Thomas Jefferson, winemaker

“We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”

Want to guess who said that? Robert Mondavi? Ernest or Julio Gallo? Julia Child?

Nope. Thomas Jefferson.

Probably due to his service as ambassador to France from 1785 to 1793, Jefferson had a keen interest in the pleasures of good food and wine. While in Europe, he traveled extensively throughout the wine regions of France, Germany, Spain and Italy. (Can you imagine old Tom on a “Sideways” adventure, kickin’ it through Bordeaux with a buddy? Which one would he be? The uptight wine snob or the gadabout groom-to-be? I like to think that he would be a combination of both.)

Once he was back in the then-brand-new United States, he continued his love affair with wine, importing European wines to serve at Monticello, his Virginia home and later at the White House, his D.C. home during his two terms as president. But Jefferson wasn’t only a consumer. As the previously quoted statement attests, he was very interested in growing wine grapes and in making wine.

When the future President first moved into Monticello in 1770, he tried growing native vine stocks – specifically a black grape known as Alexander – to produce wine. “I think it would be well,” he told a friend, “to push the culture of that grape without losing time and effort in search of foreign vines, which it will take centuries to adapt to our soil and climate.” Well, nobody – not even the guy who wrote the brilliant Declaration of Independence – is perfect, and the Alexander was a flop.

Undeterred, Jefferson imported vines from Europe. Most of the varietals he planted are unfamiliar to us today, and he had limited success with them.

I became curious: with such a powerful guy putting his considerable intellectual horsepower behind an industry, what became of the Virginia wine business?

The first attempts to make wine from native grapes in the New World predated Jefferson’s efforts by almost two centuries. The colonists who founded Jamestown in 1607 were delighted to see that the banks of the James River were covered with grape vines. These were a native varietal called “scuppernong.” With a name like that, it’s probably not a big surprise that the 1608 vintage wine made from those grapes was less than wonderful. In fact, the colonists, in an early attempt at wine snobbery, called it “foxy,” and said that it had a “wet dog” smell. Yum. Scuppernong wine sounds like it would probably pair well with Alpo.

The thing to remember, though, is that these colonists were English, and came from a culture that valued wine as part of their diet. Unfortunately, like Virginia, the British Isles are not blessed with the type of climate conducive to the growing of premium wine grapes. And those countries that were – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal – all had some kind of long-standing beef with the English crown that made the importation of wine problematic. So Englishmen were keen to find an alternative source for the fruit of the grape and had high hopes for the Colonies. It didn’t take long (that 1608 vintage provided the impetus) for the settlers to import grape vines from Europe to see if they could make a success with those stocks. Although they were able to keep the wet dog out of the wine made from these grapes, it wasn’t much better.

At least Virginians have a sense of humor about the whole thing. The Virginia Wine and Marketing Office says that following those earlier colonial attempts, “Virginians spent 250 years failing to cultivate French grapes.” So the Virginians concentrated on what would be their cash crop for many generations – tobacco – and largely gave up on wine production.

After Jefferson spent nearly 30 years trying to produce European-quality wine, the standard was taken up by others who began creating hybrid vines. It wasn’t – and isn’t – easy. Virginia experiences harsh winters, hot summers and lots of rain, none of which grape vines like very much. In an odd twist of fate, 19th-century American growers shipped some of their vine stocks to France to help repopulate vineyards that had been devastated by pests.

The Virginia wine industry today is a thriving, if small, collection of 92 boutique wineries producing well-respected wines of most of the popular varietals.

Virginia’s favorite son Thomas Jefferson was an astute observer of human nature. Doubtless through his exposure to European customs, he was aware of the fact that when a substance or practice is prohibited, it will be abused: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” he said, “and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”

Hearing words like that, rife with common sense, makes me long for the days when political leaders did more than spout platitudes and try to spin problems away. It would be refreshing to hear a modern politician say something even half as profound as “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Happy Fourth of July.

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