America’s First Wine Connoisseur: Gabriele Rausse on Thomas Jefferson’s Love of Wine

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Pour yourself a lovely glass of Burgundy, or perhaps a nice Bordeaux, and sit back and relax as you watch this Grateful American™ TV video starring Gabriele Rausse, the vintner who has been dubbed “The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry.”

It is with good reason. Since he arrived in Virginia from his native Valdagno, Italy, Rausse has been involved in the start-ups of numerous wineries, including his own Gabriele Rausse Winery.

Today he is Monticello’s director of gardens and grounds, having joined Monticello as its assistant director in 1995. During his time there, he has worked to restore Thomas Jefferson’s vineyard, located just below the vegetable garden.

The Northeast vineyard has been replanted using several Jefferson-related European varieties of grape, grafted on hardy, pest-resistant native rootstock. The Southwest Vineyard has been replanted entirely with the Sangiovese grape, a variety documented by Jefferson in 1807 and the principal ingredient of Chianti. Rausse oversees its production and the care of the restored vineyards, which continue to serve as experimental gardens of unusual varieties of vinifera.

Grateful American™ Foundation founder David Bruce Smith and Grateful American™ Series Executive Producer Hope Katz Gibbs had the opportunity to interview Rausse in the gardens of Monticello. Scroll down for their Q&A. 

David Bruce Smith: Gabriele, Thomas Jefferson is famous for being an agricultural experimenter. What crops did he grow here?

392_WineGabriele Rausse: It’s a very interesting question because when the farm was new, tobacco was the main crop. After the Revolutionary War, it was impossible for the new United States to disconnect itself from England because tobacco was the main thing they could sell. Jefferson knew he needed to grow other crops, so he began planting wheat. He invited other farmers to go in that direction and encouraged them to grow rice — like the farmers in Italy. When he was the ambassador to France, he took a trip to Italy and actually stole some rice and smuggled it out of the country. But when he urged farmers in North Carolina to grow it, they were afraid; they didn’t know what would happen if they did, so the idea was abandoned. Today, Italian rice is as popular as Jefferson anticipated.

Hope Katz Gibbs: The garden here is filled with what seems like exotic vegetables, including white and purple broccoli. 

Gabriele Rausse: Yes, we have a lot of Jeffersonian varieties. When people see the gardens here, they ask why we have so many colored cabbages, broccoli, and other varieties. We tell them we are just doing what Jefferson did. We harvest a lot of seeds from the plants that we grow, since having different varieties means we can sell different kinds of seeds, which is a good business for us.

David Bruce Smith: Did Jefferson keep detailed records of what he did here in his garden?

Gabriele Rausse: He kept unbelievable records. It’s something that is so useful to everybody today. I learn so much about him from the way he kept them, including his ability to solve a problem. And when he was away from Monticello, his daughter Martha would write and tell him if, for example, an insect was destroying the wheat and share other farming problems she encountered. In one case, he wrote her back advising her to study the insect, see how it behaved, and suggested, “Next year we will put a lot of manure in the field and that will take care of the insects.” What I love about that advice is that he wasn’t always just answering the question, but offering insights.

monticello-stemware-wine-glass-204Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us more about Jefferson’s fine taste in wine.

Gabriele Rausse: People like to say it’s an experiment that he made wine, and we always say he didn’t live long enough to finish his experiment. In fact, the variety of grapes he chose to plant here is very interesting. They’re so different, and they were also hard to harvest. While he was in France, his winemakers wrote to him saying they would be happy to make some wine, but the grapes seemed to disappear year after year before they were ripe. This suggested that people were stealing the grapes, so supervisors were advised to keep a closer eye on the grapes. In my opinion, the birds or the deer were the more likely culprits. Grapes are the most wanted crop in the wild kingdom.

David Bruce Smith: How do you think Jefferson’s experiment with agriculture fit into his vision for America’s place in the world?

Gabriele Rausse: I’ll tell you a little story, which is beautiful. At a certain moment, Jefferson suggests that growing grapes is a good thing, because when the population gets larger, there won’t be enough work for everyone, and having a vineyard would keep everyone busy. That was very clever. He also liked the view from his mountaintop where the grapes were grown, for he could see very far into the distance. I think there is a double meaning in that. There was the physical view he could see. And the view from the vineyard also represented the expansive view that his mind was capable of. In a letter to Gen. Lafayette in April 1787, Jefferson wrote: “I am constantly roving about, to see what I have never seen before and shall never see again.”

Don’t stop yet! Click here to learn more about Monticello’s gardens.

Image: Monticello stemware