Home > History of Wine > “I am in great distress for want of it, having none”: John Adam’s Inquiries about Bordeaux Wines Prior to Thomas Jefferson’s Classification of 1787

“I am in great distress for want of it, having none”: John Adam’s Inquiries about Bordeaux Wines Prior to Thomas Jefferson’s Classification of 1787


In a curious way, my current research which began with Thomas Jefferson and led to James Madison has circled back again to Thomas Jefferson.  In looking at original scanned bills of lading for descriptions of bottle and case marks I eventually ended up reading Thomas Jefferson’s famous Bordeaux Classification of 1787.  This was after I read John Adam’s earlier inquiries into the growths of Bordeaux.  I find the history of wine is rich in subjects worthy of further exploration and the origins of Thomas Jefferson’s classification is one of them.  Be wary of any wine writer or blogger who states they have writer’s block.  With natural curiosity and intrepidness one should accumulate an ever increasing list of subjects to write about.  One should simply be handicapped by a lack of time.

Dept. De La Gironde. Levasseur, Victor. 1856. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Dept. De La Gironde. Levasseur, Victor. 1856. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Almost one decade prior to Thomas Jefferson’s May 1787 tour of Bordeaux, John Adams met the negocient J. C. Champagne at Blaye on April 1, 1778.[1]  He informed John Adams that “of the first Grouths of Wine, in the Province of Guienne, there are four Sorts, Chateau Margeaux, Hautbrion, La Fitte, and Latour.”  Later that day John Adams took tea and went for a walk with John Bondfield the American Commercial Agent at Bordeaux.  Almost two years later in April 1780, John Adams wrote from Paris to John Bondfield that he had “Occasion for a Cask of Bordeaux Wine, of the very best Quality”. [2]  In this letter he enquired as to “a list of the various Sorts of Bordeaux Wines, their Names, Qualities, and Prices”.  It appears that John Adams perhaps forgot his previous conversation and was unaware of Sir Edward Barry’s Observations, historical, critical, and medical, on the wines of the ancients (1775).  In this book Sir Edward Barry considered the “principal growths” to be “the Pontac Wines, Haut Brion, Chatteau Margouze, Lafitte, Latour, &c.”[3]  John Adams’ questions were also proposed to Bordeaux merchant B. de Cabarrus Jeune and William Vernon Jr.  It is possible his enquiries were related to his “Honor to be a Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States of America”.[4]  Perhaps John Adams wanted to celebrate his appointment.

The response from William Vernon Jr. has not been found.  Of the other two, the letter from B. de Cabarrus Jeune was received first on April 8, 1780.[5]  Of the “old wines of Medoc” he listed “Haut Brion, St. Julien, or Chateau Margaux” and that they were drinkable “only after 4,5, or 6 years.  He noted but did not specify that there were “some growths” which were less known but provided “excellent wines.” John Bondfield used terminology in his list which Thomas Jefferson would echo later, the “most esteemed for private Use of the first second and third qualities”.[6]  His list in the letter appears to be broken down by price into four groups, three red and one white.  Thus the most expensive red was “Vin de Segeur ou lafit” which sold at 2000 livres per Ton.  The second most expensive included “Chatteau Magot”, “St. Julien”, and “Cannon” which sold from 800-1200 livres per Ton.  The third most expensive included “Medoc comprehending various qualities” from 400-800 livres per Ton.  The sole grouping of “Vin Blanc” included “de Bersac” and “de La Grave” at 360-400 livres per Ton.

For Sale. [9]

For Sale. September 1, 1785. [9]

These particular Bordeaux wines were available in America and advertisements of this period appear to link the idea of specific names to tiered quality or growths.  Alexander Gillon’s advertisement in Charleston, South Carolina on June 21, 1783, lists “Claret…of the favourite qualities of Haut Brion, de Grave and Julian”.[7]  These wines were shipped by a Bordeaux gentleman whose house shipped “none but wines of the first quality.”  Messrs. Willing, Morris & Swanwick of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania advertised “Of the first Growth” consisting of a few dozen bottles of unnamed 1777 “Bordeaux CLARET”.[8]  Cornelius Ray of New York City linked his advertisement “of the best Bordeaux Claret” to the specific “first growths of Haut-Brion and Latour” on September 1, 1785.[9]  Cornelius Ray does not specify which ship imported his claret but later that month Thompson & Lennox, also of New York, imported claret on the brig Friendship.[10]  They had bottles of “Claret de Segur, Hauthbrion, Margaux, and Medoc” which was “warranted of the first quality.”  By April 13, 1792, one could buy “French claret of the second growth” in Charleston, South Carolina.[11]

