June 23, 2008

Thomas Jefferson and the Little Vineyard That Couldn't

Grapes growing at Monticello
Almost every state produces wine these days, and Virginia is no exception. After my recent visit, I think that every newspaper feature writer seizes the same rhetorical flourish when writing about wineries: This is the wine that Thomas Jefferson would have wanted to make.

Citizen Jefferson was a great consumer of wine (leading even today to accusations of fraud in the high-end wine auction business). Not only did he drink it, but he had a lot of entertaining to do. I suppose that his imported French wine bill might have been one of many reasons that he died deeply in debt. (Most Americans at the time drank rum or hard cider--gallons of it.)

But the native American grapes made poor wine, while the French vines had to suffer transportation by sailing ship and wagon to a site that apparently did not suit them, in a hotter, more humid climate.

As the Monticello garden brochure states,

Although he aspired to make Monticello-grown wine, his continual replanting of the vineyard suggests a perennial and losing struggle with grape cultivation . . . . 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.

Which is putting a nice spin on it. He inspired people who know more about viticulture and oenology than he could have known to try planting vineyards, and today they can make good wines. And they name wineries after him.

The grapes in the photo are growing at Monticello today.

I wonder if Jefferson would have seen a political metaphor in the Great French Wine Blight, when those same American root stocks saved the French industry.

Peaches did better on his ridge top (brandy!), as did cherries and some apples. Plums and most berries found the site too hot.

I walked in the orchards and tried some of the cherries, which burdened the trees and were not being picked.

Although most orchards were fenced in the 19th century, it was customary for travellers through the Virginia countryside to help themselves to bearing fruit. Wayside orchards were considered part of the common domain.

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