July 17, 2008

Jefferson's High-End Inventory [ROOTS 2]

(Second in a series)

We actually have a pretty good idea what Thomas Jefferson was drinking. He was a fastidious record-keeper and a manic archivist. He kept everything. Letters he received, copies of letters he sent, receipts, invoices, inventories. He was a Pack Rat of the highest order.

Before his first junket to Paris in 1784, like the rest of his countrymen, Jefferson mostly drank Madeira, some Port and the odd Portuguese table wine. In France, with the help of Ben Franklin and John Adams, Jefferson discovered better wines. By the time he took a celebrated tour through vineyards of Europe in 1787, Jefferson had developed an expensive palate. His archives reveal a great fondness for Bordeaux from the chateaux of Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion, Sauternes from Yquem and Burgundy from the famed villages of Meursault and Montrachet. After this trip, he began to order wine directly from the chateaux (proto mail-order), requesting his order be bottled and packed at the estate (bottling at the vineyard would not become commonplace until the 1920s!) to insure that brokers and other middle-men weren't messing with his juice.

So we could, in theory, consult Jefferson's detailed and much published wine inventories and invoices and drink just what Jefferson was drinking (This also assumes a theoretical absence of budgetary constraints at the Lab; Jefferson's favorites are horribly expensive).

But in the view of almost everyone at the Lab, this misses a big and important detail. We're not interested in the quiz answer to "What was Th: J. drinking?" We're more excited about imagining what was in the actual glass. What did it taste like? How was the bouquet? And none of the wine that Jefferson drank at the turn of the 18th century was grown on vines grafted onto American roots. So matching contemporary brands against Jefferson's ledgers wouldn't leave us drinking the "same" wines anyway. Almost all of the wines imported from Europe today are grafted onto New World rootstocks.

How did that happen? Many of you already know, but for the rest, we have one more chapter of the history to cover before we start drinking...

(image credit: © Maksim Esin | Dreamstime.com)

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