LIANE HANSEN, host:
Thomas Jefferson was the nation's third president, our first ambassador to France, an avid reader, inventor, and master gardener. He also may have been America's first wine connoisseur, something historians are learning more about as they renovate Jefferson's wine cellar. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.
SANDY HAUSMAN: On warm autumn days in central Virginia, historians at Monticello have been keeping cool in the wine cellar, trying to figure out how it would have looked when Thomas Jefferson lived here. As thousands of visitors troop by overhead, architectural historian Justin Sarafin inspects the door and concludes this 220-square-foot room contained a commodity Jefferson treasured.
Mr. JUSTIN SARAFIN (Architectural Historian): This two-layer thick, iron-strapped, fortified, double-locked door is a good indication of the value of what was being housed in here.
HAUSMAN: In the early days, Jefferson drank what most Englishmen enjoyed, heavy, sweet wines like port and sherry. But Gabriele Rausse, who came here from Italy to tend Monticello's modern-day vineyard, says Jefferson's tastes began to change during the Revolutionary War. That's when he met some Hessian mercenaries who were held prisoner near his home.
Mr. GABRIELE RAUSSE (Winemaking Expert): He tasted with them some of the German wine. And when he leave to go to France, he bring with him, you know, certain number of cases of German wine that he got from them. When he get there, of course, he discovered, you know, the French wine. And he was enchanted with it. ..TEXT: HAUSMAN: When he returned, Rausse says, Jefferson ordered bottles of wine directly from the finest French vineyards. That was unusual. At the time, most wine traveled in wooden casks. But Sarafin's team found proof of Jefferson's preference when they excavated a five-foot section of the wine cellar's floor.
True, bottles could break in transit, but the cargo was safe from middlemen who might water down the contents of a wooden cask, or sailors who might get thirsty during the long transatlantic voyage. Rausse found further evidence of Jefferson's attitude in a letter he wrote advising a friend on how to buy wine.
Mr. RAUSSE: Don't go to the middleman. Go straight to the manufacturer. He will always give you the right product. The middleman is going to take advantage of you.
HAUSMAN: Jefferson tried over and over again to grow his own wine grapes, but he failed. Peter Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, says Jefferson was not alone.
Mr. PETER HATCH (Director of Gardens and Grounds, Monticello): The whole story of grape growing in East and North America is a story of one catastrophe and failure after another.
HAUSMAN: Native insects and diseases might have killed the vines imported from Europe, or maybe they dried up inside 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. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.