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Thomas Jefferson: the nation’s first wine connoisseur

I’m excited and privileged to be attending the North American Wine Bloggers Conference later this week.

On Friday night, we’ll be having dinner at Monticello in honor of America’s first true self educated wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson. Did you know that Virginia is the fifth largest producer of wine in the US? I sure didn’t.

When designing Monticello, Jefferson started with the most important room: the wine cellar. In addition to his collection from abroad, he most likely envisioned stocking it with some fine American wines.

Unfortunately Jefferson did not get to see successful American wines in his lifetime, despite creating vineyards around Monticello.

How did Jefferson become such a lover of fine wine? While a law student, he lived with George Wythe, a lawyer and statesman who was a fan of European wines and probably taught the young Jefferson. Shortly after leaving Wythe’s home, Jefferson described starting his own cellar in Shadwell, his family home.

Jefferson traveled to France in 1785, having been appointed as US Minister to the country. While living in Paris, he toured French wine country.

Fortunately for us, he continued his meticulous note taking as he traveled through Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and so on. He also traveled to the Piedmont region of Italy and Germany’s Rhine and Mosel regions.

Though traveling as a tourist, he used his statesman’s skills to make key contacts throughout the region which allowed him to import wine when he returned to the US. After his travels, his tastes for wine shifted from what would have been traditional for a gentleman of the time – from Madeira, Port and claret to Champagnes and wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Jefferson is famous for many a wine quote, including the following which expressed his belief in America’s ability to make wine: “We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”

Today, Monticello is the historical anchor of Virginia’s wine trail. The vineyards around Monticello have been replanted. There are more than 160 wineries in the state today, a fact that Jefferson would no doubt be proud of.

I can’t wait to meet some of the winemakers from the Virginia area who are succeeding in creating great wines in the grand vision of Jefferson!

For an interesting read on the controversy fake Jeffersonian bottles caused, click here.

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