Thomas Jefferson did exert considerable effort and investment in trying to live out his American wine dream during his time at Monticello. In fact to this end, Jefferson partnered with an Italian viticulturist from Florence, Philip Mazzei, who bought land adjacent to Jefferson's Monticello estate and planted vineyards. Mazzei also made a deal with Jefferson that he would plant and maintain the initial vineyards at Monticello and Jefferson had his gardeners and builders help design Mazzei's property. Mazzei’s neighboring estate was named “Colle” translated in Italian as “hill,” likely to humbly distinguish himself from Jefferson’s Monticello, meaning “little mountain.” Today, Jefferson Vineyards sits on the land that was originally Mazzei's Colle.
A group of prestigious investors, including the likes of Jefferson himself, George Washington, George Wythe and the Royal Governor of Virginia, financially backed Mazzei’s initial viticulture efforts under the optimistic project title of the “Virginia Wine Company.” The first plantings at Monticello and Colle took place in 1774, but a rough winter and then subsequent problems with mildew and phylloxera took its toll on the vines. Colle's vines were later demolished when the horses of Hessian soldiers wreaked havoc on the young vines. Mazzei, originally charged with the vineyard management at Monticello, became understandably distracted by the oncoming Revolution and traded his role as resident viticulturist for patriot, to the detriment of Monticello’s vines. New vines were once again planted at Monticello in 1807, however they were never able to make a Monticello wine.
Thomas Jefferson’s Wine Introduction and Education
It is most likely that Jefferson’s first introductions to fine European wine, beyond the colonial Madeira and Port came during his time studying law and living under statesman and lawyer, George Wythe’s roof. Wythe, like many other affluent Virginians was a fan of fine European wines, which he would have shared with Jefferson at the time. In fact records contend that shortly after leaving the Wythe home Jefferson started his own initial cellar at his family home, Shadwell.
However, Jefferson’s real wine education came into play when he succeeded Ben Franklin as U.S. Minister to France in 1785. For five years Jefferson lived in Paris and immersed himself in French culture and became especially familiar with French wines. While serving as minister, he managed to take two significant wine country tours during his diplomatic stint in France, though admirably he traveled independently as American tourist (not diplomat) and paid his own way. The first wine trip covered the iconic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Languedoc and Provence and wrapped up with northern Italy's Piedmont. His second wine country excursion went decidedly west of Paris focusing on Germany’s Rhine and Mosel regions and Champagne. Jefferson took meticulous notes during his travels on French viticulture and winemaking practices, while establishing key contacts for future wine importation efforts.
Thomas Jefferson’s Impact on Wine in America
While we often think of Thomas Jefferson in his astonishing roles of Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, he was truly the forefather of the American wine industry. Jefferson really set quite a remarkable bar for wines coming to America. After his time touring the French wine country he was very knowledgeable about European wines and extremely skeptical of wine brokers. This skepticism led him to handle all wine-related correspondence, ordering, shipping, importation and payment arrangements himself, believing that he had a much better chance of receiving unadulterated, quality wines from many producers that he had previously met face to face. He was often also able to acquire wines that were estate bottled and avoid the common problem (at least most of the time) of receiving wines in casks that risked being adulterated. Jefferson also believed that taxes on wine in the colonies should remain low as he pontificated that, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
Jefferson brought a level of wine sophistication not seen before in America and as such wore the prestigious hat of both wine advisor and wine buyer for George Washington prior to and during his presidency. Jefferson was responsible for helping to stock the President’s cellars with ample bottles of wine from both Champagne and Bordeaux. He also advised the likes of Adams, Madison and Monroe on buying European wine. According to John Hailman, in his brilliant book entitled Thomas Jefferson on Wine, during his two terms as the third president of the United States, Jefferson managed to spend a hefty $16,500 on wine for the purpose of entertaining dignitaries and enlightening the palates of American guests.