I recently picked up the book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace. This book is a romp through the intense world of high-society, elite wine circles and its dark underbelly: wine fakery. Although I already knew the book’s punch line, it exposed me to something that I wasn’t familiar with; namely, the role Thomas Jefferson played as a founder of the American wine industry. I decided I wanted to know more about this multi-talented Founding Father.
At an early age, Jefferson was exposed to fine wines when he lived with and studied under George Wythe, fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson progressed through his career, he became the US Diplomat to France where he was exposed to an even greater variety of wines, from Germany to France to Spain, and beyond.
Jefferson clearly relished his wine adventures (which he paid for himself as a private citizen), and kept copious notes and details on his tasting experiences, preferences and wine descriptions. He was completely obsessive about everything he wrote down, from these telling wine notes to all of his correspondence. This precision has been attributed to the fact that one of his early homes burned down, destroying all of his correspondence and notes with it.
Jefferson made friends with wine procurers and preferred to buy estate-bottled wine and avoid middlemen. He became so knowledgeable about wine, in fact, that he was the official wine purchaser for George Washington when he became President.
Jefferson had a gut feeling that America could also produce world-class wines, perhaps not the same ones, but ones equally as good as any from France or Spain. In 1773, he met the Italian Philip Mazzei, who also had a dream of producing wine in America. The two planted vines on Colle (“little hill”), the property Mazzei bought next to Monticello (“little mountain”). This is considered the very first vineyard in America. Their initial attempts were thwarted not only by phylloxera and other pests — eventually controlled only with modern pesticides — but also by the American Revolution. Mazzei went off to fight, and Hessian horses trampled most of the fledgling vines planted on Colle.
While Jefferson’s attempts to grow wine could not be deemed successful, he kept trying, all the while continually exposing his fellow countrymen and visiting dignitaries to the world of fine wine. Revived in earnest in 1981, incorporating modern growing and cultivation methods with old-style espalier trellising according to Jefferson’s notes, his dream that Monticello become a wine-producing estate has finally come to fruition.
Today, Monticello produces 6,000 to 8,000 cases of purely Virginia-sourced wines, including Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Rosé, and others. It is part of the Monticello Wine Trail.
There is so much more to Jefferson’s love affair with wine and his influence on American wine cultivation and education. For further reading, try Thomas Jefferson on Wine, by John Hailman.