America’s First Wine Geek or Founding Elitist?

There are two types of people in the wine world. Those who would want to drink a bottle of wine owned by Thomas Jefferson, and those who couldn’t care less about the prospect. Furthermore, like someone witty once said, there are two types of people in the world, those who think the world can be divided into two types of people, and the rest of us. I guess I’ve pegged myself as the “two-types” person, but let me also get straight one other thing: I would totally dig the chance to drink a wine owned by Thomas Jefferson. I wouldn’t pay $500,000 for the privilege, but it would be damn cool, and not because the wine would be close to 200 years old.

You see, Thomas Jefferson was our nation’s first real wine geek. Or at least the first one that anyone can remember. According to a lovely article by Jay McInerney in the New York Times this week, Jefferson kept detailed notes on all the wines he drank, had wine bottled for him by producers and then perilously delivered on cross-Atlantic sailing ships, and like any serious wine lover, found all sorts of excuses to get sent to wine country in the course of his diplomatic career. The dude seriously loved wine.

I think part of the appeal for me in thinking about Jefferson’s wine habit is imagining what a strange and wondrous commodity French wine might have been in the earliest days of America. And of course, there’s the wine geek’s perpetual wonder at wine prices in days gone by, which using today’s currency might have been a dollar or two for a bottle of Bordeaux First Growth.

Of course, wine’s associations with the country’s founding fathers and intellectual elite is partially responsible for the fact that most Americans do not consider wine to be an essential part of any meal. I find this an odd dichotomy with wine in America. The earliest wine drinkers in America were those who could afford to have it imported from France, which was about .0001% of the population. At that time, wine was the drink of scholars and statesmen, not of carpenters and seamen.

Of course, this isn’t exactly Jefferson’s or Benjamin Franklin’s (another early wine geek) fault, more just the economic facts of the day. But by the time the Spanish missionaries got their grapes started in Monterey, or the Italian pioneer immigrants planted in the Sierra foothills, somehow it was too late for this country to become a land of wine drinkers.

Perhaps that was never our destiny, even had Jefferson been successful in his apparent entreaties to get the population to give up their “unhealthy” consumption of whisky and brandy in large quantities. Students of the principles of geographic determinism might point to the fact that with the exception of a few (relatively) small areas most of the US is extremely unsuited to wine grape production, as opposed to France, Italy, Spain, or Greece, all of which have had habits of general daily wine consumption for centuries.

None of that changes my vicarious geeky interest in Jefferson’s early wine habit, however. I’d love to sit around a table with him, Franklin, and Adams shooting the bull over a 1785 Cheval Blanc. Wouldn’t you?