The answer: A lot! Just look at the number of quotes pulled on Jefferson and wine, the books written on Jefferson and his wine, and the content from the Monticello website on Jefferson and, guess what… his wine! Thomas Jefferson was an advocate for the wine industry in Virginia. He helped to support many ventures to aid in transforming the industry for Virginia and bringing success. In 1771, Jefferson planted his own vinifera vines on his estate, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. He went on to support other efforts to further the local industry as well.
One well-known quote from Thomas Jefferson on wine was found in a letter he wrote to Thomas Appleton in 1816 where he stated: “wines a necessary of life with me.” A few years later, in 1819, Jefferson wrote a letter to Stephen Cathalan which further exhibited his passion and knowledge of wine. Jefferson loved his wines, and he helped to bring the wine industry from Europe to the states. Many have called him “the first father of American wine.”
Jefferson partnered with others in the state to advance the Virginia wine industry as well. He became an investor in the group that became collectively known as the Virginia Wine Company. This group consisted of other prominent leaders in Virginia society, including George Washington and George Mason, along with an estimated 24 others. (Kliman, 34) The group went on to offer Philip Mazzei, an acquaintance of Jefferson, the money and assistance to start a vineyard and assist in the efforts to produce wine from local grapes in Virginia. Mazzei and Jefferson grew close after they first meet. Around Mazzei’s first meeting with Jefferson in 1773, Jefferson gifted Mazzei with 2,000 acres of land in Virginia to pursue grape cultivation. Unfortunately, despite the attention given to Mazzei and the efforts he put in to local grape growth and wine production, his experiments in vine growth were cut short and did not produce the results hoped for. (Kliman, 34; Lawrence, 10)
Despite Jefferson’s time and effort to transform the Virginia wine industry, he did not succeed. It was believed Jefferson never successfully bottled his own wine from a native grape. There have been many speculations on why he failed to successfully grow vines on his estate. Some of these speculations include: the destruction of the vines during their growth from the phylloxera pest; the eating of the plant from birds, deer, and other wildlife; the harsh Virginia climate with early frosts and unpredictable rainfall; the sticky, clay soil of the lands; amongst other hypothesis on why Jefferson’s attempts failed. (Hatch, 147-148; Leahy, xii)
Despite his failed attempts, Jefferson left his mark on the Virginia wine industry and vines are successfully grown on Monticello and the surrounding lands today. Jefferson’s dreams eventually came true, and Virginia is now a successful, wine-producing state.
For more information, check out:
- Peter J. Hatch, The Fruit and Fruit Trees of Monticello (1998)
- Todd Kliman, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine (2010)
- R. de Treville Lawrence, Sr., Jefferson and Wine (1976)
- Richard Leahy, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia (2012)