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WE’VE ALL heard that Thomas Jefferson was something of a renaissance man, a Leonardo da Vinci of his time. This is corroborated in the fine book, Passions, The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, by James M. Gabler, Bacchus Press, Baltimore, 1995.
Jefferson loved travel and he loved wine—and not just drinking it. From 1784 through 1789, he lived in Europe, principally France, and even more specifically, Paris. During this time, he became an expert on viticulture. Passions describes this in detail, country by country, region by region.
A part of the book that enthralled me was Gabler’s description of Jefferson’s Travel Box. I call it Jefferson’s Toy Box.
The Travel Box wasn’t very large, 8 ¼ in. by 6 ¾ in. by 3 ½ in., curiously, about the size of two hardbound Passions. In Jefferson’s own hand was a complete listing of the box’s contents, everything from mundane things, like a tooth brush and razor, to scientific paraphernalia such as a blow pipe, magnet, file, pounding hammer and hammering plate. It also listed borax, fixed alkali and Nitrous, Vitriolic and Muriatic acids.
Author Gabler asked a chemist/metallurgist friend, Alfonso Baldi, to speculate about how Jefferson might have used his “Toy Box.” Here’s what Baldi conjectured.
Borax and blow pipe. Borax is a salt chemically known as sodium tetra borate. It is colorless, with a melting point of 741 degrees Fahrenheit. When heated with metal oxides found in vintner soil, the borax dissolves them and gives characteristic colors. Copper oxide: blue. Iron oxide (magnetic): green. Iron oxide (non-magnetic): brown. Nickel oxide: yellowish brown. Manganese oxide: violet.
Jefferson would use the blow pipe to increase the flame temperatures in these soil analyses.
Acids. First, let’s identify Jefferson’s nomenclature with our own. Muriatic is today’s hydrochloric acid; vitriolic is sulfuric acid; his nitrous acid, we’d call nitric. One or more of these could be used to identify different chemicals in the soil.
For instance, chalk (calcium carbonate) readily reacts with hydrochloric acid and liberates carbon dioxide gas. The quantity of gas released would give Jefferson an idea of how much chalk was present in the soil.
Fixed alkali. An alkali such as caustic soda would have little effect on chalk or iron oxide, but it would dissolve silica sand and some quartz.
File. Jefferson could use the file for assessing the relative hardness of coarse materials in the soil. Talc is the softest, followed by gypsum, then chalk and calcite and finally quartz.
Hammer and plate. These would be used to assess the soil’s texture, the presence and quantity of stones, gravel and other hard materials. These are important in vintner soils as they promote good drainage—and good wines.
Last, author Gabler also discusses the wines that Jefferson would have served, the White House wine cellar during his time in office, a glossary of wine terms—Jefferson’s and our own—and a list of Jefferson’s favorite wines that are still available today. One such is Chateau-Grillet, Jefferson’s “best white wine out of the northern Rhone.” A neat book. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012