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A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinksby George M Taber
Wine fans for centuries have traveled to the birthplaces of their favorite wines in order to enjoy the special pleasure of drinking them where the grapes are grown and the juice fermented. Here are just three—one from the seventeenth century, one from the eighteenth, and one from the nineteenth.
John Locke, the English political philosopher whose ideas had a major impact on the American Revolution, was one of the most influential thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment. Among Locke’s revolutionary ideas were the concepts of “government with the consent of the governed” and “the rights of life, liberty, and property.” The latter found its way into the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Because of political setbacks at home and his problems with a chronic cough probably due to tuberculosis, Locke, a trained doctor, sought out a more temperate climate away from his home in London. In November 1675, he left for France with the intention of traveling as far south as Montpellier, a city with a major medical practice and where the weather would be much warmer. During his three and a half years in France, the philosopher wrote more than fourteen hundred pages of notes on what he saw and experienced.
While living in Montpellier, Locke made several trips to nearby wine regions. He carefully recorded how winemakers went about their craft, the quality of the wine, and the prices. Locke wrote that locals “seldom make red wine without the mixture of some sort of white grapes, else it will be too thick and deep colored.” He also noted that peasants grew several varieties in the same vineyard and described in detail how farmers planted and pruned their vines.
The French taught Locke the importance of terroir, the untranslatable term for local vineyard growing conditions, and of blending different kinds of grapes. As he wrote in his notes, “The goodness of their wine to drink seems to depend on two causes besides the pressing and ordering the fermentation.” These were “the qualities of the soil” and the “mingling a good quantity of white grapes with the red.” Near Montpellier he noted with some perplexity, “Two vineyards, bounding one upon another, constantly produce the one good and the other bad wine.”
Locke learned vines could be productive for “nay 100 years,” and “the older the better” the wines. Young vines produced “commonly green i.e. sour” wine. He wrote that French wine was generally aged for many years in wooden barrels before it was drinkable, but winemakers had ways to speed up aging. “When they have a mind to have their wine fine sooner than ordinary, they put in a cask pretty good quantity of shavings of fir, and, in some places, of hazel, and with it they sometimes put some whole white grapes.”
Many local viticulture practices clearly offended the Englishman: “[A]nd in all other parts of their making wine they are sufficiently nasty, according to their manner. The grapes are often rotten and always full of spiders. Beside that, they say they put often salt, men’s dung and other filthiness in their wine to help, as they think, its purging.”
When leaving Montpellier to return to Paris in March 1677, Locke decided to take a western route to see more of southern France. On Friday, May 14, he was in Bordeaux and rode a horse out of the city to what he described as “President Pontac’s vineyard at Hautbrion,” today’s ChÂteau Haut-Brion. Locke had enjoyed wine in London, and now he wanted to see it at its place of origin. Although Locke by then spoke good French, he had trouble communicating with the working people at the winery because of his “want of understanding Gascoin,” a dialect of the Occitan language spoken in southern France. Nonetheless, he wrote an insightful description of the vineyard: “It is a little rise of ground, lying open most to the west. It is nothing but pure, white sand, mixed with little gravel. One would imagine it scarce fit to bear anything.”
Locke later wrote in a more detailed report of his visit to ChÂteau Haut-Brion: “There is such a particularity point in the soil that the merchants assured me that the wine growing in the very next vineyards, where there was only a ditch between, and the soil, to appearance, perfectly the same, was by no means so good.” That ditch, and the difference in the wines from the two vineyards, are still there today.
Locke stayed in Paris for a year before he and a student who had been placed in his charge returned to southern France in July 1678. The two again took a western route, going through Tours and the Loire Valley. They stopped at the home of Nicolas Thoynard, a fellow scholar who shared Locke’s wide range of interests. The two men discussed the writings of the evangelists in the Bible, new forms of ammunition, and Thoynard’s proposal for sealing bottles of wine with a glass stopper rather than a cork. They also shared “a large bottle of Muscat or Jenetine wine of OrlÉans stopped with a glass stopper.”
As he traveled, Locke was shocked to see the drop in wine prices since he had been there only a year earlier. Wines were selling for one-third as much as before. The reason was a glut of wine precipitated by a war between France and Holland, which had severely reduced exports to both Holland and England. In Saumur he wrote, “The white wine here in this town is very good & wine so plentiful that they sell it for 18 deniers the pint at their boushons i.e. where people in private houses sell their own wine by retail.” Locke also noted that ten deniers of that went to the king as excise taxes, while the vintner got only eight deniers. Later in Angers, wine was selling for one-fourth as much as before. In the port city of Rochelle, the price of wine was down 50 percent, with the exception of President Pontac’s and “some others of particular note” that still sold for twice as much as the rest. While going through Bordeaux on his second trip, Locke did not revisit Haut-Brion.
