In the year 1784—seventeen years before he became president of the United States—Thomas Jefferson sailed to France to spend five years working as a diplomat and ambassador. Based in Paris, he conversed with other prominent Americans also visiting the country—including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin—who encouraged his interest in wine. During one trip, Jefferson visited Bordeaux in the southwest of the country for four days and praised local vintages. Years later at his presidential inauguration back in the U.S., Jefferson substituted the traditional serving of Madeira wines with bottles of Bordeaux instead.
This historical link between French and American wines is the basis of a new documentary titled Eastbound Westbound—A Winemakers’ Story from Bordeaux and California. The chain that links modern and historical vignettes in this hour and 22-minute presentation is revealed within the first minute inside a sunlit and stately ancient library where two men speak. Narrator Jeffrey Davies (an American who has lived in France for decades while working in the wine world) is posed a question by Prince Robert of Luxembourg—owner of the Bordeaux wine estate visited by Jefferson in May 25th, 1787—Château Haut-Brion. The query is simple: what was the origin of Jefferson’s love of wine?
To hunt down the answer, Davies speaks with owners of prestigious (and often biodynamic) Bordeaux wine estates such as Château Pontet-Canet in the Médoc and Château Fonplegade in Saint-Émilion before he crosses the ocean to California. Drone shots trail his Tesla crossing the Golden Gate bridge toward the wine country of Napa and Sonoma valleys.
The documentary’s cinematography is sumptuous, the landscapes rolling and elegant and the pace of narrative measured and unhurried. Historical segments include actors in period costumes—whether driving a carriage in the French wine country or tending vines. Modern conversations take place at impressive dinner tables or inside cellars in wine and cognac country. An interview with American lawyer George Sape highlights the connection between the Cité du Vin wine museum in Bordeaux city and its American supporters, while a conversation with wine critic Robert Parker highlights the benefits of biodynamic agriculture.
To learn more of the film’s genesis, I met producers Frédèric Lot and Gerard Spatafora—founders of E-Studi’Oz—at the terrace of a wine bar in the rural town of Blaye, Bordeaux.
‘We used to work for a wine merchant,’ Spatafora explained. ‘The boss asked us to prepare video content back in 2009, 2010. Frederic was also a wine journalist and traveled throughout France, and Spain and Italy. We made videos and put them on YouTube. The response from clients and wine lovers in Germany, Switzerland, the U.K. and other countries was great—people demanded video content. We joked by saying, ‘One day we will produce a documentary.’ During Covid-19 we said, ‘Let’s go like Las Vegas—and put everything on the table, and produce this film.’ We researched the documentary, talked to the film maker, and found the right narrator. We began shooting in June, 2021, but then were stuck by the travel ban because we were supposed to shoot in California during the summer. We were obliged to go there in November.
‘Challenges included the Covid travel ban and the fact that some wine châteaux said no. But—we did it! We had a private showing for châteaux owners and people from Bordeaux in the Cité du Vin auditorium named after Thomas Jefferson.’
Julien Couson of PMG Productions directed filming, which includes shots at Château Durfort-Vivens in Margaux, Château Quintus in Saint-Émilion, at Acaibo in California’s Sonoma Valley and at Villa Sorriso in Napa Valley.
Frédèric Lot spoke about the narrator. ‘Casting was perfect with Jeffrey, because we needed an American person who knows both French and American cultures, and with high level wine knowledge. We met him through networking. Our goal is to give the film first to the American market, because the story talks about Jefferson.’
The film will be released later this year. Producers will show the documentary at a range of venues, including Sonoma International Film Festival in California, Seattle Wine and Film Festival in Washington, The Taste Awards in Los Angeles in California, Deauville American Film Festival in France, Naples International Film Festival in Italy, IDF in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the Wine International Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
In the same way that 13th century Eleanor of Aquitaine promoted Bordeaux’s international wine trade with England (after marrying the Englands king-to-be), Jefferson forged American respect for French wines through his connection with the country and its leaders, hence inadvertently promoting consequent wine business ties that endure today. Eastbound Westbound is a beautiful and easy-paced tour through history and wine landscapes on two continents—revealing reasons why the Franco-American wine bond will likely strengthen with time.