Thomas Jefferson's Love Affair — With Wine

Thomas Jefferson i i

Thomas Jefferson became enchanted with French wines during his ambassadorship in France. Courtesy of the Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson became enchanted with French wines during his ambassadorship in France.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thomas Jefferson was the nation's third president, our first ambassador to France, an inventor and master gardener. He may also have been America's first wine connoisseur — something historians are learning more about as they renovate Jefferson's wine cellar.

It's been hot in central Virginia this summer, but historians at Monticello have kept cool in the wine cellar, trying to figure out how it would have looked when Jefferson lived there.

"This two-layer thick, iron-strapped, fortified, double-locked door is a good indication of the value of what was being housed in here," says architectural historian Justin Sarafin, who was inspecting a door as thousands of visitors trooped by overhead. He says the 220-square-foot room contained a commodity Jefferson treasured.

In the early days, Jefferson drank what most Englishmen enjoyed: heavy, sweet wines like port and sherry. But Gabriele Rausse, who came to Monticello from Italy to tend its modern-day vineyard, says Jefferson's tastes began to change during the Revolutionary War. That's when he came in contact with German mercenaries known as Hessians who fought for the British and were being held prisoner near his home.

The Hessians introduced Jefferson to German wine and gave him cases of it to take with him during his ambassadorship in France, Rausse said. But it was when Jefferson discovered French wines that he became enchanted.

When he returned to the United States, Jefferson ordered bottles of wine directly from the finest French vineyards, Rausse said.

Ordering bottles was unusual in a time when most wine traveled in wooden casks. Even though bottles could break in transit, they were still safer from middlemen who might water down the contents of a wooden cask or from sailors who might get thirsty during the long trans-Atlantic voyage.

Sarafin's team found broken, green glass under the floor of Jefferson's wine cellar. And Rausse found further evidence of the statesman's preference in a letter Jefferson wrote advising a friend on how to buy wine. "Don't go to the middleman," the letter states, according to Rausse. "Go straight to the manufacturer. He will always give you the right product. The middleman is going to take advantage of you."

Jefferson made Scuppernong wine from homegrown native grapes, but he tried and failed over and over again to grow his own European wine grapes. He wasn't alone, says Peter Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds.

"The whole story of grape-growing in eastern North America is the story of one catastrophe and failure after another," Hatch says. Native insects and diseases might have killed the vines imported from Europe, or the vines might have dried up during weeks of transit.

Whatever the reason, grapes do grow at Monticello today, and when the cellar opens next spring, visitors can sign up for special wine-tasting tours.

Sandy Hausman reports for member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Va.

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