California dirt from the Mourvedre. Finished with counoise and cinsault, this wine features a winning starting five.
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.
FRENCH WINE COUNTRY SOJOURN
TJ’s real wine education began when he was fortuitously named U.S. minister to France 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. 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 firsthand. 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 about 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. 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 Chateau 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 with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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