The First American Wine Lover

On the occasion of the 264th Birthday of America’s First Wine Lover, FERMENTATIONS is very happy to present this essay by James M. Gabler. Gabler is the author of Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson and An Evening with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Dinner, Wine, and Conversation. Gabler is the foremost authority on Jefferson and his relationship with wine. We highly recommend both books noted above to anyone with a love of wine, history or both.

Thomas Jefferson’s Beginning Love Affair with Wine 
By James M. Gabler

Although born on the Virginia frontier, Thomas Jefferson became the most knowledgeable wine connoisseur of his age, and his tastes in wine covered the world: France, Italy, Germany, Madeira, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Hungary and, of course, America.

His interests in wine developed early as indicated by his 1769 Shadwell wine inventory: 83 bottles of rum, 15 bottles of Madeira, four bottles of “Lisbon wine for common use,” and 54 bottles of cider, an inventory that would change radically with the passage of time. Exactly when Jefferson decided to design and build his own house is not recorded, but the first mention of Monticello (which means "little mountain") is noted in his Garden Book on Aug. 3, 1767. A wine cellar, 17 1/2 feet long, 15 feet wide and 10 feet high, was laid out near a cider room. The 28-year-old Jefferson and a 23-year-old widow, Martha Wales Skelton, were married on New Year’s Day, 1772, at the home of her father, John Wayles, and two weeks later they arrived at Monticello on horseback in a snowstorm.

It is perhaps apocryphal but Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Sarah N. Randolph, reports that they found a bottle of wine “on a shelf behind some books” that they shared before retiring on their Monticello honeymoon night. It was the first of many bottles that he would enjoy at home with family and friends. In his account book of Sept. 15, 1772, he records liquors and bottles on hand, including “about three gallons of rum and a half hogshead [271/2 gallons] Madeira, 72 bottles of Madeira, 37 bottles of Lisbon wine, 29 bottles small beer, 10 bottles of port and 31 bottles of miscellaneous in the closet.” The year earlier he had recorded ten dozen bottles of port, so in the intervening year, 110 bottles of port had been consumed.

In November 1773, Philip Mazzei, one of the most interesting men to enter Jefferson’s life, landed in Virginia from England with his wife-to-be, her 12-year-old daughter, and ten Italian vignerons. Mazzei arrived with a plan to cultivate European grapes, olive trees and the egg of silk worms to make silk. Traveling with Virginia merchant Thomas Adams to Adams’ home in Augusta County, where Mazzei expected to establish his vineyard, they stopped along the way at Monticello to visit Jefferson.

Early the next morning, Mazzei and Jefferson went for a walk through Monticello’s hillsides, and Mazzei found the vineyard land he was looking for, a 400-acre tract adjoining Monticello to the east. He named it “Colle.” Jefferson described the land that Mazzei selected as “having a southeast aspect and an abundance of lean and meager spots of stony and red soil, without sand, resembling extremely the Côte of Burgundy from Chambertin to Montrachet where the famous wines of Burgundy are made.”

What Mazzei and Jefferson talked about on this early-morning stroll was not recorded, but it sparked a lifetime friendship and caused Jefferson to become a partner in Mazzei’s vineyard project, the first commercial vineyard venture in America. As Mazzei remembered in his autobiography, “By the time we returned home, everyone was up. Looking at Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Adams said: ‘I see by your expression that you have taken him away from me. I knew you would do that.’ Jefferson smiled, and without looking at him, but staring at the table, said: ‘Let’s have breakfast first and then we’ll see what we can do.’ ”

The war intervened and Maxxei’s project failed, but his hope that “The best wine in the world will be made here” was not lost on Jefferson who grew vines at Monticello and throughout his life supported the efforts of other New World winemakers.

Following the Revolutionary War, a new life began for Jefferson when Congress sent him to France to serve as a trade commissioner with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who was serving as the first American minister to France. Within less than a year of Jefferson’s arrival, Franklin returned home and Congress appointed Jefferson to succeed him as minister. It was during his five years abroad that Jefferson’s great wine learning experience took place with travels to the vineyards of Champagne, Burgundy, Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Provence, northern Italy, Lanquedoc, Bordeaux , the Loire Valley. With a comprehensive background of France’s viticulture locked in his encyclopedic mind, he traveled down the Rhine to learn about German wines.

Jefferson’s love of wine began in Virginia, was nurtured in Europe, and became a life-long passion; he called wine a “necessary of life.”


6 Responses

  1. Mike - April 13, 2007

    Having read both of Gabler’s books on Jefferson it’s nice to have this little summary.
    Jefferson is noted by many, especially Gabler, to be America’s first wine lover, but I feel that Ben Franklin never gets his due in this. Jefferson came to France after Franklin and during their time there they dined and drank wine; much of this is documented in Gabler’s second book. I think Jefferson’s claim really rests on the fact that, unlike Franklin, he documented virtually every day of his life and all his wine purchases.
    It would be interesting to know who taught who the most about wine while Franklin and Jefferson were in France.

  2. Dr. Debs - April 13, 2007

    Thanks, Tom. Gotta get those books.

  3. william tobin - April 14, 2007

    Great info, Another great book, written by the Vinifera Wine growers Association. Published 1976. Title: Jefferson and Wine.
    This book edited by Treville Lawrence.
    Foreword by Leon D. Adams
    One of the first books I found that was a complete history of Thomas Jefferson’s life in wine.

  4. Wine Boy! - April 14, 2007

    I love Thomas Jefferson and he is my favorite founding father, but in 1629, Franciscan friar Fray Gracia de Zuniga and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin monk, planted the Mission grape along the shores of the Rio Grande, making New Mexico the first grape-growing state in America. They planted grapes in direct defiance of the king of Spain as it was a sin to have mass without wine. They get my vote, since they planted grapes and made wine before Thomas Jefferson was born! He did have a great idea about the sanctity of freedom though and god bless him for that.

  5. Wine Boy! - April 14, 2007

    As it being the first commercial venture…does planting grapes and selling them to other churches for sacramental purposes count?

  6. Alder Yarrow - April 21, 2007

    The more I learn about Jefferson and wine, the prouder I am that we have a birthday in common.

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