America’s First Wine Enthusiast

A Memo from Adam Strum: Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of wine in an age when rum, beer, brandy and countless other spirits were the fashion.

  In 1818 Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to a friend: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap. Fix the duty and rate of other merchandise and we can drink wine here as cheaply as grog and who would not prefer it? Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle.”

How prophetic was our third president? This brilliant, multi-faceted man was predicting that when wine was readily available and affordable for a larger audience of Americans, the entire nation would derive a benefit of health and well-being. Two hundreds years later, it is happening. And it is due, in no small part, to Jefferson, because he went beyond theory and prediction: he paved the way.

Jefferson served as Minister to France from 1784 to 1789 (prior to his own presidency, from 1800 to 1808). During his term in Europe he became enamored of French cuisine and wine. When he returned to Virginia, he brought recipes as well as food from his travels, including mustard from France and olive oil from Italy. He stocked his cellar with wines from France, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Italy and Germany. He also brought back European rootstock and planted many rows of grapevines at his home in Monticello.

He advised presidents Washington, Adams, Madison and Monroe on which wines to serve at executive functions. Closer to home, meals at Monticello were lavish by the standards of the day, with unusual dishes and ingredients. Innovation was everywhere: Jefferson designed a dumbwaiter to convey bottles from his wine cellar up to the dining room, via pulleys.

On a recent visit to Virginia wine country I had the pleasure of touring Monticello. The dumbwaiter is still in place—two of them, actually, built into the hearth on either side of the dining room fireplace. Adjacent to his spectacularly restored mansion are two vineyards, a total of 25,000 square feet of vines in 17 terraces. These are the vestiges of the vineyards planted by Jefferson himself in 1807. As an experiment, Jefferson planted 287 rooted vines utilizing 24 European grape varieties. The vitis vinifera could not withstand American pests and diseases, and Jefferson eventually turned his attention to native American varieties. But standing there in the very spot that Jefferson, the visionary, planted his vines was a thrill I am still experiencing.

Beside the magnificence of Monticello, Virginia wine country is a fascinating place to explore; there are well over 60 wineries. Not far from Monticello is Barboursville Vineyards, which boasts ruins of a home designed by Thomas Jefferson for his friend James Barbour, who was governor of Virginia at the time. The ruins are evocative of Monticello as they are shaped in an octagon, which is the form that most intrigued Jefferson in his many ventures as an architect. The winery’s signature wine is named Octagon in honor of Jefferson’s passion. The Octagon 2001 is a truly outstanding Bordeaux blend with solid tannins framing delicious notes of plum and cassis, and a super-silky mouthfeel. I also tasted an impressive, crisp 2001 Viognier that boasted subtle notes of melony fruit. In Charlottesville, I visited Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyards, which produces a fine sparkling wine, heralding an expansion in production in this fascinating winery that is employing Michel Rolland as their consulting viticulturist.

My intriguing trek through Virginia wine country reinforced that Thomas Jefferson exemplifies that American spirit, of learning from other cultures and refashioning it in a distinct American style.
In his column, on page 24, Steve Heimoff summarizes America’s recent history as a wine-consuming nation, and cites a Gallup Poll indicating that, for the first time, more Americans express a preference for wine over beer. The seed that Thomas Jefferson sewed, through his curiosity, diligence and intelligence, has finally borne fruit in the 21st century.


Published on November 1, 2005