Norman Gates

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June 4, 2004
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America's cultivated life began with Thomas Jefferson

There's something about the beginning history of wine in America that has always intrigued me, to the point of making a trip to the nation's capitol a few years back as a delegate of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers. While thrilled to be part of the group, there was a deep down curiosity to go to Monticello and understand more about Thomas Jefferson - who used the words: "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage."

With trepidation, I walked the sacred grounds and slowly ventured into breathtaking Monticello to satisfy the oddity of Thomas Jefferson - the man, and his beliefs in wine. What I learned in the two days spent there, I would like to share with you. If you would like to know much more of this magnificent man and his cultivated life, let your thoughts be known.

When nominated to be the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson listed his profession as "farmer." Although he spent most of his life in the political arena, Jefferson always considered himself a man of agriculture. His accomplishments as a founding father and politician have been well documented; however, his struggles as a vintner and his passion for quality wine have remained relatively unexplored. Over the course of his life, Jefferson's love for wine never wanted, stating simply, "Good wine is a daily necessity to me."

In the experimental garden at Monticello, Jefferson raised a number of domestic and exotic fruits and vegetables, but throughout his life, he was most enthusiastic about the cultivation of the wine grape, not only at Monticello, but also throughout the United States. Jefferson's immersion in the subject of wine enveloped him to such an extent that all but six lines of his lengthy congratulatory letter to James Monroe on his election to the presidency dealt with those wines most suitable for public entertaining.

Jefferson held the belief that wine was the most civil of drinks. Compared to strong ports and Madeira, crude ales, and hard spirits consumed by his peers, wine, in his words, remained "the true restorative cordial."

The ever-optimistic Jefferson believed that the delicacy of wine, like knowledge, could uplift man's spirit and refine his soul. He even went so far as to affirm ... "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and more sober where the dearness of substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage." To this end, Jefferson endeavored to reform the taste of his new nation, using the Renaissance palate to guide America away from its rather bland English culinary and beverage heritage.

Jefferson's initial interest in wine can be partly attributed to his friendship with his mentor, prominent Virginian George Wythe. While studying in Williamsburg, Jefferson undoubtedly sampled some of the better European wines at Wythe's table. Later, as a young revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson went so far as to hire his own personal vintner to oversee the burgeoning vineyards at Monticello. Jefferson's passion for wine was inflamed during his five-year mission in France serving as United States minister to King Louis V1. While in Paris, Jefferson not only toured the lush wine country of France, but also visited Northern Italy ... where his palette was overwhelmed by the extraordinary cuisine.

Upon his return to the United States, Jefferson promptly adopted many of the culinary and agriculture traditions he had observed in Europe. Most importantly, Thomas Jefferson became a powerful advocate of European wine- making techniques. "We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as made in Europe, not exactly of the same kind, but doubtless as good." During the latter half of his distinguished political career as secretary of state, vice president and president, Jefferson spent a weighty percentage of his salary on the importation of excellent wines from Europe.

After retiring from public service in 1809, Jefferson retreated to his mountain estate, Monticello. There he again attempted to cultivate European wine grapes, though in later years he concluded that native vines were the key to the future of American wine. Jefferson spent the next 25 years entertaining prominent guests, pursuing his varied interests, and indulging his passion for wine. Although retired, Jefferson still retained one lasting duty as a public servant - he remained wine consultant to future presidents until his death in 1826.

Thomas Jefferson fostered the winemaking efforts of others, and he experimented relentlessly on his own. A pattern of renewal and failure marked the vine-growing efforts at Monticello, and it seemed most appropriate to perceive his viticulture pursuits as experimental, his approach optimistically scientific, and his vineyard a vital part of the Monticello laboratory. Jefferson's lack of success can be attributed to his long absences from Monticello; the inevitable attacks of insects, fungus and disease; and, perhaps, simple neglect. Despite Jefferson's shortcomings as a vintner, his efforts, patronage, and passion for wine have not been matched in the United States.

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Norman Gates can be reached by e-mail at: winegate@earthlink.net


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The Union Updated Jun 9, 2004 11:19PM Published Jun 4, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.