Jefferson first arrived in Europe in 1784 to negotiate treaties alongside Benjamin Franklin who he replaced as Ambassador to France in May 1785 with the dual aim of developing trade between the two countries and restoring America’s image in France. He soon worked his way into Parisian society but also sought to travel, visiting England, the Netherlands, Italy and provincial France.
It was during a tour that stretched from northern Italy to south-western France in 1787 that Jefferson visited Bordeaux. Travelling up from Toulouse through Langon and the Sauternes wine-growing area, Jefferson arrived in Bordeaux on Thursday May 24th 1787. He took up residence in what was then known as l’Hôtel de Richelieu and the following day was heading out to châteaux in Pessac (Haut-Brion) and Villenave d’Ornon (Pontac). On Saturday May 26th, after dealing with some correspondence, he attended a double-bill of performances at the recently-completed (1780) Grand-Théâtre: Voltaire’s tragedy "Sémiramis" and the Desfontaines and Dalayrac one-act opera "L’Amant statue". The highlight of Jefferson’s Sunday was withdrawing cash from his banker and settling his laundry bill. Then on Monday 18th he checked out of the hotel and boarded a boat heading downstream to Blaye.
|The building where Jefferson stayed. The "quality burger restaurant" on the ground floor is not referred to in his diaries.|
The entries written throughout his stay and when travelling through the surrounding wine-growing areas show that Jefferson was a well-informed and highly observant chronicler of his surroundings, meticulously describing the landscapes, the quality of the soils, and the vine-raising and wine-making process: “The grafting of the vine, tho’ a critical operation, is practiced with success. When the graft has taken, they bend it into the earth and let it take root above the scar. They begin to yield an indifferent wine at 3. years old, but not a good one till 25. years, nor after 80, when they begin to yield less, and worse, and must be renewed.”
|The US Consulate building which sports the Jefferson plaque.|
After the eight years he spent serving as President, he gained something of a reputation as an authoritative wine connoisseur, passing on much valuable wine-tasting and purchasing advice to the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe and paving the way to a long and fruitful relationship between US presidents and the wines of France!
Meanwhile, in 1790, George Washington had appointed the United States’ first overseas Consul, the Maryland dignitary Joseph Fenwick who set up shop in… Bordeaux. A quayside (Cours Xavier-Arnozan) mansion residence, now known as Hôtel Fenwick, was built and completed in 1795.
|Hôtel Fenwick and its decorative entrance.|
The consulate later moved to Place de la Bourse and since 2010 has been based at number 89 Quai des Chartrons… which brings us full circle back to the Jefferson plaque, one of 45 positioned in towns visited by the statesman in France and the US by association Les Ponts du Cœur.
- Find them: US Consulate, Quai des Chartrons; Former Hôtel Richelieu, Rue Montesquieu; Hôtel Fenwick, Cours Xavier-Arnozan, Bordeaux.
- The more pedantic information in this article was lifted from the book "Thomas Jefferson à Bordeaux et dans quelques autres vignes d'Europe" by Bernard Ginestet (published by Mollat). Jefferson's diary excerpts were first featured on the Drink What You Like website.