- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007


By John Hailman

University Press of Mississippi, $38, 457 pages


How rare it is to find a book that is nothing short of definitive. “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” represents a Herculean effort that took 30 years to make. Here is the last word on the Sage of Monticello’s entire experience with wine.

What he drank of it (large quantities), how he handled the logistics (in an era when purchasers had to bottle their goods), who he drank it with (a Who’s Who of his time), what he drank (ordinary stuff with food, the best “after the cloth was removed”), what he wrote about it (reams in account books, journals and correspondence, including the last letter he ever wrote, to John Adams, a fortnight before their simultaneous deaths) and much much more.

It is hard to imagine anyone having more to say than what John Hailman has said, notwithstanding that here and there he remarks on a loose end that might be raveled by future scholarship. The book is a must for anyone deeply interested in both the favorite son of Virginia and the fruit of the vine. Those who love both might read it twice.

Using copious original sources, evidently every scrap of paper he could lay his hands on, Mr. Hailman notes that Jefferson kept good cellars wherever he lived, 15 of them in all including two at the White House. While his first inventory was largely Madeira and claret, he developed a catholic and subtle palate, preferring French Burgundies, Bordeaux, Champagnes and Rhones, while “he also cellared, drank and praised some wine of just about every other winemaking country at one time or another, especially Italy, Spain and Portugal.”

After the War of 1812 interrupted American commerce — imports especially — he complained that “Wine from long habit has become indispensable for my health, which is now suffering by its disuse.”

As was his wont in subjects from natural history to architecture and agriculture, Jefferson approached — one might say attacked — wine with intellectual curiosity and recorded what he learned with didactic vigor.

On one trip as our Minister to France, he traveled 3,000 miles in three months, and en route he met growers, vintners and shippers and wrote abundantly about their practices. His activity and reportage prove an enviable joie de vivre that shines through this narrative.

Given all the cul de sacs the author explores and the minutia he details, the book is salted with wonderful moments. Wooing the comely (and very married) Maria Cosway in Paris, “in a moment of elation over his affair with Maria, the champion of domestic virtue tried to jump over a kettle in his garden and missed the attempt,” breaking his wrist in the fall and ending his career as a violist.

Nor does the author shrink from reporting ideas that reflect some biases that are widely deemed anathema today, as his “Travelling Notes” records in Nancy: “The women here, as in Germany, do all sorts of work. While one considers them as useful and rational companions, one cannot forget that they are also objects of our pleasures; nor can they ever forget it… . Women are formed by nature for attentions, not for hard labor.” So much for Enlightenment.

In ways Mr. Hailman’s preponderance of detail recalls a lesson begrudged by A.E. Housman, more remembered for his mordant verse than his professional work as a classical scholar. After spending 30 years translating “Astronomica,” the opus of an obscure Roman poet, Housman acknowledged that Marcus Manilius wasn’t really worth reading but that he was glad to have saved future scholars the trouble of doing it.

Mr. Hailman reports many facets of this extraordinary character, and all through the prism of the grape — his brilliance, his compulsive attention to detail, his savvy gift for friendship. On his return from France, “For Franklin and Madison, Jefferson brought no wines, but several cases of books. For Washington he brought a few books but lots of wines.”

Piecing together his vita from the dust jacket and front matter, it seems Mr. Hailman has been counsel to Sen. John Stennis, a Mississippi prosecutor, a wine columnist, a University of Mississippi law professor, devoted Jeffersonian, traveler and bon vivant.

But he has not been an author before, and it’s a pity that this labor of love displays his inexperience. For one thing, he relies on the crutch of frequent subheads — “Jefferson and Food: Was the Great Connoisseur a Vegetarian?” (no), “Wine and the Other Founding Fathers” (they all drank) — to declare abrupt changes of subjects rather than to craft a narrative that slides or strides from point to point.

For another, there are many irritating repetitions and asides that might have been redacted by the editor: “It has been assumed by many that Jefferson liked Bordeaux better than Burgundies. It is certainly true that he wrote more about them.” And eight pages later: “The best known Jefferson quotes about ordering wine have been about Bordeaux. It is clear that Jefferson did write more about Bordeaux.”

The fact is, from start to finish, Mr. Hailman tells more than this reader wanted to know. But full disclosure: I admit to drinking more plonk than vintage. That said, serious students of Mr. Jefferson and dedicated oenophiles will find this meat and drink.

Philip Kopper, an author, editor and publisher of Posterity Press, writes frequently about history and the arts.

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