The wine related correspondence of Thomas Jefferson is peppered with exchanges involving John Bondfield.  On April 19, 1785, John Bondfield wrote to Thomas Jefferson that he had forwarded “four Cases containing thirty six Bottles each of our first Growth”.[12]  I do not yet know what these four first-growths were but I have enquired with the Library at the Massachusetts Historical Society for scans of the original invoices and bill of lading.  I would normally wait for such correspondence but this is post is a quick exploration of an idea.  Regardless, John Bondfield was maintaining his own three-tiered classification of the growths of Bordeaux and after sharing part of it with John Adams he did so with Thomas Jefferson.

Bordeaux. Chapman and Hall, London. 1832. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Bordeaux. Chapman and Hall, London. 1832. David Rumsey Map Collection.

Two years later Thomas Jefferson famously noted on his tour of Bordeaux during May 24-28, 1787, that there were “4. Vineyards of first quality”.[13]  These included “Chateau Margau”, “La Tour de scur”, “Hautbrion”, and “Chateau de la Fite”.   The order is different in his April 23, 1788, “Memorandum On Wine” where he lists “1 Chateau-Margau”, “2 la Tour de Segur”, “3.Hautbrion”, and “4. De la Fite”.[14]  This order is preserved in his February 20, 1793, “Memorandum to Henry Sheaff”.[15]  Thomas Jefferson famously enjoyed these wines for he began to place orders through John Bondfield such as that of February 22, 1788, where he requested “250. Bottles of his wine de la Fite of 1784”.[16]  This vintage was no longer available and with the 1786 not yet ready, John Bondfield recommended “Vins d’hautbrion” being next in quality.[17]  Chateau Haut-Brion does not appear in John Bondfield’s 1780 list so perhaps his rankings had changed.  Thomas Jefferson clearly documented his classification of the wines of Bordeaux.  I cannot help but wonder whether the inquiries of John Adams or the opinions of John Bondfield were in his thoughts as he walked amongst the “celebrated vineyards”.


[1] “1778 April 1. Wednesday.,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0008-0003-0001, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 2, 1771–1781, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 293–294.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-02-02-0008-0003-0001
[2] “From John Adams to John Bondfield, 2 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0075, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 9, March 1780 – July 1780, ed. Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 103–104. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0075
[3] Barry, Edward. Observations, historical, critical, and medical, on the wines of the ancients. 1775. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=yTlKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] “From John Adams to John Bondfield, 2 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0074, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 9, March 1780 – July 1780, ed. Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 102–103.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0074
[5] “B. de Cabarrus Jeune to John Adams: A Translation, 8 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0089-0002, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 9, March 1780 – July 1780, ed. Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 117–119.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0089-0002
[6] “To John Adams from John Bondfield, 12 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0096, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 9, March 1780 – July 1780, ed. Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 127–129. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0096
[7] Date: Saturday, June 21, 1783         Paper: South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, SC)   Volume: I   Issue: 19   Page: 4
[8] Date: Saturday, September 18, 1784             Paper: Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, PA)   Volume: XIII   Issue: 1754   Page: 3
[9] Date: Thursday, September 1, 1785               Paper: New-York Packet (New York, NY)   Issue: 520   Page: 3
[10] Date: Monday, September 26, 1785             Paper: Charleston Evening Gazette (Charleston, SC)   Volume: I   Issue: 67   Page: 3
[11] Date: Friday, April 13, 1792            Paper: City Gazette (Charleston, SC)   Volume: X   Issue: 1861   Page: 2
[12] “To Thomas Jefferson from John Bondfield, 19 April 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-08-02-0060, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, 25 February–31 October 1785, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 93–95.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-08-02-0060
[13] “Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c., 3 March–10 June 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0389, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 1 January–6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 415–464.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0389
[14] “Memorandum on Wine, [after 23 April 1788],” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0701, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 27, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. John Catanzariti. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 761–763.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0701
[15] “Memorandum to Henry Sheaff, [after 20 February 1793],” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0799, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 27, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. John Catanzariti. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 842–845. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0799
[16] “From Thomas Jefferson to John Bondfield, 22 February 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0659, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12, 7 August 1787 – 31 March 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 616.  URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0659
[17] “To Thomas Jefferson from John Bondfield, 19 April 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0019, ver. 2014-02-12). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 13, March–7 October 1788, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956, p. 96. URL: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-13-02-0019

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