The spirited journeys of Jefferson, a man with passion for wine

VINTAGE POINT

September 20, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Imagine the scandal if William Jefferson Clinton's account books were to reveal that he had spent thousands of dollars to stock the White House cellars with more than 20,000 bottles of the world's finest imported wines.

But as Baltimore author James M. Gabler notes in his new book, that is precisely what Thomas Jefferson did during his two terms in office. It didn't seem to hurt his performance too much. And, of course, he used his own money.

Mr. Gabler's book, "Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson" (Bacchus Press, 1995, $29.95), is a celebration of two of the lesser known enthusiasms of America's most well-rounded president.

Jefferson loved wine and drank it most of the days of his adult life. But being Jefferson, he couldn't just pour it down his throat and leave it at that.

Jefferson studied wine, philosophized about wine and traveled through France, Germany and Italy to visit the places where wine was made in the 1780s and where it still is made today. And when he indulged his travel bug in regions where grapes were not grown, he was careful to carry his own supply of his favorite beverage.

"He was the greatest connoisseur and wine enthusiast of the 18th century," said Mr. Gabler, who shares Jefferson's passions.

Mr. Gabler's meticulously researched book lets us follow in Jefferson's footsteps through Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone, Provence, the Rhine, the Mosel and other vineyard regions of Europe.

The book's freshness stems from the fact that Mr. Gabler made that tour himself, climbed the towers Jefferson climbed and integrated his impressions of today into his history of Jefferson's time. It is a book that Jefferson-admiring, wine-loving travelers will want to pack during European travels.

Mr. Gabler, a trial lawyer with the Baltimore firm of Sandbower & Gabler, said he caught the Jefferson bug more than 20 years ago when he became interested in the drinking preferences of the Founding Fathers. He said his curiosity led him to Jefferson's papers in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where the idea for the book began to take shape.

The project came to a halt during the sickness and after the death of Mr. Gabler's first wife, JoAnn. He said it was not until 1990 that he decided to pick up where he left off. By that time he had two other wine-related books under his belt.

Mr. Gabler said his travels along the route of Jefferson's 1787 tour of Europe -- especially the stretch where he crossed the Alps from France into Italy near the Riviera -- gave him new respect for his subject's physical stamina.

"He went over on the back of a mule and I went over in a car and it was tough enough that way," Mr. Gabler said. Other research carried him through England, where Jefferson and his friend and future rival John Adams visited gardens in 1786, and upstate New York, where Secretary of State Jefferson and James Madison toured Revolutionary War battlefields in 1791.

Mr. Gabler's narrative gives a realistic view of travel in the late 18th century, with its filthy inns, muddy roads and unspoiled vistas. Jefferson recorded his impressions faithfully, if sometimes matter-of-factly.

Wisely, Mr. Gabler does not try to recount Jefferson's public career except to place his entertaining and travel in context. The author sticks to his topic and fills in a gaping hole in the record of a man whose achievements as a revolutionary, political philosopher, diplomat, president, architect and lover have been well chronicled.

Mr. Gabler said conventional biographers have tended to skirt over Jefferson's consuming interest in wine. Even Dumas Malone's famed six-volume biography mentions wine only five times.

"How can you know a man who had such a passion for wine and only mention wine five times?" demanded Mr. Gabler. "I guess Dumas Malone didn't drink wine."

It would be an exaggeration to say that after reading this book you will know Jefferson. As Mr. Gabler demonstrates, he was not a particularly self-revealing man even when drinking his customary three to four glasses a night. Parts of Jefferson's mind will ever be a mystery.

One trait of Jefferson's that is not in doubt is his palate. Mr. Gabler shows that many of Jefferson's wine criticisms -- delivered in the form of personal letters to such readers as George Washington -- stand the test of time. Some descriptions, such as his praise of red Hermitage's "full body, dark purple color . . . exquisite flavor and perfume, which is . . . compared to that of the raspberry," read as if they were written by wine expert Robert M. Parker Jr. last week.

To read "Passions," it does help to share Mr. Gabler's passions for wine, travel and Jefferson. If you enjoy only one of the above, the book could be a tough slog. There are no scenes of a drunken Jefferson making moves on 17-year-old girls. When Mr. Gabler deals with what might have been a romantic dalliance, he sticks closely to the written record and its rather inconclusive evidence.

"Passions" is published by Mr. Gabler's home-grown Bacchus Press, but it should not be confused with a vanity press book. The cover design, typography and historical illustrations are superior to those of many books from major publishing houses.

One could quibble about some repetitive passages and curious spelling of place names, but Mr. Gabler has given us an enjoyable look at the private Jefferson.

In an era of neo-Prohibitionism and indoctrination of children with the message that Chablis is a moral equivalent of crack, it is also refreshing to review Jefferson's words on the subject of wine. Writing in opposition to high tariffs on wine, he said: "I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines, as a tax on a luxury. On the contrary it is a tax on the health of our citizens."

After a lifetime of moderate wine consumption, Jefferson died in 1826 at the age of 83.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.