On May 25, 1787, a distinguished American steps down from a carriage and beholds a stately French château. He meets the proprietor, tours the vineyards and tastes the wine. Thus begins a love affair that may well have changed the course of history. The man is Thomas Jefferson, then the official representative of the young American government in France, and the place is Château Haut-Brion. Jefferson’s visit to the famous Bordeaux estate opens a new documentary film, Eastbound Westbound, which explores how the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence came to love the wines of Bordeaux—and how that love forged political, cultural and vinous bonds that persist to this day.
The film is co-written and narrated by Jeffrey Davies, a journalist and wine merchant who has lived in Bordeaux since the 1980s. Davies begins his journey at Haut-Brion, where he speaks with Prince Robert de Luxembourg, great-grandson of the American financier Clarence Dillon. Prince Robert shares an 1818 letter from Haut-Brion’s archives in which Jefferson discusses two of his great loves: French-American relations and, of course, wine. The letter spurs Davies to investigate the Founding Father’s passion for Bordeaux—and to seek out people who embody Jefferson’s spirit of transatlantic collaboration in the wine world today.
To that end, Davies interviews several winemakers who work in both Bordeaux and California. The impressive lineup includes Claire Villars-Lurton, of Château Haut-Bages Libéral and Sonoma’s Acaibo; Alfred Tesseron, of Château Pontet-Canet and Napa’s Pym-Rae; and Denise Adams, of Château Fonplégade and Napa’s Adamvs.
The winemakers and their families carry on a tradition of closeness between France and the United States—one that, the film shows, has been partly facilitated by wine. Since at least the days of Jefferson, wine has fostered connections between the two countries in politics, culture, the arts, economics and more. France is the United States’ oldest ally; the allegiance officially dates to 1778, and French support was crucial to the United States winning independence from Great Britain. Bordeaux was home to the first overseas American consulate, and as Prince Robert says in the film, “Bordeaux has always been about reaching out across borders … Bordeaux means ‘on the edge of the water,’ and the water as we knew it was the motorway of the world.”
Co-producer Gérard Spatafora thinks of the film as an advocate for diplomacy, connection and friendship. He told Wine Spectator that “history and … wine can bring us closer thanks to their richness. Even if politics is really complicated, we hope that producing a product coming from a terroir with hard work and strong values will keep us closer and [help us] remain friends. Wine cannot save the world, but it can help, like it did 300 years ago.” He also believes that the history of Bordeaux can remind people that immigrants have always been important to the story of wine—not just in France but around the world.
The film shines when probing connections between winemaking in Bordeaux and California. It’s exciting, for instance, to hear Noé Tesseron, Alfred’s son, talk about how the family first tried a particular way of manually sorting and destemming grapes at Pym-Rae, the Mount Veeder estate that once belonged to Robin Williams, and had such success that the next year they began the practice at Pontet-Canet. While it’s relatively easy to see the impact of Bordeaux on California—witness the enduring popularity of American Bordeaux-style blends—it’s fascinating to see the influence working the other way around.
Eastbound Westbound was conceived by Spatafora and Frédéric Lot, wine industry veterans who pivoted from strategy consulting to documentary film production during the pandemic. While their production company, E-Studi’Oz, has made winery marketing videos in the past, Spatafora told Wine Spectator that none of the wineries featured in the film are clients.
The film had a small private premiere in March at Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, in the aptly named Thomas Jefferson Auditorium. The producers have plans to bring the documentary to a major streaming service in the fall, following public premieres in New York City, London and Paris. Screenings are also slated for the Sonoma International Film Festival, DOC NYC, the Seattle Wine and Film Festival and the Naples International Film Festival. In the meantime, you can catch the trailer on the film's website.
But how did Jefferson catch the wine bug, after all? The film draws a compelling, if not entirely surprising, conclusion: Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Franklin, another great American Francophile, seems to have introduced him to the wonders of good vin. While Eastbound Westbound doesn’t provide too many details about Franklin’s role, the producers hint that follow-up films focused on Franklin, as well as Jefferson’s wine interests beyond France, are in the works.
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