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In Jefferson's Footsteps

May 24, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

BORDEAUX, France — The bicentennial celebration of what the French believe to be the most important vineyard tour in the history of both France and the United States is also the wine trail of Thomas Jefferson.

After nearly four months of sipping and sampling in 1787, Jefferson introduced French wines into the White House and became known as the godfather of American vineyards.

When Jefferson reached Paris as U.S. Minister to France in 1785, he was already a world figure as principal author of the Declaration of Independence and a major philosophical influence in the successful American Revolution. He closely watched the developing forces of the French Revolution, but he also found time to study the vineyards and wineries of France, believing that his own country could profit by becoming noted for fine wines.

Retrace the Route

He left Paris on Feb. 28, 1787, for a wine tour that was to last until June 10 and include a visit to every important vineyard and winery in France.

Now the wine regions of France--from Burgundy to the Mediterranean and up to Bordeaux--are inviting visitors to retrace all or part of his route.

Bourgogne and the Burgundian vineyards have prepared a booklet outlining Jefferson's route and saluting him for "offering the American public its first specific vocabulary in the art of wine tasting."

Bordeaux, often called the French capital city of wines, is the setting for a film that will introduce the city to visitors of today in the way it might have been introduced to Thomas Jefferson, who was as interested in historical sightseeing as he was in viticulture and the emerging democracy of his era.

With Air France, the French National Railroad and rental cars, it won't take visitors four months to retrace Jefferson's horse-and-carriage wine route.

Begin With Champagne

He started his wine tour around Champagne in Burgundy, where the prosperous appearance of the people he saw in the streets appealed to his democratic nature as much as the local wines pleased his connoisseur's palate.

His journal shows that on March 2 he was sipping the wines of Port-sur-Yonne and Sens. The next day he was in the vineyards of Joigny and Auxerre. Then he spent two days resting, tasting and sightseeing around Dijon.

He drew a map showing his favorite red and white wines of the Dijon region. Chambertin and Montrachet were already getting the most attention, but he believed that others were equally good, including such labels as Vougeau, Romanie and Pommard.

Jefferson had brought to France a considerable knowledge of viticulture. Son of a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, he had the time and means in his youth to pursue interests that ranged from botany and agriculture to geology, history, philosophy, architecture and the law.

In southern France, he studied every facet of wine making, including the quality and capacity of various barrels. Prominent wine merchants gave him personal tours of their vineyards and wineries. Jefferson noted the economic impact of what they were accomplishing, on the export markets of Europe as well as within France.

To Beaujolais Region

He sipped and studied along what he felt was the best route, moving through Marsault and Tournus into the Beaujolais region, which impressed him as the "richest country" he had ever seen.

From there he meandered down the Rhone Valley, into the vineyards of Provence and on to the Mediterranean coast where he gave top rating to the wines of Nice and Marseille.

Today's traveler may be tempted, as Jefferson was, to slip across the border and sample the wines of Italy, which also pleased his palate.

He then headed north through the wine country of Languedoc and Rousillon to Bordeaux, where he found the history and architecture of the city as fascinating as its wines.

Two hundred years later, in May of 1987, my wife Elfriede and I have been privileged to meet the people of Bordeaux and tour their city.

We spent an evening with Florence Colin-Goguel, the Parisian writer who has written the script for the 15-minute film about Jefferson in Bordeaux, which will be premiered on television in June and then made available by the French tourist office for showings to visitors.

By May of 1787, Bordeaux's population had reached 110,000, having doubled since the beginning of that century.

"Philadelphia," muses Jefferson in the film, "has scarcely 30,000 inhabitants." That same month, delegates to the Constitutional Convention were beginning their sessions in Philadelphia.

Such Bordeaux attractions of today as the Grand Theater, the Bourse, Place Royale, the public gardens and chateaux, the medieval churches and the sculptured architecture of the esplanades and avenues were landmarks when Jefferson visited.

Bordeaux was an important city, marketplace and center of wine under the Romans. There are remains of a 3rd-Century amphitheater that could seat 15,000.

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