Three months before leaving France in the spring of 1679, Locke wrote a treatise entitled Observations Upon Vines that brought together all he had learned about wine in France. Despite his long stay in the country, he had not become a great fan of the French, writing in the introduction, “The country where these observations were made hath vanity enough to over-value everything it produces.” He recounted in detail when and how the French planted their vineyards. His preference for aged vines was clear: “The older the vineyard, the fewer the grapes, but the better the wine. Newly planted vineyards produce more, but the wine is not as good.” Locke added that in the village of Galliac near Montpellier, “If a peasant there should use any but birds dung about his vines, his neighbors would burn his house because they would not have the wine of that place lose its reputation.”
Locke recorded in his report the local belief that “a sheep’s horn buried at the foot of a vine will make it bear well even in barren ground.” But he quickly added, “I have no great faith in it, but mention it because it may so easily be tried.”
In late April 1679, Locke boarded the Charlotte in Calais for the return trip home, and two days later, he landed at the Temple stairs, on the Thames, in London. John Locke never again returned to France.
A little more than a century later, Thomas Jefferson, on July 31, 1784, arrived in France to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as representatives of the new United States of America, which less than a year before had signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolutionary War. Although Jefferson was familiar with the political philosophy of John Locke, there is no evidence that he was aware of his writings on French wines. Nonetheless, Jefferson was to follow many of the Englishman’s tracks across France’s wine country, which he recorded in even greater detail.
Jefferson had already long enjoyed wine and had made unsuccessful attempts to grow wine grapes at his Monticello estate in Virginia, where he had a well-stocked cellar. Thus it was not surprising when, four days before he was to depart for France from Boston aboard the sailing ship Ceres, Jefferson bought four cases of German white wine from the Rhine to get him through the voyage that was to take twenty days. And less than two weeks after arriving in Paris, he purchased 276 bottles to start his new cellar there.
Jefferson’s partners in the diplomatic mission were also fond of French wine. Benjamin Franklin had a Paris cellar of more than eleven hundred bottles with an emphasis on Champagne. John Adams had landed in Bordeaux in April 1778 when he first came to France and had seen some of the wine country there on his way to Paris. Jefferson, though, had a substantially stronger interest in wine and set out to learn more about topics such as Burgundy wines, which were almost totally new to him.
During his first years in Paris, Jefferson stuck to his work of learning French and observing the internecine world in the court of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. After two and a half years of diligent work, however, Jefferson, in early 1787, decided to tour France for several months. The explanations for the trip were many. The official reason was that he was going to look into the potential for exporting American tobacco and whale oil to southern France. The clandestine one was that he was going to meet a Brazilian revolutionary in Marseilles who was trying to get American support for a movement to drive the Portuguese out of his country. Another story was that he was going to Aix-en-Provence in hopes that its famous thermal springs could help heal his right wrist, which had been injured during some horseplay with Maria Cosway, his then romantic interest. Jefferson’s overriding reason, though, was to visit vineyards and to buy wine directly from producers. Jefferson had grown suspicious of wine dealers and thought the only way to be certain of getting the real product, rather than a forgery, was to buy it on the spot. “Genuine wines can never be had but of the vigneron,” he wrote.
Traveling at first incognito and with no servant in hopes of seeing what France was like outside the capital, Jefferson left Paris through the Porte d’OrlÉans on February 28, 1787, in a carriage pulled by three horses. He later recounted a detailed history of his travels in his report Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, & c. He recorded everything from the price of wine along the way to how long a farming family could live off a slaughtered hog, which was one year. He even offered tips for future travelers: “When one calls on the taverns for the vin du pays they give what is natural and unadulterated and cheap; when vin etrangere is called for, it only gives a pretext for charging an extravagant price for an unwholesome stuff.”
