John Locke: politician, philosopher... oenophile?!

By Jim Gabler – Baltimore

(Originally published in Wine, Food & Friends Issue #71, Fall 2004)

Although little known, John Locke (1632-1704), the great political philosopher, whom Thomas Jefferson called one “of the three greatest men the world has ever produced,” was a wine enthusiast, and he has left us an interesting little wine book.

In 1675, Locke left the employment of the Earl of Shaftesbury (where he served the Earl as personal physician, secretary and advisor), and retired at age 43 to Montpellier, in the south of France. As his carriage approached Paris, Locke describes seeing “. . . peasants digging their vineyards with hoes.” Vineyards had flourished on the hillsides surrounding Paris for over 800 years and a number of vintners had the reputation for producing good quality vin ordinaire. Many of these vineyards were wiped out by a murderous winter in 1709.

After a brief stay in Paris, Locke continued south noting “. . . we passed by Hermitage, the place so famous for its wine.” Two days later he “came to a little town called Châteauneuf [Châteauneuf du Pape} where formerly had been a citadel which is now demolished, and the town very little and very poor in appearance.” The name and “citadel” derive from the summer castle built here by Pope John XXII between 1318 and 1333. Except for the tower wall, nothing remains today of the castle.

Locke settled in Montpellier for a 15-month stay. He later traveled to Bordeaux and left a detailed description of his visit to the Pontac estate of Château Haut-Brion, the soil, the grapes and the wine. The origins of Haut-Brion and the Pontac family go back more than 150 years before Locke's visit. As early as 1505, Arnaud de Pontac had become wealthy by exporting wine and importing cloth, and the family wealth and power continued to grow along with their reputation for producing outstanding wines. On April 10, 1663, Samuel Pepys (an English aristocrat, member of Parliament, and Secretary of the Admiralty) wrote in his diary, “. . . to the Royal Oake Tavern in Lumbard Street . . . and here drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that doth have a good and most particular taste that I ever met with.” Three years later Pontac sent his son-in-law to London to open a tavern under the sign of “Pontack's Head.” By all accounts it was a great success and remained in business for over a hundred years.

In the manuscript in which Locke detailed his French wine experiences, he recorded 41 grape varieties grown in the neighborhood of Montpellier including such current Languedoc varieties as Muscat, Picardan and Picpoul. He describes local viticulture and winemaking practices (the importance of using only pigeon and hen dung to fertilize the vines), the retail sale of wine, and the exorbitant taxes levied on wine sold in a cabaret or common drinking house, often more than 50 percent of the price of the wine.

Locke's manuscript found its way into the possession of the Shaftesbury family and remained there for nearly 90 years, until published in 1766 titled “Observations upon the Growth and Culture of Vines and Olives; The Production of Silk; the Preservation of Fruits.”