Raising a Glass of Bordeaux on the Birthday of Thomas Jefferson

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GrapevineThis week we celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, President – and acclaimed bon vivant.

The occasion reminds me of a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux wine purported to be owned by him that sold at auction for a record $156,000. Subsequently it was deemed to be counterfeit and the original seller was arrested for fraud.

This week, as I reported several years ago, I explore the background of the fraud.

Several facts require clarification: How was it that the counterfeiter selected Thomas Jefferson as the focus of the fraud? Why was a wine cellar in Paris presented as the discovery site? Why Bordeaux wines? Why the year 1787?

My research (with acknowledgment to John Hailman’s book “Thomas Jefferson on Wine”) revealed the answer.

Thomas Jefferson was highly respected for his passion for wine. It seems that this legacy was rife for fraud: simply capitalize on the reputation of an icon of American history and leverage the notoriety of his obsession with fine wine.

After his historic efforts in helping to secure America’s independence, Jefferson spent five years as the American ambassador to France. When he arrived in Paris in 1784, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin in that “political plum” position. In fact, during the ambassadorial transition, Franklin introduced Jefferson to the fine wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne from his private cellar of over 1,000 wines.

There are reports of many private parties as Franklin introduced his brethren to the pleasures of fine wines (and the Paris social scene). It would seem that this is when Jefferson acquired his passion for fine wines and became obsessed with learning (firsthand) and memorializing in his journals (in meticulous detail) all that he could about fine wines.

Nestled in the opulent life of Paris, Jefferson embarked on an extravagant lifestyle of entertaining the high society of continental Europe, many of whom were fascinated with the recent improbable coup perpetrated by a gang of scruffy rebels across the Atlantic.

His excursions to Bordeaux resulted in friendships with the proprietors of elite wineries – many of which produce wines to this day. He eagerly spent numerous days journalizing each aspect of his trips to wineries and the wines. Wielding his diplomatic position, he acquired wines that were in high demand throughout Europe but in short supply, including the prestigious wines from the excellent 1787 vintage. His reputation as a Francophile and a Bordeaux connoisseur grew with each winery visit.

Returning to the United States in 1789, he eventually became President in 1800, crafting the future of our fledgling democracy – and conducting grand dinners in the White House, replete with fine French wines.

However, Jefferson found that importing wines into the United States presented logistical problems. The long trip by ship from Europe had to be timed to avoid spoilage from temperature extremes in the winter and summer months. Also, theft was a common problem. In the early 19th century, most wines were shipped in barrels (bottles were highly fragile); it was a simple matter for dock thieves to empty barrels and substitute the wine with water, no one being the wiser. Nevertheless, Jefferson prevailed, issuing elaborate, detailed instructions for the transport and safekeeping of his barrels.

I now have a better insight into the premise of the Bordeaux wine caper. All of the elements were in place and executed perfectly, from the reference to the provenance of the wines, to the city of Jefferson’s base of operations, even the vintage. The counterfeiter thoroughly researched his subject, selecting and exploiting the vital components of Jefferson’s wine experiences. The buyer, being sophisticated and well-versed in Jefferson’s exploits, was easily set up, eagerly purchasing the “esteemed” forged bottles. It’s unlikely Jefferson – with his hands-on experience and meticulous research habits − would have fallen for this ruse.

My research led me to another insight: 21st century American wine consumers are becoming more “Jeffersonian.” They have an insatiable interest in enhancing their knowledge of food and wine, constantly seeking out new wine producers around the world and enjoying fine wine and food (on occasion, the same producer wines Jefferson drank). Vive le bon vivant.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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