When he arrived in Dijon, Jefferson hired a manservant to help him with the local dialects since he spoke only Parisian French. In his report, Jefferson noted that corn grew on the plains, while on the hillside, known as the CÔte, vines were planted. In the red-wine towns of Pommard and Volnay he reported that the staple of the diet was “good wheat bread,” but a little farther south in Meursault, where white wines were made, people ate rye bread. When he asked why, “They told me that the white wines fail in quality much oftener than the red, and remain on hand. The farmer therefore cannot afford to feed his labourers so well. At Meursault, only white wines are made, because there is too much stone for the red.” He noted that the villages of Chambertin, Vougeot, and Vosne produced the best reds, but he also liked Volnay, which sold for only one-quarter as much as the others. On the white wine side, he looked again for value. Montrachet sold for the same price as a Chambertin, but a Meursault from the Goutte d’Or vineyard was one-eighth as much. Jefferson then placed a large order for Goutte d’Or.
Traveling south, Jefferson next ventured into the RhÔne Valley. The best red wine, he wrote, is “produced at the upper end in the neighborhood of Ampuis,” while the best whites came from “next to Condrieu.” He was particularly fond of “the wine called Hermitage … made on the hills impending over the village of Tains.” The Hermitage vineyard, he noted, is on a hill and added that the last hermit died in 1751. Jefferson became a great fan of white Hermitage, which was then slightly sweet. Among other white wines, Jefferson liked Viognier, sold by “Chateau GrillÉ [modern day ChÂteau Grillet] by Madame la veuve [the widow] Peyrouse.” In the town of NÎmes he had high praise for the inexpensive “vin ordinaire, good and of a strong body.”
On March 25, Jefferson arrived in Aix-en-Provence, where he stayed for four days and underwent extensive treatment at the thermal springs that seemed to do little good. Yet on March 27, he wrote in a letter to his private secretary William Short, “I am now in the land of corn, wine, oil, and sunshine. What more can man ask of heaven? If I should happen to die in Paris I will beg of you to send me here, and have me exposed to the sun. I am sure it will bring me to life again.”
After a brief stop in Marseilles and other towns along the Mediterranean, Jefferson ventured into Italy on the back of a mule. He had originally hoped to follow the route Hannibal and his elephants had used for his invasion of Rome, but there weren’t enough landmarks to follow. In Turin, Jefferson delighted in the discovery of a new wine: “There is a red wine of Nebiule [modern Nebbiolo] made in this neighborhood which is very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate as Bordeaux, and as brisk as Champagne. It is a pleasing wine.”
In Rozzano, Jefferson watched Parmesan cheese being made, recording the steps in great detail. Finally, he went to Genoa before returning to Nice via the Italian Riviera. Then he traveled through Provence and Languedoc, where he discovered Rochegude, a sweet white wine made near Avignon, and white and red Frontignan. They all became among Jefferson’s favorites. He bought 250 bottles of Frontignan and had them shipped to Paris. Like a man on a mission, Jefferson pressed on toward Bordeaux.
From May 24 to May 28, Jefferson visited Bordeaux, staying at the HÔtel de Richelieu in the center of town. He traveled all around the wine capital of France, keeping records on viticulture practices as well as how much vineyard workers were paid, noting that men earned twice as much as women. Picking up an informal classification used in Bordeaux wine circles, Jefferson came up with the “4 vineyards of first quality” for red wines. They were: “Chateau Margau, La Tour de SÉgur, Hautbrion, and Chateau de la Fite.” He also gave the annual production and owner of each. With modern spellings they are ChÂteau Margaux, ChÂteau Latour, ChÂteau Haut-Brion, and ChÂteau Lafite-Rothschild. They were the top four wines in the French classification of 1855 and are still considered outstanding. He also listed wines in Second and Third Growths.
Just as Locke before him, Jefferson walked through the vineyards of Haut-Brion and wrote a similar description: “The soil of Hautbrion particularly, which I examined is a sand, in which is near as much round gravel or small stone, and very little loam.” Jefferson, who had first enjoyed the wine at the table of Benjamin Franklin, always had a soft spot for Haut-Brion, writing to his man in Bordeaux in 1784 that it was “a wine of first rank and seems to please the American palate more than all the others that I have been able to taste in France.”
Among the dry white wines, Jefferson noted that the three best came from the Graves region: Pontac, St. Brise, and De Carbonius, which he said Benedictine monks made and sold for twice as much as the others. The latter is now known as ChÂteau Carbonnieux, although the white wine vineyards are no longer the same. Jefferson wrote that sweet Sauternes were “more esteemed in Paris” than dry whites and that “the best crop belongs to M. Diquem,” now ChÂteau d’Yquem. He cited two others, known today as ChÂteau Filhot and ChÂteau Suduiraut.
