Many Americans blessed (or afflicted) with wine obsession can summarize the cause of their wine fever in one simple phrase: time spent in France. OG Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was no exception. While lyrics from the popular (to put it lightly) musical “Hamilton” suggest that during America’s formative years Jefferson was off “getting high with the French,” all evidence suggests the stronger likelihood that he was off getting drunk with the French. At least we know he was thoroughly intoxicated by the subject of wine. During his stint as Ambassador to France, Jefferson spent time in Burgundy and Bordeaux, amassing not only a wine collection, which he meticulously recorded, but developing a palate; one that could not be easily satisfied by what was currently being grown or imported in the soon-to-be minted United States. And thus begins the story of an early and significant part of America’s wine history: that which is now called Jefferson Vineyards.
According to Attila Woodward, Managing Partner of Jefferson Vineyards, “Today we make award winning and recognized wines that I believe Jefferson would be proud of.” Wines that, for Jefferson, were a long time coming.
A model American and entrepreneur, Jefferson sought to replicate the “finer” wines he had become accustomed to in France right in his own backyard. He was less fond of Port and Madeira, the strong, fortified wines that nearly comprised the entirety of America’s imports at the time. So Jefferson, with help from some of the original American cork dorks—Franklin, Washington, and Adams—imported something else: an Italian winemaker. Filippo Mazzei, specifically a viticulturist, was convinced to come from Tuscany to the U.S. with the promise of land, in order to encourage European grape varietals, from the species Vitis vinifera, to grow in American soil.
When we now think of American wine we tend to think first of California. Spanish missionaries were indeed making wine in that territory from what was then known as the Mission grape, but California was nearly 75 years away from even becoming part of the U.S. The oldest continually operating winery in America is actually in New York State—Brotherhood Winery—which has been selling wine commercially since 1839. But Jefferson and Mazzei were making wine in the late 1700s, on a property adjacent to his Monticello home, in none other than Virginia. In a letter to George Washington, Mazzei expressed enthusiasm for the climate: “In my opinion…the best wine in the world will be made here…I do not believe that nature is so favorable to growing vines in any country as this.”
Attila Woodward is the grandson of Shirley and Stanley Woodward Sr., who picked up in the 1980s where Jefferson left off, founding what would become Jefferson Vineyards on the very same site. His grandparents have a lot in common with the Founding Father: “Both (my grandparents) spent a lot of time in France exposed to French wine culture. It was with the help and direction of another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, also known as the father of modern Virginia wine, they (again) planted Vitis vinifera on the property.”
While Mazzei was eventually recognized as having likely contributed the phrase “Where all men are created equal,” to the Declaration of Independence (according to John F. Kennedy’s book, “A Nation of Immigrants”), history has shown that not all wine grapes are created equal. In the 1700s, Jefferson and Mazzei’s initial efforts suffered due to a louse that plagued winemakers worldwide in the 1800s and 1900s: phylloxera. To grossly summarize this epidemic in wine history, Americans and American rootstock were both the problem and the solution. The European Vitis vinifera grapes succumbed to the root louse that native American rootstock was naturally immune to (however, wine was indeed made on Mazzei’s property from native-species grapes that survived). It was another hundred years before the practice of grafting Vitis vinifera grapes onto American rootstock allowed the well-known international varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, to call the U.S. home.
Jefferson and Mazzei’s project of establishing a Virginia Wine Company had been underway only a few years when everyone involved got busy doing their part in the Revolution. (Ugh, war. Amiright?) But the seeds—actual and metaphorical—had been planted.
The story of Jefferson and Mazzei’s vineyard picks back up 200 years later with the Woodwards. With the help of various winemakers, most recently Chris Ritzcovan, the winery is producing world-class selections from a variety of grapes. Despite Jefferson’s predilection for Bordeaux blends, it was a Rhone varietal, Viognier, that found a second spiritual home in Virginia. In 2018, two of Jefferson Vineyards Viognier bottlings took top prizes in the prestigious Virginia Governor’s Cup Case, a competition whose judging panel included none other than Stephen Spurrier, who first thought to pit French and American wines against each other in the now-famous 1976 Judgment of Paris. But Jefferson may also be happy to know that Petit Verdot, an underutilized grape of Bordeaux, has also taken well to Virginia’s climate, and Jefferson Winery makes a Bordeaux blend called Meritage with a higher percentage of Petit Verdot in the blend.
Operating a winery on such a historic site definitely makes a person feel connected to Jefferson’s dream. “Jefferson might appreciate the fact that after almost 40 years, we’ve found balance through experimentation of what works and what does not work in our vineyards. He loved to experiment with agriculture, and I would like to believe he would be thrilled to see how far we have all come in Virginia wine production, including our estate. Jefferson was a visionary of wine in our country and in Virginia. He knew and understood its health merits and the role wine played at the dinner table—an important place of conversation.”
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Header image courtesy of Jefferson Vineyards.