Drinking & Eating with Ben and Tom

Every now and then you come across a book that you assume was written specifically for your eyes. It appeals to your past, your aspirations, your education, your occupation. That’s how I felt about
"An Evening with Benjamin Franklin & Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine & Conversation"
  by James Gabler.

Many of your will be familiar with Gabler due to his last work, "Passions: The Wines & Travels of Thomas Jefferson," winner of the 1995 "Veuve Clicquot Wine Book of the Year" award. Now Gabler delivers a new work that once again has history as its focus but also spends a good deal of time focused on one of his own passions, wine.

The premise is simple: A historian is catapulted back in time via a
dream and placed on the doorstep of Thomas Jefferson’s home in Paris.
There are no time travel mechanics, alternative histories or black
holes to consider in the historian’s travel back. You simply suspend
disbelief because doing so gets you to the red meat of Gabler’s book:
The chance to talk to Jefferson and Franklin with the knowledge of what
came after them.

Gabler’s new book is remarkable on a number of levels. First, you have to understand that the title is an accurate reflection of the book’s content. Yet, while the book is "fiction" it is also pure non-fiction all the way down to the more than 800 footnotes and the fact that much of what Franklin and Jefferson say to our historian are their own words, preserved in various letters and sources and faithfully reproduced in the appropriate conversations Gabler creates. But it is also a speculative book insofar as throughout Gabler has both Jefferson and Franklin reacting to news of what has transpired in the 200 or so years since they died. Still with me?

You really must know my own background to appreciate why this book is such a thrilling one for me. Around 1988 I decided to get a masters degree in history. I was one of those fellows who sought out a higher degree merely because I didn’t get enough of college by the time I was awarded my BA. My subject was history, specifically American history. While indulging myself in a MA in History I focused more specifically on American Diplomatic History. Luckily, the University I attended offered one of the top professors in the country who specialized generally in American Diplomatic History and the Historiography of American Diplomacy.

One of the areas I spent a good deal of time studying was the diplomatic history and the foreign affairs of the Revolutionary period, that era covered in "An Evening..". At about the very same time in my life I was completely taken by wine and began to study it liberally. By the time I got my MA and realized that I didn’t want a PhD, I had chosen to look into working in the wine industry.

So as you can see, Gabler’s "historical fiction" with its focus on the American Revolutionary period as well as substantially on wine is something I might jump into feet first.

That said, "An Evening…" is largely a reminiscence. It is not a critical biography. It does not cast a sharp eye on Jefferson and Franklin with the truly modern goal of deconstructing their hypocrisies or foibles. Rather, Gabler has created a portrait of Jefferson and Franklin at rest, comfortable, looking back on where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, the things they regret and the pleasures they experienced and sought out. There is nothing defensive in this work. It is a long, comfortable and deeply interesting conversation with two very worldly men of the 18th century.

Did they drink wine in the 18th century, these worldly men, these radicals, these revolutionaries?

In discussing his 1787 tour of Burgundy, Jefferson relates to our time traveling historian:

"Arriving in the ancient town of Beaune on March 8, I lodged at Chez Dion a L’Ecu de France and promptly hired Etienne Parent, a cooper and wine merchant, as a guide to the vineyards of Pommard, Volnay, Montrachet and Meursault. As I mentioned earlier, Parent and I became friends, and he became my Burgundian wine counselor. Parent took me to the vineyards of Monsieur de la Tour, and it was here that I was introduced to the most expensive dry wine of Burgundy. My tasting confirmed Parent’s  opinion and I ordered 125 bottles of 1782 Montrachet."

Throughout the book we are treated to descriptions of Burgundy, Bordeaux the Rhone, Champagne and other wine producing regions that our heroes encountered throughout their lives. And we are also offered tales of drinking as well as wine reviews. Describing his encounter with white Hermitage while in the village of Tain, Jefferson tells Franklin the drink was "the first wine in the world, without a single exception:

"it was not entirely dry. It was what I call silky, and when I use the term silky I do not mean sweet, but sweetish in the smallest degree only."

The liberties that Gabler takes with his subject’s minds and recollections are grounded in the historical record. Yet, Gabler’s own voice is also delivered through the words of Jefferson and Franklin. Gabler is  clearly an optimist and a man of principle who believes much of the wisdom that our country might posses was best expressed in the acts of revolutionaries and country-makers like Franklin and Jefferson.

One is not required to have a post-graduate degree in history to appreciate this book. There is no jargon to sift through. Yet it distills a great deal of research and scholarship in a way that can be appreciated by the average reader  and particularly by the wine lover who knows the meaning of wine is found as much in the past as in the present.

Finally, if you need a 90+ point review from a famed wine critic to convinced this is the book for you, Robert Parker, Jr. said:

"An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine, and Conversation " is a brilliant roman a clef
around wine and the lives and travels of Thomas Jefferson and Ben
Franklin. This is a marvelously enlightening book for both historians
and wine enthusiasts."

An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson:
Dinner Wine and Conversation

By James Gabler
Published by Bacchus Press on January 17, 2006, the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s Birth

Posted In: Wine Media


10 Responses

  1. allan - January 26, 2006

    It sounds like a great book, historical novels are an interest of mine as well and I will check this out.

  2. Catherine Granger - January 27, 2006

    This looks very interesting. Jefferson and Franklin are such fascinating characters. Thanks Tom for mentioning this book! I will also check Gabler’s earlier work too.

  3. Dave - January 28, 2006

    My kind of book, thanks, Tom.

  4. Kelli - January 30, 2006

    Hi…as all others, I’m excited about this book as well & have gone to Amazon & BN to purchase (as it was my understanding it was being released on 1/28) but they say it’ll be 4-6 weeks before it’ll ship…has Bacchus Press changed the release date of this book??

  5. lion - July 7, 2006

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