Wine Spectator

A President’s Passion

Documentary tells the story of Thomas Jefferson and the founding father’s love of wine
Kristiana Kahakauwila
June 28, 2006

The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine is both a portrait of our third president and a study of our country’s founding as seen through the lens of wine. By concentrating on one man’s passion, the Emmy Award-winning documentary (which previously aired on PBS and is now available on DVD for $19.95 at explores how the seeds of a nation’s taste and culture were planted.

Thomas Jefferson was, in Napa vintner Robert Mondavi’s words, “A man 150 years ahead of his time.” Before the Revolutionary War, Jefferson planted Sangiovese and other grape varieties on his estate in Monticello, Va. During George Washington’s presidency, Jefferson became the unofficial sommelier of the White House, reforming the tastes of countrymen who preferred hard liquor to wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italy.

Most notably, Jefferson was a champion of grape varieties native to the Americas, and he saw the potential of the country’s wine as a symbol for all of America’s future. “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly the same kinds, but doubtless as good,” he once wrote.

The first half of The Cultivated Life relies visually on portraits and marble busts of key Revolutionary War figures to supplement the narration. While these images do little to advance the story of Jefferson’s growing relationship with wine, the passages read from his diary are fascinating.

But when the film progresses to Jefferson’s arrival in France as a trade commissioner for the United States, wanderlust-inspiring views of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage fill the screen. In one scene, narrator Hal Holbrook reads from Jefferson’s Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe, in which he wrote, “On the hill impending over this village [Tain] is made the wine called Hermitage so justly celebrated. Go up to the top of the hill, for the sake of the sublime prospect from thence.” As Holbrook reads, the camera focuses on the exact view being described: The deep-green vineyards of Tain shimmering in the bright sunlight.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways. He ranked the châteaus of Bordeaux 68 years before the Classification of 1855, saying, “Of first quality: Margaux, Latour, Lafite and Haut-Brion.” And to guarantee quality, he insisted that any wines he bought from the French châteaus be bottled at the estate rather than at an off-premise bottler, which was a common practice at the time.

Yet The Cultivated Life also reveals the differences between Jefferson’s tastes and those common today. For example, Jefferson preferred his Bordeaux young and refused to age his wine for extended periods of time. He drank still Champagne and, surprisingly, wrote nothing about wines from the Southern Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape in particular, despite their relative popularity in England and the United States during his lifetime.

As the third U.S. president, Jefferson accrued a significant personal debt, spending his salary on wine and food and making the White House into something of a salon for political and cultural debate. In fine wine, Jefferson saw the roots of an agricultural and gastronomic revolution for America. Fittingly, The Cultivated Life highlights the tension between Jefferson’s admiration for Europe, especially France, and the potential he saw in the United States to one day surpass the countries he wished to emulate.

The Cultivated Life offers a look at the influence one powerful wine collector had over the formation of the United States, giving a taste of how our culture–now unique, but then still modeled after Europe’s–was established. What better way to honor Independence Day than by seeing where our wine and our country have been, and thinking about where each is going?

Wine Spectator