After his visit to Bordeaux, Jefferson left the city by boat, sailing down the Gironde Estuary past the great vineyards of the MÉdoc. He then skips rather quickly over the rest of the trip. He writes that wines “of good quality,” but not up to the standards of Bordeaux, are made near Angers, only 185 miles southwest of Paris, that are “probably sold abroad under the name Bordeaux.”
Jefferson finally returned to Paris on June 10, 1787, and only four days later wrote his new wine buyer in Burgundy to order a feuillette, a small oak barrel used mainly in Chablis that held approximately 36 gallons, of both Volnay and Meursault Goutte d’Or wines. In a postscript to the letter, Jefferson told his agent to list the wines as “vins ordinaires” and to have the driver enter Paris in a way that would not attract much attention from tax collectors. On June 19, Jefferson wrote of his travels to John Bannister Jr., a fellow Virginian, saying that he had “never passed three months and a half more delightfully.”
It didn’t take Jefferson long to do some more wine tourism. Less than a year later, on March 4, 1788, he left Paris by carriage heading toward Amsterdam. The ostensible reason for this trip was to see John Adams before he returned to the United States. After some negotiations with Dutch bankers about loans to the new American government, Adams left Amsterdam and Jefferson headed to the wine region of Germany, intending to go up the Rhine as far as Strasbourg. In his report Notes of a Tour through Holland and the Rhine Valley, Jefferson recounts his travels, though not in as much detail or with the same enthusiasm as he had for southern France. This may be due in part to the fact that he did not speak German and had difficulty communicating with people along the way. He wrote in his journal on April 2: “There was not a person to be found in Duisberg who could understand either English, French, Italian or Latin. So I could make no enquiry.”
Jefferson saw his first vineyard in Cologne, and a little ways south in Bonn, vines became plentiful. He noted a difference in the wines from grapes grown on the flatland and on the hillsides: “It is observed here, as elsewhere, that the plains yield much wine, but bad. The good is furnished from the hills.”
On April 5, Jefferson was in Koblenz, where the Mosel River flows into the Rhine. He did not visit the Mosel wine region, but liked its wine a great deal. He said the best Mosel wines came from the “excessively mountainous country” 15 leagues (45 miles) back from the confluence of the rivers. He ranked Brauneberg the top, followed by Wehlen, Grach, Piesport, and Zelting. He cautioned, though, “These wines must be 5 or 6 years before they are quite ripe for drinking.”
Jefferson was harsh in his views about Rhine reds: “The red wines of this country are very indifferent and will not keep.” Later he was still more caustic, calling them “absolutely worthless.”
On the other hand, he loved white wines from the Rheingau region. “It is only from RÜdesheim to Hochheim that wines of the very first quality are made.” He particularly liked the wines of Johannisberg, calling them the “very first quality” and noting that they sold for “double the price” of similar wines. He attributed this to the fact that the vineyards face south and the soil was “a barren mullato clay mixed with a good deal of stone and some slate.” He wrote that Johannisberg wines had “none of the acid of the Hochheim and other Rhenish wines.” Farther south in the villages of Bodenheim and Nierstein, they were “second quality.”
Jefferson’s interest in local wines again picked up in Alsace, where he found the interesting vin de paille (straw wine) being made near Colmar. He recounted that vintners made it after leaving grapes harvested in the fall spread out on straw until the spring. “The little juice then remaining in them makes a rich sweet wine, but the dearest in the world without being the best by any means.” He concluded that a much better wine of that style is southern France’s Frontignan.
Jefferson could be brutal in his critiques. Traveling farther west near the town of Nancy, the capital of Lorraine, he wrote that there were “some small vineyards where a bad wine is made.”
In a letter to his personal secretary William Short on April 9, 1788, Jefferson explained that when he left Alsace, he was going to return to Paris “a little circuitously, perhaps by the way of Reims in Champagne, so that I am unable to say exactly when I shall be at Paris.” Given his love of Champagne, Jefferson couldn’t pass up a chance to see where it was made. He was immediately impressed by the soil, writing, “The hills abound with chalk.” He also reported, “Their red wines, though most esteemed on the spot, are by no means esteemed elsewhere equally with their white, nor do they merit it.” Champagne then made both sparkling wines and still ones. Jefferson seems surprised when he writes, “The sparkling are little drank in France but are alone known and drank in foreign countries.” He reported that sparkling wines sell for eight times as much as still ones. While Champagne today is known by such major brands as Hennessy or Taitinger, in Jefferson’s day the wine’s village of origin determined the quality, and so he gave a report on the various villages and included a map showing their locations. His favorite was Ay, and he names several producers “all of the 1st quality.” He wrote that Monsieur Dorsay made the best. Jefferson also liked Champagne made by the monks in Hautvillers, where Dom PÉrignon had been cellarmaster more than a half-century before, but wrote it was “hardly as good as Dorsay’s.”
