Boyd on wine: Thomas Jefferson and the history of wine in the US
July 4, 1776.
On this day, 241 years ago, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, forever severing? the American colonies from the British Crown. The Committee of Five, which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, met a few days earlier to draft the document. John Adams, then the representative from Massachusetts, had asked Jefferson to write the declaration.
It is not a stretch to imagine that Jefferson, a Renaissance man and America’s first wine expert, had a glass of Madeira at his elbow while he worked on the first draft.
Malmsey Madeira was, after all, the wine of choice then in the Colonies. Madeira is a sweet, fortified wine from an island of the same name in the Atlantic, about midway between Portugal and North Africa. British trading ships en route to India stopped at Madeira to take on new provisions, including Madeira wine. The wine soon became fashionable in England and was so popular in the Colonies that it was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Today, the United States is still a major export market for Madeira, although sales are small.
While he continued to enjoy Madeira, Jefferson’s natural curiosity sparked an interest in learning about indigenous grapes grown in Virginia and the Carolinas and expanding his knowledge of European wines. Thanks to friends and college tutors, Jefferson had already tasted wines from France, Germany and England, but his interest picked up with the construction of a new home.
In 1772, Jefferson built Monticello in the neoclassical style on 5,000 acres of land outside Charlottesville, Virginia. A year later, the Florentine horticulturist Filippo Mazzei came to Virginia to look for land for his Italian Vineyard Society. Mazzei’s idea was to import Italian grapevines and vineyard workers, and all he needed was land. Mazzei and Jefferson had earlier corresponded, and Mazzei was anxious to meet Jefferson in person. Eventually, Jefferson gave land next to Monticello to Mazzei, and a mutual friendship and working relationship was established.
Mazzei encouraged Jefferson to expand his plantings of various crops on the estate, including local grapes like the native Vitus labrusca “fox grape” and scuppernong, a native grape of the Vitis rotundifolia species that grew along rivers in the South. Jefferson heaped praise on wine made from native grapes like scuppernong, saying that its strong muscat aroma and flavor would be “distinguished on the best tables of Europe.” He planted 287 vines at Monticello, including 24 European grape varieties, hoping to make wine from the European grapes.
Unfortunately, after many years of planting and experimenting, Jefferson had little success in the vineyard and the only wine made on the estate was from local varieties, including the Alexander grape, which impressed Jefferson enough to proclaim that it was “equal to Chambertin,” one of Burgundy’s top red wines made from the pinot noir grape. Premium grape varieties,of the family Vitis vinifera, like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon, did not survive the vine pests and black rot common then in Virginia, not to mention the area’s harsh winters.
Undaunted, Jefferson encouraged his neighbors James Monroe and James Madison to develop their own vineyards while he concentrated on developing his formal wine education, with the same devotion and enthusiasm he showed to other interests like astronomy and fine art. In 1785, George Washington appointed Jefferson minister to France, a post held previously by Benjamin Franklin. For the next four years, the erudite and curious Jefferson traveled throughout France’s wine regions and was the toast of Parisian society. Jefferson’s new French friends and colleagues introduced him to Champagne and Bordeaux and broadened his knowledge of fine Burgundy.
While traveling in Italy, Jefferson sampled the great nebbiolo reds of Barolo and Barbaresco and the red wines of Tuscany, some of which he was told about by his friend Mazzei, himself a native of Tuscany. Upon tasting a nebbiolo-based wine in Piedmont, Jefferson said it was “about as sweet as the silky Madeira.” But his favorite Italian red wine was Montepulciano, which he described as “superlatively good.” Today, that Tuscan red is known as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Jefferson built further on his European travels, establishing himself as a wine consultant and buyer for his friends and colleagues in the Colonies, remarking: “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.” Over the next few years, he traveled back and forth between Virginia and Europe, building his wine knowledge and establishing himself as the go-to-wine guy in Virginia and Washington. When Jefferson became the third U.S. president in 1801, he was known for his extensive wine knowledge and for keeping a well stocked wine cellar in the White House. Also, he helped lower taxes on wine, hoping that it would make the United States a wine-drinking country.
Jefferson’s major contributions to wine in America were his experimenting with native grapes and introducing Americans to European fine wines from France, Italy and Germany. This short essay on America’s first wine expert is but a small part of the vast material on Jefferson, his interest in wine and the many other aspects of life and learning that distinguished the man. Google Thomas Jefferson or Monticello and settle back for a lot of reading,
On a side note: About 200 years after the completion of Jefferson’s Virginia home, Monticello, native Virginian Jay Corley named his Napa Valley winery in honor of Jefferson’s Virginia estate. Corley built a one-third replica of Monticello on Big Ranch Road in the Oak Knoll District and named it Monticello Vineyards. The original building is now winery offices, adjacent to the winery tasting room.
Gerald Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Email him at email@example.com