Flavor of the Old Cask: The Many Wines of Thomas Jefferson

In 1973, while writing the wine column for the Washington Post, I received a phone call from James Bear, then Curator of Thomas Jefferson’s restored home at Monticello. Mr. Bear said he had just read my long article on the “forgotten” wines of the island of Madeira, which told how those wines were favorites of most Founding Fathers, from Washington and Hamilton to Adams and Jefferson, because they were not subject to British taxes since they came not from Europe, but from off the coast of Africa. The article discussed the surprising fact that most of the Founding Fathers’ Madeiras were still available, and in the same styles and under the same names.

Mr. Bear said he had scores of previously unedited and unpublished letters to and from Jefferson about wine, as well as hundreds of little-known memo book entries and several multi-page treatises written by Jefferson about his favorite wines from all countries and how to obtain them, when to drink them, etc. He asked if I would “mind” looking at them. Mind? Was he kidding?

My wife Regan and I jumped into our VW convertible and headed for Charlottesville. The scholarly and personable Mr. Bear, a Marine Corps veteran of the South Pacific, soon became our friend “Jim,” and I became a regular fixture in his library and in the restored Monticello wine cellar (where I couldn’t get much work done because visitors constantly asked me questions). One of the first entries he showed me was a stunner from Jefferson’s January 1776 Memorandum book, which read:

“Broached a pipe of Madeira, 1770 vintage.” Jefferson sounded knowledgeable with “broached” and surprised me by knowing the vintage, since nowadays most Madeiras are blends of years. It also occurred to me that since a pipe held over 200 gallons, that was probably the wine Jefferson was drinking when he left for Philadelphia to write The Declaration of Independence. Good grief.

Jim Bear next gave me background readings on how Jefferson persuaded a winemaker from the Chianti region of Italy, Philip Mazzei, to settle next door to Monticello by giving him land on which to grow grapes and make wines. He also showed me Jefferson’s family letters, which he had edited and published, reflecting how much time he spent ordering, bottling, drinking, and discussing wines, as well as how Jefferson had hosted Hessian prisoners-of-war who were then held at Charlottesville. Far from the brutal mercenaries they had taught us about in 4th grade, these men were well-educated officers, many with aristocratic titles, and who came from a region on the Rhine River famous for great wines made from the Riesling grape, just as they are now.

We decided to produce a little “pamphlet” in time for July 4, 1976. What were we thinking? The materials on Jefferson and his wines proved to be so vast, and so scattered and unedited, that we badly missed our deadline. When Jim retired, he encouraged me to carry on alone, to travel to Princeton (which had most of Jefferson’s original papers), and to retrace Jefferson’s months of incognito travel throughout the vineyards and cellars of France, Italy, and Germany. In the early days I could also walk across the street from my office as a staffer for Mississippi Senator John Stennis to the Library of Congress, which had hundreds of rolls of microfilm of Jefferson’s letters. When I moved back to Mississippi to try my hand as a prosecutor in Faulkner country, research became a little more difficult.

In 2006 the project was at last finished. In my book, Thomas Jefferson On Wine (University Press of Mississippi 2006), readers can now chronologically explore the evolution of Thomas Jefferson’s tastes in wine as well as food, since you can hardly talk about one without the other. Readers can also go to their local wine shop or restaurant and order many of the same wines Jefferson drank. They are usually under the same names, largely from the same grapes, and even sometimes produced by direct descendants of the makers of Jefferson’s wines, especially the Mazzeis of Chianti, the Parent family of Burgundy, and the Lur-Saluces family of Sauternes, just to name a few.

From Jefferson’s letters and memos, it is now easy to replicate a Jefferson wine-dinner. Start with a moscato or non-sparkling Champagne, and progress through a Madeira with soup. Pair a white Burgundy or Rhone with fish, red Burgundy (particularly a Volnay or Pommard) with guinea fowl or veal, and a classified red Bordeaux or Montepulciano with beef and the cheese course. Finish with a fine Sauternes with dessert. The possibilities are endless.

In our time, Jefferson’s dream of a wine-making, wine-drinking America has finally trumped Hamilton’s theory that wine was strictly a luxury item for the rich. Good American wines are now cheap and abundant. There are now successful commercial wineries in all 50 states. Modern wine-lovers can substitute Pinot Noirs or Chardonnays for Burgundy, Cabernets and Merlots for Bordeaux, and Syrahs and Viogniers for Rhones.

Perhaps most pleasing of all to Jefferson would be the proliferation of fine Virginia wineries. There are 50 or so within an easy drive of Monticello, and they are experimenting successfully with the very grapes and wines Jefferson himself tried and failed to make, mainly due to vine diseases and harsh weather. If Thomas Jefferson could return, he might be more pleased with the new American wine scene than with any other accomplishments of the great country he helped create. He could sip a fine Monticello Sangiovese or Nebbiolo from its Italian winemaker, Gabriele Rausse, or visit the wonderful restaurant Palladio. Named for his favorite architect, it is located at the nearby Barboursville Winery on the grounds of a ruined mansion designed by Jefferson. Or he could sit at the bar in Tastings, Charlottesville’s remarkable wine shop/restaurant/tasting room, and swap stories with Bill Curtis, the region’s leading raconteur and purveyor of historic wines. All things considered, if Thomas Jefferson returned, he might well find himself more at home in a modern American wine shop than anywhere else in the USA.