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.”