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Thomas Jefferson’s Love Affair With Wine

Although born on the Virginia frontier, Thomas Jefferson became the most knowledgeable wine connoisseur of his age, and his tastes in wine covered the world: France, Italy, Germany, Madeira, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Hungary and, of course, America.

His interests in wine developed early as indicated by his 1769 Shadwell wine inventory: 83 bottles of rum, 15 bottles of Madeira, four bottles of “Lisbon wine for common use,” and 54 bottles of cider, an inventory that would change radically with the passage of time. Exactly when Jefferson chose to design and build his own house is not recorded, but the first mention of Monticello (which means “small mountain”) is noted in his Garden Book on Aug. 3, 1767. A wine cellar, 17 1/2 feet long, 15 feet wide and 10 feet high, was laid out near a cider room. The 28-year-ancient Jefferson and a 23-year-ancient widow, Martha Wales Skelton, were married on New Year’s Day, 1772, at the home of her father, John Wayles, and two weeks later they arrived at Monticello on horseback in a snowstorm.

It is perhaps apocryphal but Jefferson’s fantastic-granddaughter, Sarah N. Randolph, reports that they found a bottle of wine “on a shelf behind some books” that they shared before retiring on their Monticello honeymoon night. It was the first of many bottles that he would delight in at home with family and friends. In his account book of Sept. 15, 1772, he records liquors and bottles on hand, including “about three gallons of rum and a half hogshead [271/2 gallons] Madeira, 72 bottles of Madeira, 37 bottles of Lisbon wine, 29 bottles small beer, 10 bottles of port and 31 bottles of miscellaneous in the closet.” The year earlier he had recorded ten dozen bottles of port, so in the intervening year, 110 bottles of port had been consumed.

In November 1773, Philip Mazzei, one of the most fascinating men to enter Jefferson’s life, landed in Virginia from England with his wife-to-be, her 12-year-ancient daughter, and ten Italian vignerons. Mazzei arrived with a plot to cultivate European grapes, olive trees and the egg of silk worms to make silk. Traveling with Virginia merchant Thomas Adams to Adams’ home in Augusta County, where Mazzei expected to establish his vineyard, they stopped along the way at Monticello to visit Jefferson.

Early the next morning, Mazzei and Jefferson went for a walk through Monticello’s hillsides, and Mazzei found the vineyard land he was looking for, a 400-acre tract adjoining Monticello to the east. He named it “Colle.” Jefferson described the land that Mazzei selected as “having a southeast aspect and an abundance of lean and meager spots of stony and red soil, without sand, resembling extremely the Côte of Burgundy from Chambertin to Montrachet where the well-known wines of Burgundy are made.”

What Mazzei and Jefferson talked about on this early-morning stroll was not recorded, but it sparked a lifetime friendship and caused Jefferson to become a partner in Mazzei’s vineyard project, the first commercial vineyard venture in America. As Mazzei remembered in his autobiography, “By the time we returned home, everyone was up. Looking at Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Adams said: ‘I see by your expression that you have taken him away from me. I knew you would do that.’ Jefferson smiled, and without looking at him, but staring at the table, said: ‘Let’s have breakfast first and then we’ll see what we can do.’ ”

Whether on that morning walk or later, Jefferson learned that Mazzei had grown up in a mountain village in Tuscany, Italy. As a young man, he studied medicine at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, but was dismissed for drinking wine before taking communion on Holy Thursday. Undeterred, he went to Leghorn (now Livorno) and established a successful medical practice.
But ever restless, Mazzei left for Smyrna, Turkey, where he continued the practice of medicine for two and a half years. Bored with life in Smyrna and armed with a supply of Turkish opium and some other local products, he sailed for England in December 1755. In London he sold his Turkish goods for a sizable profit, rejected offers to resume his medical practice and made a living giving Italian-language lessons to the British gentry. With the profits from the sale of the Turkish goods, Mazzei opened a shop specializing in wines, silks, olive oils, anchovies, parmesan cheese and other Italian products that were nearly impossible to buy in London.

by James M. Gabler



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