Wine: Trailing Jefferson in France
Thomas Jefferson continues to cast a strong shadow on the Virginia wine industry. The Old Dominion’s first oenophile is the subject of a fascinating exhibit on display through Sept. 26 at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art in Staunton, Va.
The exhibit, “Wine: Maps, Silver and Glass of the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, With a Special Tribute to Thomas Jefferson, the Wine Connoisseur of the 18th Century,” is the inspiration of Scott Ballin, a DC-based health policy analyst and collector of antique cutlery, glassware and maps. Much of the exhibit, including maps by Mercator and Ortelius, come from Ballin’s collection, which he accrued over the past 30 years.
Ballin’s map collection included several of French wine regions printed in 1787, even before he realized that was the year Jefferson, who was based in Paris as the emissary of the new United States, traveled the French countryside to visit the major wine producers of the day.
“What we know today about the great wines of France in the late 18th century, we know from Jefferson,” said James Gabler, author of “Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson.” Gabler was keynote speaker at a reception earlier this month to mark the exhibit’s opening. “Montrachet, Haut Brion, Lafite and Yquem -- all of these top producers were chronicled by Jefferson in his travels.”
Today, with America becoming the wine-consuming nation Jefferson envisioned, the First Oenogeek’s travels and explorations resonate clearly. I got a kick out of discovering obscure wine-producing towns I visited earlier this year on the 1787 maps on display. Perhaps Jefferson passed through there, too?
Gabler noted that Jefferson was especially wary of wine fraud and always insisted on purchasing wines directly from the chateaux that produced them. As he spoke, I couldn’t help but think that Jefferson was the first advocate of direct shipping from winery to consumer, an issue that still resonates today, if for different reasons.
This exhibit may not be worth a special trip to Staunton, but if you are heading that way along I-81, I definitely recommend making a detour to see it. And if time allows, stop by Barren Ridge Vineyards a few miles east of Staunton, just one exit up I-64. The wines there may just convince you that Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he said Virginia and America would someday produce world-class wines to rival the best of France.
-- Dave McIntyre
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