Friday, July 3, 2020

America's First Wine Expert

Foreword. Thomas Jefferson, a founder of this country, wrote that "all men are created equal," yet held hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. Jefferson was also a noted statesman, diplomat, astronomer, inventor, original thinker and our third U. S. president. While I recognize Jefferson's controversial legacy, the following essay is offered as a recognition of Thomas Jefferson: America's first wine expert. 

July 4, 1776 – On this day, 244 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. 

                                            thomas-jefferson-portrait image - Free stock photo - Public Domain ...

It is not a stretch to imagine that Jefferson, a multi-talented 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 Carolina's 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 grape vines 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.

                            The Best Views at Monticello | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

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.  Monticello Jefferson Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery's top bottling.

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, writing 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 Thomas 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. 

Paris Society Art Print by Max Beckmann
Paris society by Max Beckmann

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, Filippo 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. (See "The Many Faces of Montepulciano" blog, June 23, 2020.)

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 Thomas 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.

Thomas 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. 

Afterword. This short essay on America’s first wine expert is but a small part of the vast material on Thomas Jefferson, notably his interest in wine and the many other aspects of his life and learning that distinguished the man, warts and all.  To learn more, Google Thomas Jefferson, Monticello or the Jefferson Society.  


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 4

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