For the Fourth, a Toast to Our Founding Oenophile


It’s a wonder we were able to throw off our colonial shackles and build a country, given how sloshed we must have been.

Consider: In the late 18th century, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, “United States government figures showed that annual per capita alcohol consumption for everybody over fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine.”

In this tally, wine shows up as practically an afterthought for the budding nation’s imbibing citizenry, but it was a different story for the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson loved liberty but he might have loved Burgundy even more.

Jefferson first established vineyards adjacent to Monticello in 1774. But it was after the revolution and before his presidency, during a five-year tenure as minister to France, that Jefferson the oenophile blossomed. In 1787 – the year a new U.S. Constitution was birthed in Philadelphia – where was Jefferson? Traipsing through the vineyards of the Côte d’Or, that’s where. “I rambled thro’ their most celebrated vineyards, going into the houses of the laborers, cellars of the vignerons, and mixing and conversing with them as much as I could,” he wrote.

On that trip, Jefferson connected with a negociant named Étienne Parent, who “would help Jefferson shape his cellar, shipping wine to Paris and the White House,” according to one account of Jefferson’s travels on the French wine route.

Successful as he was at honing his palate and building a cellar, Jefferson had poor luck as a vigneron himself – partly because he so wished to make wines like the French. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation:

Although Jefferson aspired to make a Monticello-grown wine, his continual replanting of the vineyards suggests a perennial and losing struggle with grape cultivation. But Jefferson was not alone. The successful cultivation of Vitis vinifera, the classic European wine species, was virtually impossible until the development of modern pesticides controlled such destructive pests as black rot and phyloxera, an aphid-like root louse. Many native grapes were more effectively grown, yet the poor quality of the resultant wine impeded progress in the development of an established industry.

The history of grape culture at Monticello suggests Jefferson’s unrelenting oscillation between a desire to grow the difficult yet rewarding vinifera, and the possibilities of well-adapted New World alternatives — the fox grape, Vitis labrusca, and the Scuppernong variety of the southern muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia. Although Jefferson probably never made a Monticello wine, the diverse collection of varieties he assembled and his influential advocacy of American viticulture were worthy accomplishments in themselves.

Were he around now, Jefferson might be impressed that at least by one measure, the United States has become a wine nation on par with France: Earlier this year it was revealed that in 2013,  the U.S. consumed more wine than France for the first time – at least, in sum. On a per capita basis, Reuters reported, “the average French person still gets through almost 1.2 bottles a week, about six times more than the average American.”

But the larger point remains: wine has become a real part of the American consciousness. Wine from California, Oregon, Washington and even from Jefferson’s beloved Virginia – and wine from countries all around the globe, not just France and Italy but Australia and South Africa, to name a few. On the Fourth of July, that’s yet another revolution Americans can raise a glass to, with a nod to Thomas Jefferson.

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