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Have liver, will travel

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Thomas Jefferson: OG Alcotourist

Well, this is hardly a review, since the book came out in 1995, but I recently took a trip to my local library and dug up Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by the very meticulous James M. Gabler. I really dig this period of history, and always knew that this particular founding father was an oenophile. It was an interesting read, though a bit repetitive and bogged down in minutae at times. More than anything, I was startled at the sheer volume of wines purchased by Mr. Jefferson. He was given to purchasing hundreds and hundreds of bottles in a single outing.

Another interesting theme in the book was the French Revolution. Jefferson took his wine tours just before the butchery began, and I found it interesting and inexplicable that he could hold France's nobility in contempt for the abject poverty of the third estate, while living a lifestyle hardly less aristocratic—upon the backs of the human beings he himself held in captivity.

Hubert de Montille declares in Mondovino, "Where there is wine, there is civilization." But very often, there are savage social realities that bring the juice to the table. The documentary pointed that out brilliantly when the filmmakers went to Napa to interview the Mondavis. There is a fantastic scene in which the filmmakers spontaneously begin interviewing a Mexican laborer about working conditions during a conversation with the winemakers. The laborer said little, as it was so poignantly obvious that he was expected to pick, and not speak. Such are the lives of those who trod the thin line between worker and slave post-abolition America.

So here's an open question—can wine exist without exploited labor? Or is this product of civilization dependent on a caste system where no harvester could ever hope to afford the product he's picking off the vine? I personally think that wine can and should be a pleasure that can be enjoyed by everyone, and that it can be made in a way that is fair to everyone involved on the supply side. We've seen the advent of "fair trade" coffees, and I'd like to see the same thing in the wine industry—some kind of official committment to a living wage for workers in every step of the process.

This isn't just the ranting of a bleeding heart liberal—this proposal makes business sense to an industry that is steeped in pretense and snootiness. Invest a little in human capital on the supply side, and watch the demand side grow.

One last note, I watched the Merchant Ivory production of Jefferson in Paris to accompany the Gabler book. What a mess that movie was! Without knowing the history, I never would have lasted all the way through. But it was fun to see nevertheless—the costumes and production design were a great visual complement to a rather dry book.


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