Author James Gabler: Interview with the Wine Historian
James Gabler has carved out a somewhat unique niche within the wine writing genre. His books and words do not describe wines or regions, but rather have focused more on the historical context of wine. Gabler is best known for his writing about Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to wine. This subject was fully exposed in his award winning book "Passions: The Wines & Travels of Thomas Jefferson."
Gabler’s latest book (earlier reviewed here) remains focused on icons of America’s Revolutionary Era. "An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine and Conversation" is a compelling read that sits the reader in front of these two genius heroes of that era and lets them spin their tales, in their own words, on wide ranging subjects, including wine. It is a unique book that highlights Gabler’s commitment to scholarship as well as his own passion for wine.
Gabler was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about life as a writer, wine and our wine-drinking founding fathers.
Q.In large part, your writing about wine has been in an historical context ("An Evening..", "Passion", and your bibliography of wine books). For people who are just now starting to extend their wine appreciation, what does the history of wine have to say about the contemporary wine culture and wine industry?
A. I don’t know that the history of wine offers anything specific to the contemporary wine culture, a culture that seems obsessed with how many points a wine receives from wine critics, but winemaking has advanced historically in a step by step process to its present art form. The more we know about wine, like most everything else we enjoy, the better we can understand and appreciate it and knowing the history of wine adds an extra dimension. Wine has involved the entire human experience, and its literature is almost as rich and varied as the varieties of grapes from which it is made. From an intellectual perspective, the history of wine has nourished the thoughts and writings of famous men and women throughout history.
Q. Wine writing seems to be its own genre inside the general world of
literature and particularly inside the genre of criticism. Why do you
think wine has and does inspire so many to write?
A.Because throughout history men and women have loved wine, and they have expressed their love by writing about it.
Q. What do you think would be Jefferson’s reaction to the California
Cabernets, Bordeaux, Red Burgundies and Australian Shiraz of today were
he able to encounter and try them?
A. Jefferson would find today’s red Bordeaux a bit lighter in body
but similar in style and taste. Jefferson was of the opinion that
Chateaux Haut Brion, Latour and Margaux were ready to drink after four
years, and because Lafite was a lighter wine, it could be drunk after
only three years. During the course of dinner (in "An Evening…"), Jefferson describes the
tastes and aromas of the Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion, and
the reader’s surrogate, Jack Osborne, gives his impressions of those
Jefferson was not a big fan of red Burgundies and there is no reason to
believe that he would feel differently today. He would be proud of
California’s wine progress, especially many cabernet sauvignons and
they would be an important part of his wine cellar. Australian Shiraz
would delight his palate but he would look for reasonably priced Shiraz.
Q. Was Jefferson a Hedonist, simply a man with more cultured tastes, or a bit of both?
A. Jefferson was a man of cultured tastes but with a touch of wine
hedonism. Clearly wine was a life-long passion; he called it a
"necessary of life" and drank it on a daily basis. Look for "The
Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine," a very interesting
documentary that has begun to air on PBS-TV, and which sheds light on
Q. Same question but concerning Franklin.
A. John Adams saw Franklin as a hedonist, but Adams was a prude. In my
opinion, Franklin fits the same mold as Jefferson–a man of cultured
tastes who usually drank wine, beer and Madeira in moderation. He also
liked the women and the women liked him, but liking wine, women, and
song (yes, Franklin wrote wine songs) does not make Franklin a hedonist.
Q. Tell us about the development of your own appreciation of wine. What prompted it? How did your appreciation of wine progress?
A. I used to drink only beer. A friend in the wine business offered to sell me wine at wholesale. I bought Alexis Bespaloff’s Signet Book of Wine, went to my friend’s place of business and pointed to a number of cases of wines that Bespaloff had recommended. Obviously my palate must have agreed with Mr. Bespaloff’s because I liked what I drank, and as they say, the rest is history.
Q. Where do your tastes lie with regard to wine? What are your favorite wines and wine regions?
A. My first exposure to serious wine drinking was red Bordeaux and
white Burgundies, and, on balance, Bordeaux and white Burgundies remain
my favorites. Although I can’t say I’ve never met a wine I didn’t like,
there are but few well-made wines that I avoid. Other favorites are
California Cabernets, Cote Roties, Hermitages, and Australian Shiraz.
Q. You are also a lawyer as well as a writer and historian. What’s your
take on the legal cases that have and are progressing regarding direct
A. The Supreme Court recently held that the states cannot allow
in-state vintners to sell directly to consumers and deny that right to
out-of-state producers. I believe that decision is going to cause
serious economic trouble in states where small vineyard owners have
less political clout than large wholesale distributors–an economic
disparity that exists in most states. To prevent consumers from having
the right to buy direct from wineries in California, Washington,
Oregon, etc, wholesale distributors will spend megabucks to convince
legislatures to pass legislation that revokes the right of local
wineries to sell direct to the consumer, the economic life-blood of
small winery sales. We are already beginning to see this scenario come
in play in some state legislatures.
Q. Do you drink wine when you write?
A. I don’t drink wine and write. When I break from my writing schedule
to have lunch with a friend but with the intention of resuming writing,
I limit myself to one or two glasses.
Q. Are there any particular wine topics you want to write about in the future?
I wrote what I think is a pretty neat beginner’s guide to wine titled How To Be A Wine Expert. It was published in 1987 and 1995. When time allows, I would like to do a 3rd edition.