Thomas Jefferson and the Wines of Virginia

Virginia is rich with history, so it’s no surprise that the practice of winemaking in the Commonwealth dates back to 1609, when the earliest settlers of Jamestown planted vines in an attempt to produce a cash crop utilizing the vital soils of the New World.

Virginia Wine | SevenFifty Daily

But the journey to great vino didn’t happen overnight, and like a true American success story, Virginia wines overcame several disheartening failures over a 400 year span to become one of America’s leading wine producers. Today, the Commonwealth’s quality wines earn the respect of great winemakers and sommeliers all around the world, and with over 300 wineries, Virginia comes in 6th for the most wineries per state.  But Virginia’s first vintages and those to come for nearly three centuries were far from the respected quality of Virginia wines today.

Three distinct failures marked the Virginia wine industry since its inception. Early colonists, commissioned European winemakers, and even Thomas Jefferson, one of the most accomplished Americans, encountered difficulties that stalled the early settler’s plans to establish wine-making grapes as a cash crop in the New World. These failures and other significant roadblocks never deterred the spirit of innovation and drive to make Virginia a successful wine country, but rather pushed the Virginia wine industry to try again each time.

After giving up on utilizing Virginia’s native vines, the colonists decided to import a variety of French vines. In 1619, during the meeting of the first legislative assembly of the New World, the House of Burgesses passed Acte 12**, which required every male households in Virginia to plant ten vines of the imported vinifera grapes for the purpose of growing and making wine. One of the first settlers to follow, and even surpass, the requirements of the law, John Johnson, planted 85 acres on the land that is currently occupied by Williamsburg Winery. The vineyard recognizes the history of the region with their Acte 12 Chardonnay, a popular vintage for the winery. Several laws over the following 50 years attempted to coerce settlers into the cultivation of vineyards, but none were successful in the long run.

Thomas Jefferson, noted as America’s first wine connoisseur, was passionate about making Virginia a great wine-growing state. Along with George Washington, George Mason, and approximately 25 other early influential leaders, Jefferson started the Virginia Wine Company, whose aim was to finally establish vineyards as a cash crop in the state. But while Andrew Estave dealt with the vine crop failures on the eastern side of the state, Jefferson began experiencing his own frustrations with viticulture.

In 1773, he gave 2,000 acres of land adjacent to his home at Monticello to Italian viticulturist, Filippo Mazzei, and worked with him to plant the European Vitis vinifera vines. After careful study and research, they found some early success in their cultivation efforts, but this positive turn was unfortunately short-lived. Although there is some disagreement in the Virginia history community whether it was the start of the American Revolution or an infestation of pests, the vines were wiped out once again by misfortune. Today, you can still visit the grounds where Jefferson and Mazzei attempted to grow the vines, which are now home to the aptly named Jefferson Vineyards.

Jefferson’s failure to establish a successful vineyard did not discourage his passion for wine. In 1801, he was elected president and is said to have spent $10,000 on wine during his administration, considered a vast fortune in that time. He continued to persevere, pursuing his passion to see Virginia wines becomes successful. While his own personal crops did not find success, the influence and tenacity he brought to Virginia viticulture helped the winemaking industry gain momentum and recognition.

We did not stop at nearly as many wineries as I would have liked while on our journey through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, and in fact, we only went to two wineries, Parker-Binns in North Carolina First Stop – Charlotte, North Carolina and Jefferson Vineyards in Virginia. Both were very good wineries and I enjoyed the wines at both places very much. My only complaint was there were to many wines and not nearly enough time to try them all. I guess that just means I will have to go back again. 🙂

At Jefferson Vineyards I did a flight of wines that included a 2019 Viognier, a 2018 Rose, a 2018 Meritage and 2018 Vin Blanc. The Viognier was my favorite.

Jefferson Vineyards was beautiful with colorful flowers all around. It was definitely a taste of the good life indeed to sit in the gardens while relaxing with a glass of wine.

Jefferson Vineyards is celebrating its 4oth anniversary as a family owned and operated Virginia vineyard. It is owned by the Woodward Family. The Patriarch and Matriarch of the Vineyard, Stanley and Marie Jose Woodward, both lived in Europe for many years before settling in Virginia in 1992 and opening Jefferson Vineyards. It was in Spain and France where they both learned to love and appreciate the Old World vintages, and it is these old world vintages they specialize in today at Jefferson Vineyards. Jefferson Vineyards specializes in Old World wines and they try to stay as close to the flavors and traditions as Jefferson himself would have liked with his wines.

There’s a movement growing in Virginia vineyards…

A community of farmers perfecting their own agricultural art. They don’t bend to trends. They listen to their land, drawing out the story in every vine and every vintage. Crafting wines that embody the grace, grit and experimental spirit of Virginia.

Jefferson Vineyards is located at 1353 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA. You can find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or at jeffersonvineyards.com. You can also give them a call at 434-977-3042. They are open Wed-Sunday, from 11-6.

Author: ajeanneinthekitchen

I have worked in the restaurant and catering industry for 35 years. I attended 2 culinary schools in Southern California, and have a degree in culinary arts from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, as well as a few other degrees in other areas. I love to cook and I love to feed people.

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