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Ben Franklin: Connoisseur of Wine

Much has now been written of that great wine lover Thomas Jefferson, and of how he taught George Washington about French wine. But less is written of the man who taught Jefferson about French wine: Ben Franklin.

In 1784, when Jefferson went to Paris as American Commissioner, Franklin had already been there for eight years as American Minister and knew French wines well. As early as 1778, his Paris cellar list showed more than 1,000 bottles, including “258 Bottles of Red and White Bordeaux; 15 Bottles of old Bordeaux; 21 Bottles of Champagne; 326 Bottles of Mousseux (bubbly); 113 Bottles of Red Burgandy; and 148 Bottles of Xeres (sherry).”

Jefferson noted in his letters that it was primarily Franklin who instructed him on “wines of distinction” like Charteaux Margaux and Haut-Brion to serve his French guests. Jefferson and his fellow commissioner John Adams, another great wine lover who corresponded with him about wines, visited the house of the invalid Franklin several times a week to talk and drink good wine.

Franklin’s main ailment was gout, which is often induced by an excess of food and drink. In his “Dialogues Between Franklin and Madame Gout,” he denied being a “glutton and a tippler” as she accused him, but admitted he had not always followed his rule from Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Eat not to Dullness; Drink not to Elevation.” But it should not be presumed that Franklin drank to excess. His health was too strong throughout his 83 years, and he held too many posts of dignity and seriousness before, during and after the Revolution. Franklin did however, found a regular wine-driinking society called the Junto.

In a letter to Abbe Morellet, a frequent dinner companion who taught him French drinking songs, Franklin proposed to “edify you with a few Christian, moral and philosophical reflections on the same subject.” Franklin wrote: In vino verities, says the Sage. The truth is in wine. Before Noah, men having only water to drink, became abominably wicked, and were justly exterminated by the water it pleased them to drink.”

Turning to the Marriage at Cana, where water was turned into wine, Franklin noted this happens every day when rain falls on vineyards so grapes can make wine, saying “wine is a continual proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy. The particular miracle at Cana was done merely to perform this operation in a sudden case of need.”

The Irish writer and humorist Oscar Wilde, who didn’t like the English, had a different take on the subject, describing what he called an “English miracle”: Turning wine into water.

In a postscript to his son, Franklin concluded: “To confirm you in your piety, reflect on the position Providence has given the elbow. Man, who was destined to drink wine, has to be able to carry the glass to his mouth. If the elbow had been placed closer to the hand, the forearm would have been too short to bring the glass to the mouth: if closer to the shoulder, the forearm would have been so long that it would have carried the glass beyond the mouth. Let us then adore, glass in hand, the beneficent Wisdom. Let us adore and drink.”

Wine tips of the week: For Bordeaux like Ben Franklin drank, try 5th growth Chateaux like Croizet-Bages, Haut-Bages-Liberal or Pontet-Canet, whose prices remain reasonable. For modern Mousseux, try Spanish caves Codorniu and Freixenet. They would appeal both to Franklin’s taste and Poor Richard’s sense of thrift.

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