Along with many visitors to Champagne both before and since, Jefferson was overwhelmed by the caves where wine was stored, writing that they extended “into ground in a kind of labyrinth to a prodigious distance” and concluded, “I have no where seen cellars comparable to these.”
On April 23, and after visiting the Champagne village of Épernay, Jefferson went to Meaux, a village famous for its Brie cheese, and then turned west to return to Paris.
Only six months later, on October 23, 1789, Thomas Jefferson left France to return to the United States to become George Washington’s secretary of state. He shipped 363 bottles of French wines with him. Despite his love of Bordeaux reds, he took only white wines, and the majority of those were sweet wines such as ChÂteau d’Yquem and Frontignan. He also packed away thirty-six bottles of Champagne.
While Locke and Jefferson traveled through the wine country of France, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, visited the Napa Valley and wrote about it in his book The Silverado Squatters, which he published in 1883. Stevenson wrote his first story at the age of six and in his twenties was attracted to the bohemian life of artists in France. While living in an artist’s colony in 1876 in Gerz, outside Paris, he met Fanny Osbourne, an aspiring artist who had left a philandering husband in California with three children in tow, to paint in France. Although eleven years his senior, she and Stevenson were soon lovers. But in August 1878, she left France to return to California for an attempted reconciliation with her husband. After that failed, she sent a telegram to Stevenson, the contents of which were never known. But somehow she convinced him to sail across the Atlantic to join her in America.
After Fanny’s divorce was finally granted, the two married in San Francisco on May 19, 1880. Stevenson already suffered from lung disease, and the couple took the advice of friends and spent a two-month honeymoon in the dry mountain air on Mount Saint Helena above the spa town of Calistoga. Because they couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel, a local shopkeeper pointed the couple toward the abandoned mining town of Silverado, where they stayed in an old bunkhouse. While he was there, Stevenson took copious notes that were the basis for The Silverado Squatters.
After a quick introduction to a land that he admits is “difficult for a European to imagine,” Stevenson recounts tales of a strange mÉlange of local characters and customs. He devotes the third chapter to Napa wines, writing, “I was interested in California wines. Indeed, I am interested in all wines and have been all my life.” Having lived in France when the phylloxera bug that devastated vineyards seemingly meant the end of French wine, he lamented, “Bordeaux is no more. Chateau Neuf is dead, and I have never tasted it; Hermitage—a hermitage indeed from all life’s sorrow—lies expiring by the river.”
Stevenson spent time with two winemakers, whom he identifies only by their surnames: Mr. Schram and Mr. M’Eckron. He wrote that Napa Valley vineyards were nothing “to remind you of the Rhine or Rhone.” Instead, “all is green, solitary, covert.” He first visited the Scotsman M’Eckron and clearly enjoyed meeting a fellow countryman and exchanging a “word or two of Scotch, which pleased me more than you would fancy.”
More interesting from a wine point of view was Mr. Schram. While Mrs. Schram entertained Fanny on the veranda, the writer and the winemaker tasted wines in the cellar. “I tasted every variety and shade of Schramberger, red and white Schramberger, Burgundy Schramberger, Schramberger Hock, Schramberger Golden Chasselas, the latter with a notable bouquet, and I fear to think how many more.”
Stevenson liked what he tried in Schram’s cellar and elsewhere in the Napa Valley, but he thought local winemakers were just beginning to discover which grapes flourished best in their valley. “In this wild spot, I did not feel the sacredness of ancient cultivation,” he wrote. “It was still raw, it was no Marathon, and no Johannisberg; yet the stirring sunlight, and the growing vines, and the vats and bottles in the cavern, made a pleasant music for the mind.”
Californians, he wrote, are “still in the experimental stage” of winemaking. “So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafite.” Nonetheless: “The wine is bottled poetry.”
Stevenson’s brief foray into California wine country left him with hope for the future of wine that seemed to be dying in France. “The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.”
© 2009 George M. Taber
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