This week, in celebration of Independence Day, Sarah Shotwell (J. Lohr Marketing Communications Specialist and History Grad) recounts a tale of wine during the first days of the U.S.A. All images Public Domain. Recently, I read in journalist and wine critic John Hailman’s fascinating book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine, that Americans have been enjoying wine at summer barbecues and fish-fries practically since the Mayflower landed. So as my friends and I prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July this weekend with a barbecue on the coast – planning menus, plotting the wine list— I’ve been contemplating wine’s significance to the holiday. We’ve all heard about the Boston Tea Party and the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act and all the other perilous steps leading up to our independence from Britain, but not many remember the role that wine played in the founding of our nation, or the role our founding fathers played in the making of the modern wine industry. While we didn’t see our major Renaissance until the 1970s with the Judgment of Paris, Americans have been striving to set up a successful wine industry here since before the Revolution.

Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt, c. 1805

Thomas Jefferson, who penned the U.S. Declaration of Independence and lived one of the most fascinating biographies in American history, is considered by many to be the nation’s first prominent wine enthusiast and viticulturist. Starting as a young college student, he began collecting wines from Europe, and devoted much of his leisure time to studying the potential for winemaking in the New World — even believing that making wine at home could be a way for colonialists to bite their thumbs at the Crown and claim their independence against the steep taxes being levied on luxury goods. Wine was also being used as a means of personal protest in other ways. In Richard Hooker’s article The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass, we get a picture of colonialists using wine toasts at public taverns as a means of aligning themselves politically. (You knew who was who, based on whether they were toasting to the health of the King, or to the health of revolutionary figures like Thomas Paine or George Washington).

Around 1773, a Tuscan-born viticulturist and physician named Filippo Mazzei was working in England as a wine broker when he bumped into Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams, and the three tumbled into a conversation about wine and winegrowing and colonial politics. Mazzei admitted he had a premonition that America had the chops to become one of the world’s great wine producers – a belief then considered absurd by Europeans. Franklin and Adams convinced Mazzei to travel to Virginia to experiment, likely mentioning that their friend Thomas Jefferson had similar interests. So, with revolutionary activity brewing ever more intensely in the colonies, Mazzei went to pay Jefferson a visit, bringing with him ten skilled Italian vineyard workers, his girlfriend, a tailor, silkworms, and thousands of vine cuttings from a myriad of European varieties. His goal? To form and run a domestic luxury goods supply company specializing in silk, oil and wine. Mazzei hit it off with Jefferson, and the two went on a walk around the grounds of Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Lo and behold, Mazzei fell in love with Jefferson’s yard, announcing it nearly identical to the conditions of Burgundy. (Doubtful, but we still smile at his enthusiasm.) So Jefferson gifted him almost 200 acres, and the site became the first commercial vineyard experiment in America. They called it Colle.

thomas-jefferson-2.jpg Thomas Jefferson Surveying his land at Monticello

At first, there seemed to be immense potential for Virginia winegrape growing, but that first year, the vines were destroyed by a severe frost, and during subsequent years crops were ruined by pests, weather and disease. When Mazzei, a naturalized U.S. citizen, left Virginia to work as a secret agent in Italy, gathering intel and sending arms to the patriot forces back in the states (I like to imagine that he shipped wine barrels full of gunpowder, though I don’t think it happened that way), Mazzei’s vineyards were neglected, then trampled and eaten by horses. But the two grew in their friendship, writing to each other of wine and war. As they passionately pursued the cause of independence in their public lives, in their private lives, they pursued the cause of New World wine. In spite of their experimental failures, it had become a source of national pride for them. They never gave up hope that wine could be made on American soil.

Could the Declaration of Independence have been inspired by an Italian winegrower?It is widely believed that Jefferson and Mazzei were so close, that the most famous line of the Declaration was even borrowed by Jefferson from one of Mazzei’s original pamphlets, which read in Italian “Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti.”

Jefferson sought up until the last moments of his life to try to grow Vitis vinifera at Monticello, and to make wine from its yields, but history tells us he never saw a drop. Even so, he learned enough in his lifetime to make some significant contributions to the modern wine industry – and to farming in general – and his research laid the groundwork for others to succeed later. As he penned the Declaration of Independence, perhaps with Mazzei’s help, he had a private dream to see America emerge as one of the world’s great winemaking nations. And exactly two hundred summers later, at a blind tasting in Paris, it happened. So this weekend, as I raise my glass of California wine, I’ll be drinking not to the health of the King or to that of George Washington, but rather to the health of America’s now thriving wine industry, 235 years in the making. Viva il vino, and happy Independence Day.

– Hailman, John, Thomas Jefferson on Wine. University Press of Mississippi : Jackson, 2008.
– Hooker, Richard. “The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan.1954.Third Series,
Vol. 11, No. 1

– “Philip Mazzei,” Accessed 6/30/2011.
– “The Vineyards” Jefferson’s Monticello. Accessed 6/30/2011.

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