A Founding Father’s Theory and Dream of a Wine Country in Virginia

Times Wine Writer

Thomas Jefferson was right, but it took two centuries to prove it.

The nation’s most aristocratic president and a wine lover of monumental proportions attempted to grow grapevines and make wine at his Virginia plantation for decades. All efforts failed, but Jefferson continued to believe Virginia could make fine wine.

Trying to solve the mysteries of Virginia’s soil and climate, Jefferson imported grapevines from Chateau d’Yquem in Bordeaux, as well as vines from Burgundy and Tuscany, to see how they would grow. Despite regular failure (due largely to the harsh winter climate), he tried for more than 40 years to prove his theory right.

Despite all his failures, the message he left--that Virginia could become hospitable for fine wine grapes--was not ignored, and today an energetic wine industry is thriving in Virginia. Some 40 Virginia wineries produce more than 80,000 cases of wine, host 100,000 visitors on tours every year, and the governor of Virginia has officially recognized the strides made by today’s Virginia farmers and wine makers.

Served at Official Functions

Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles serves Virginia wine proudly at major state functions, and he helped coalesce the state’s budding wine industry in a memorable speech on Sept. 28, 1988, when he called for a unified effort to make and market Virginia wine. Baliles also pledged assistance from the state to see that it happened.


“That was an important event for all of us,” said Shep Rouse, wine maker at Montdomaine Cellars, a winery located near the site of the old Monticello property Jefferson once farmed. “The governor brought a lot of folks together.”

Late last month, at the awards dinner for the 1989 Governor’s Cup Wine Competition in historic Williamsburg, Baliles spoke of the strides made in the 12 months since his pledge.

“I saw that an old industry was in the process of being revived by Virginia’s wine-growing pioneers, and I felt that the state government could draw them together,” he said. “Wine growing in America was born in Virginia, and when it comes to selling it, the state and the winegrowers can work together . . . to increase the visibility of Virginia’s newest old industry.

“When history is written, I would hope that the 1990s will be seen as the golden age of Virginia wine.”

More Than Mere Local Pride

Tasting the wines indicates that something more than local pride is at play here. The wines are quite good. The Governor’s Cup-winning wine, 1988 Williamsburg Winery Chardonnay, is a stylish, elegant wine with superb fruit. It is a bit soft, but impeccably made by Fresno State graduate Steve Warner.

The white wines of Virginia at present show greater potential than the reds, partly because red wine grapes often need a longer growing season, and this southeastern area of Virginia can experience some warm, humid days late in a growing season. The only other gold medal wine at the event, 1988 Rapidan Dry Riesling, is a delightful wine of floral nuances and richness.

However, superb Merlots from Montdomaine and Accomack, and excellent Cabernets from Linden and Montdomaine show that red wine is possible here too.

Part of Colonial Life

Wine consumption in pre-Revolutionary times was a daily occurrence so ingrained in the upper classes that “no one thought to write about it, it was so widely accepted as part of life,” said Betsi Drumbore, a tour guide with Colonial Williamsburg, the agency that preserves the history of this region.

In a wide-ranging look at the wine and food of the colonies in the two centuries following the 1607 founding of Jamestown, Drumbore and historical archeologist William Pittman said wine was an integral part of the lives of the colonists.

The typical midday meal, which often started about 2 p.m. and lasted until as late as 5, was heavily oriented toward meats--beef, smoked pork, rabbit and other game. “The poor people ate vegetables,” said Drumbore.

On a sideboard in a typical dining room was wine, generally imported, served from decanters filled from the cask or, in some cases, from bottles. Occasionally, wine was served from a punch bowl.

The supper meal, which started late in the evening, was light, but also accompanied by wine, and occasionally finished with a glass of sack (Sherry) with a dessert that included wine in the recipe.

Dry wine from France and Madeira were both popular with meals, said Pittman (Madeira matched with sweetmeats), and there was no known opposition to wine consumption by any organized group.

A Real Force

“We see no broadsides against the consumption of alcohol at all until you get to the gin age, when Queen Anne took over in England in 1704,” said Pittman. Until then, wine was the primary beverage in the Colonies; distilled spirits played a far less important role.

