Review: ‘Eastbound Westbound – A Winemaker’s Story’

New wine documentary 'Eastbound Westbound' seeks to uncover Thomas Jefferson’s role in bringing wine to America. Adam Lechmere says it doesn’t quite dig deep enough

Words by Adam Lechmere

Chateau Haut-Brion in Eastbound Westbound film
Château Haut-Brion, where the 'Eastbound Westbound' investigation begins

Thomas Jefferson may well have been America’s first great wine bore. ‘There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying,’ John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary after dining with Jefferson in 1807.

That illuminating aside comes from journalist Patrick Radden Keefe in a 2007 New Yorker article. Jefferson was, of course, a great collector of wines, spending huge sums on his cellar during his tenure as US president and while he was minister to France, where he was sent in 1785. He obviously loved Bordeaux. He went there in 1787 and on many other occasions. According to Jane Anson, he visited Château Haut-Brion on May 24; he bought an unspecified amount of Yquem, 24 cases of Haut-Brion and 250 bottles of Lafite. ‘The flow of Bordeaux wine to the States was well and truly in place,’ Anson says.

Jefferson is a hero to a certain type of Francophile oenophile. ‘He introduced wine to the Americas. He truly is the father of wine,’ says George Sape, president of an organisation called American Friends of Cité du Vin (the grand Bordeaux wine museum). Sape is just one of the interviewees in Eastbound Westbound, a new documentary that ‘aims to trace, understand and demonstrate the historical and fundamental links between the United States, Bordeaux and its wines.’

'Eastbound Westbound' narrator Jeffrey Davies is briefed on his mission by Haut-Brion's Prince Robert of Luxembourg

The film (which steers well clear of anything so disrespectful as Adams’ diary entry) is set up as an ‘investigation’. Journalist and wine merchant Jeffrey Davies – ‘I’m the most French of Americans’ – is commissioned by Haut-Brion owner Prince Robert of Luxembourg (‘The Prince’) to search the château archives and find out exactly what turned Jefferson on to Bordeaux. ‘Thank you for your confidence in entrusting me with this mission,’ Davies says. He doesn’t exactly bow and add the word ‘Sire’, but you feel he wants to.

Davies is an engaging if portentous narrator. He speaks slowly, giving the most commonplace statement – about barrel size, for example – the weight of an edict. He treads the vineyards portentously; he even gets in and out of a Land Rover portentously. It’s a relief when he sits down with his old friend Robert Parker and relaxes a bit.

But he gets the job done, even if the original theme of Jefferson’s role in the business is slightly lost. This is really the story of the long and honourable relationship of Bordeaux and California. Davies lunches with Denise Adams, who, with her husband Stephen, bought Château Fonplegade in 2004 and then founded Adamvs on Napa’s Howell Mountain; he meets Claire Villars-Lurton and her husband Gonzague, who added Acaibo in Sonoma to their Bordeaux holdings; he visits Alfred Tesseron at the rather creepily-named Villa Sorriso (‘House of Smiles’), which the Pontet-Canet owner bought from the estate of the late actor Robin Williams in 2016 for $18m, and changed the name to Pym-Rae (after Williams’ children, Tesseron explains).

Château Haut-Bages Libéral owner Claire Villars-Lurton and husband Gonzague Lurton raise a glass on their Sonoma estate

Throughout, the ‘different but complementary approaches’ of Bordeaux and California are illustrated. We see how the Tesserons introduced manual sorting and dry farming to their Napa estate; we hear the story of the great collaboration of the Rothschilds and the Mondavis with Opus One. We learn a lot about biodynamic farming. Perhaps tellingly, we don’t hear very much from California vintners, and what they think of the French invasion. It’s a slightly one-sided story.

And so back to Jefferson, whose visits to Haut-Brion are acted out by characters in hose and buckled shoes, and really extraordinary back-combed wigs (Jefferson looks like late-period Robert Smith of The Cure). Finally, Davies heads back to Haut-Brion to present the results of his investigation to ‘The Prince’.

‘One question remains unanswered,’ he intones. ‘Who, or what, was behind Thomas Jefferson’s passion for the wines of Bordeaux?’ It turns out, through Davies’ searches in the Haut-Brion archives, that it was Benjamin Franklin, the minister who Jefferson replaced, who was the mentor, introducing his successor to the wines of the region. ‘Maybe he was the first wine cognoscente?’ muses Prince Robert. Maybe he too gave long disquisitions on wine, in a bird’s-nest wig.

Thomas Jefferson: 'father of wine'?

As an exploration of an ancient relationship between two great wine regions, Eastbound Westbound does a good job. As a history of Jefferson’s involvement with Bordeaux, it leaves a few other questions hanging – not least, what was the truth behind that famous cache of ‘Jefferson bottles’ supposedly discovered in a Paris cellar in 1985, and which resulted in one of the most acrimonious lawsuits ever seen in the world of wine? Now, there’s a story…

Eastbound Westbound: A Winemaker’s Story is available to stream from 12 May on Apple TV. Watch the full trailer below.