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August 2015

August 2015: Inside the Vines — Drink Up the Details on America’s First Wine Connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson

jeffersonwineThomas Jefferson is well-known for his love of wine. In fact, this Founding Father was not only a master gardener, but he is also considered America's first wine connoisseur.

However, Jefferson’s taste for fine wines wasn’t well developed before he was sent to Paris by Congress to join Americans Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (August 1784 to September 1789) as diplomats there. Back then, Jefferson mostly drank sweet wines, such as port and sherry.

“But his taste began to change during the Revolutionary War,” according to Gabriele Rausse, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds. "Once Jefferson discovered French wines, he became enchanted."

Rausse refers to a famous quote thought to have been said or written by Jefferson to pioneering American viticulturalist John Adlum, who corresponded extensively with Jefferson. Speaking of the Catawba grape, Jefferson is believed to have said: “In bringing this grape into public notice, I have rendered my country a greater service, than I would have done, had I paid the national debt.”

So don’t miss our interview below with Rausse, who gives us a history lesson and tour of the vineyard at Jefferson’s magnificent Monticello.

As we celebrate the 231st anniversary of Jefferson’s departure for France — we lift our glasses to discoveries yet to be made. Cheers! — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation

What Was Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Wine?

From Burgundy to Bordeaux to a certain pale sherry, Jefferson claimed in 1818: "In nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines." Click here to watch our video interview with Monticello’s Gabriele Rausse on 

Grateful American™ Series

Gabriele Rausse Shares Thomas Jefferson's Love of Wine

391_RaussePour yourself a lovely glass of Burgundy, or perhaps a nice Bordeaux, and sit back and relax as you watch this Grateful American™ TV video with 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.

This month in history

What did Jefferson do when his wine cellar ran dry?

By 1815, years of war had prevented the importing of Thomas Jefferson's stock. In an attempt to refill the former president’s wine cellar, Jefferson wrote to a Portuguese wine merchant in Norfolk saying, "Disappointments in procuring supplies have at length left me without a drop of wine. I must therefore request you to send me a quarter cask of the best you have. Termo is what I would prefer; and next to that good port. besides the exorbitance of price to which Madeira is got, it is a wine which I do not drink, being entirely too powerful. wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health, which is now suffering by it's [sic] disuse." Learn more from “Thomas Jefferson on Wine,” by John Hailman.

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Words of Wisdom

“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor (First Award) to Ordinary Seaman Robert Augustus Sweeney, United States Navy, for gallant and heroic conduct while serving on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge, at Hampton Roads, Virginia 26 October 1881. Ordinary Seaman Sweeney jumped overboard and assisted in saving from drowning a shipmate who had fallen overboard into a strongly running tide.”

— War Department, General Orders No. 326 (October 18, 1884)

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Book Club

Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

Thomas Craughwell’s  culinary biography recounts the 1784 deal that Thomas Jefferson made with his slave, James Hemings. The Founding Father was traveling to Paris and wanted to bring James along "for a particular purpose" — to master the art of French cooking. In exchange for Hemings’ cooperation, Jefferson would grant his freedom.

Thus began one of the most unusual partnerships in United States history. As Hemings apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so they might be replicated in American agriculture.

The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, and crème brûlée. The narrative tells the story of their remarkable adventure — and even includes a few of their favorite recipes.

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Fascinating Fact

Did colonial-era Americans drink from breakfast till bedtime?

While we may think of the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers as prim and proper, the truth may be that our colonial ancestors “swam in a sea of booze from breakfast till bedtime,” according to Serious Eats. “Whether they were working, writing, selling goods, getting married, or even fighting, early Americans were often tipsy — their incessant drinking a cultural extension of Old World beliefs that fermented beverages were safer than water. The colonial-era day didn’t begin until after a dram of bitters or stiffener of beer.” In fact, by the time the Revolutionary War began, the adults of the 13 colonies reportedly drank the equivalent of several shots every day. What were they imbibing? Click here to find out.


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