But English gin became a force in the Colonies after 1651 when Parliament, attempting to control trade with the Colonies, passed the infamous Navigation Acts, Pittman said. He said the British government wanted to discourage the use of foreign (French, primarily) wine because of a trade imbalance.

He said excise taxes on wine drove their price up, and that led to greater use of gin (which was an English product and which had a lower tax).

Jefferson opposed what he called “ardent spirits,” and actively promoted wine as a beverage that, in moderation, enhanced life style and health.

“Good wine is a necessity of life for me,” said Jefferson in one of a series of oft-quoted lines from his writings.

Jefferson liked wine so much that he became the first American wine connoisseur and educator, teaching the joys and benefits of fine wine to others, said John Hailman.

Hailman, syndicated wine columnist with Gannett News Service who lives in Oxford, Miss., has spent more than 15 years working on a book tentatively called “The Wines of Thomas Jefferson.”

His 850-page unpublished manuscript speaks of Jefferson’s efforts to grow wine in Virginia, not only for reasons of local pride, but because if it could be produced in the Colonies, it would not be subjected to higher taxation as were imported wines. And he felt that wine was a beverage usually consumed moderately with meals, unlike higher-proof products.

“Jefferson had many disappointments trying to grow grapes to make wine,” said Hailman. “Even in his last plantings in 1811, he felt that Virginia could become a great wine region because of the soil, and he really thought the climate was not too severe.”

Tragic Winter Frost

However, said Hailman, those vines planted in 1811 were nearly wiped out by a winter frost and that broke Jefferson’s spirit, he said.

Yet even at age 82 in 1825, the year before he died, Jefferson wrote letters to others who sought to make wine, trying to encourage them to keep trying, said Hailman.

Jefferson believed firmly in the healthful benefits of consuming moderate amounts of wine, and conversely he was adamant that stronger drinks were dangerous to society.

Hailman says tavern lists of the revolutionary period refer to a drink called Termo, which was white Lisbon wine (shipped from Portugal, but whose prior lineage was often unknown) with brandy added. He said Jefferson decried Termo because of its higher alcoholic content.

To avoid such high-proof aberrations, Jefferson imported his own wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and elsewhere on the Continent, even though they were subject to high import duties, and were threatened with local taxation after the Colonies won their independence from Great Britain.

“I rejoice as a moralist at the prospect of a reduction of the duties on wine by our national legislature,” he once wrote to a colleague. “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage . . . .

‘Who Will Not Prefer It?’

“Fix but the duty . . . and we can drink wine here as cheap as we do grog, and who will not prefer it? Its extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle.”

Hailman said much of the wine sold in Colonial Williamsburg was perishable and was meant to be consumed rapidly. As the wine (shipped in cask) sat around, it deteriorated. Yet Pittman showed examples of wine bottles shipped to the Colonies that contained finer wine. These were often found in archeological digs around the former homes of the wealthy.

Tavern wine was, however, variable. In some taverns in Williamsburg, the same wine often was quoted at two prices, “straight” at a lower price and with a lump of sugar for a higher price. The sugar was presumably to make palatable a spoiled wine.

Moreover, some wine often ended up in cocktails, which Pittman said were blends of various wines made by gentlemen for gentlemen (they were not for ladies). This may have been done to salvage bad wine by adding something good to it.

An Educational Effort

Jefferson, meanwhile, did his best to educate the American aristocracy of the greatness of wine with meals. Hailman says Jefferson often gave George Washington and John Adams bottles of the wines he imported.

“Washington was a big claret drinker,” said Hailman, “and he introduced (James) Madison and (James) Monroe to wine, and he taught John Quincy Adams about wine, and how to drink it and serve it.”

Wine also was used in cooking: sack was used to flavor carrot pudding; other products were pickled in a combination of wine and vinegar; bread fritters were like today’s French toast, but made with wine-based batter (and no dairy products), and a dessert called syllabub is a concoction of eggs, cream and wine that separates into two layers and is served like a pudding.

Jefferson’s legacy has not been forgotten and the wines now being made, 160 years after his death from the same soil he tilled, pay homage to an American all wine lovers should toast.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Beringer Gamay Beaujolais ($6)--Lovely deep fruit that hints at cranberries and blackberries and a slight jam quality make the aroma most appealing. The taste is soft and ripe, and the wine takes a chilling, which helps it match with lighter foods, even some seafood.