Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

When you write about wine, friends frequently are kind enough to try to serve something special when you come for dinner. It’s one of the perks of the profession and, while it is not often that I find something really new this way, I am occasionally surprised.

Such was the case this past week when I paid a visit to a friend in New York. This person not only eschews alcohol in all forms, but he is also one of those people who pompously pretends to scoff at the perceived pretentiousness of people who profess to prefer Pinot Noir over, say, Prosecco. (He is also in love with alliteration, so that preponderance of “Ps” was strictly for his benefit.)

Anyway, Mr. Alliteration, or “Mr. A.” as we’ll call him, had been gifted the day before by a previous guest who had brought him a bottle of Chardonnay. Mr. A. pulled it from his fridge and, with a little faux flourish, poured me a glass. And it was pretty good. In fact it was very good.

The surprise wasn’t that it was good. No, rather it was the wine’s provenance that threw me. It was a 2009 Jefferson Vineyards Chardonnay from, of all places, Charlottesville, Va.

Now I know that there are bonded wineries in all 50 states and I have tasted wines from many of them, including Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, even North Carolina, in my quest to gain a well-rounded understanding of the great American wine list. But with a few exceptions (New Mexico’s Gruet winery being most prominent), when I venture out of the “Big Four” wine-producing states – California, Washington, New York, and Oregon – my tastings have generally introduced me to more novelties than revelations.

But, as I began to research Jefferson Vineyards and wines from the Charlottesville area, I learned that the region is not just known for producing quality wine, it also has played a significant role in the heritage of American wine. In fact Virginia promotes itself as the birthplace of American wine and cites a history that goes back to 1609, when records show vines were planted near Jamestown Colony.

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Today the Monticello Appellation, so designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), surrounds Charlottesville and is home to more than 20 wineries, as well as the University of Virginia and Monticello itself, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is one of six appellations in Virginia, which ranks in the top 10 states (depending upon criteria used) in wine production.

The story goes that Jefferson, who was determined to build a stately home on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Monticello means “little mountain”) to the south and west of Washington, D.C. in the late 1760s, was enamored with fine wines. “America’s first wine connoisseur” as Jefferson is sometimes called, had the good fortune to meet an Italian entrepreneur who had made his way from England. Fillipo Mazzei convinced Jefferson to plant 400 acres of grape vines on a parcel adjoining his Monticello home. While the attempt was a noble effort, the results were less than stellar due to a variety of pest, mildew and other issues. Eventually the project withered, but the idea that grapes could grow in the region remained.

In 1981, the owners of the original properties planted by Mazzei and Jefferson decided to try again and replanted 20 acres of the ancestral vineyards. These vineyards are within site of Monticello and are thriving. Jefferson Vineyards makes the Chardonnay that I tasted, a Reserve Chardonnay and a number of other varietals, including Pinot Gris, Viognier and a Meritage, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

While much of this history was new to me, I did know something about Jefferson’s history as a collector. In 1985, Phillip Forbes, of the Forbes Magazine family, had purchased a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite that was engraved with “1787 Lafite Th.J” on the bottle. It was sold as a priceless relic from Thomas Jefferson’s private stash. Subsequently four bottles of the same wine were sold to Bill Koch. The problem was, the wines were deemed to be fakes. A book about the scandal, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine,” by Benjamin Wallace has been optioned by Hollywood for possible production.

It all goes to show that wine stories can come from anyplace.

Even a visit to a teetotaler.

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