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.