WineInk: Founding Father
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I went for a run around the Mall and the Tidal Basin to get an up close and personal view of the monuments and memorials that have been erected to honor our greatness as a nation.
While the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Memorial are iconic, I have an affinity for those structures that are dedicated to Presidents past. The towering Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are awe-inspiring as they sit at either end of the great reflecting pool facing each other.
The oft-overlooked Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, spread over seven acres, is a tribute to the resolute drive of our nation to fight both poverty and tyranny – and succeed. The use of cascading water and the artistic bronze elements designed by California sculptor Robert Graham do an amazing job of providing a sanctuary for reflection.
So what does that have to do with wine, you ask?
Well, my final stop on the Great American Run was to visit the man who some call “The Father of American wine.” Yes, while the Jefferson Memorial pays tribute to a past two-term president, a signatory of the US Constitution, and one of the most learned philosophers of his day, Thomas Jefferson, it should be noted that he was also America’s first wine connoisseur.
Though I was somewhat aware of his love of the grape, a wine from the Jefferson Vineyards that was gifted to me a few years back helped me gain more perspective.
The person who provided the lesson not only eschews alcohol in all forms, but 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 the preponderance of “Ps” in that last sentence was strictly for his benefit.)
Anyway, Mr. Alliteration, or “Mr. A.” as we’ll call him, had been gifted 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 2013 Jefferson Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay from, of all places, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Now I know that there are bonded wineries in all fifty states, and I have tasted wines from many of them, including Wisconsin, Missouri, Texas, New Mexico, and even North Carolina, in my quest to gain a more well-rounded understanding of the great American wine list. But with a few exceptions (New Mexico’s Gruet winery perhaps 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, but 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 sites a history that goes back to 1609, when records show vines were planted near Jamestown Colony.
Today, the Monticello Appellation, so designated as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), surrounds Charlottesville and is home to over thirty wineries as well as both the University of Virginia and Monticello itself – the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is one of eight appellations in Virginia, which ranks in the top ten states (depending upon the criteria used) in wine production. Virginia currently has around 300 registered wineries.
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 referred to, 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 pests, mildew, and other issues. Eventually, the project withered, but the idea that grapes could grow in the region remained.
Mazzei and Jefferson were more than just drinking buddies and business associates. When the Declaration of Independence was in draft stage, Jefferson gave his friend a copy to read. In 1994, a congressional resolution noted that “Whereas the phrase in the Declaration of Independence ‘All men are created equal’ was suggested by Italian patriot and immigrant Philip Mazzei.” A worthy legacy indeed.
In 1981, the then-owners of the original properties planted by Mazzei and Jefferson decided to try, try again, and replant twenty acres of the ancestral vineyards. These vineyards are within sight of Monticello and are thriving today. 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) purchased a bottle of 1787 Château 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 that 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 any place.
Even a visit to a monument.
IF YOU WANT A TASTE…
Jefferson Vineyards is licensed to ship wines to Colorado, so if you want to taste the wines made by proud University of Virginia graduate Christopher Ritzcovan, the Jefferson winemaker since 2013, give them a call at 434-977-3042, or go to the website at jeffersonvineyards.com.
2020 Dough Wines North Coast Chardonnay
The makers of this wine are motivated by a quest to support a good cause, the work of the James Beard Foundation (JBF), and make fine wines to do so. Steve Myers, president (not that kind of president) of Distinguished Vineyards, created Dough Wines as a purpose-driven wine company in collaboration with JBF chefs to raise funds to support the work of the Foundation.
Heidi Bridenhagen – director of wine making for the Distinguished Vineyards brands, which include McRostie Winery in Sonoma County, Markham in Napa Valley ,and Argyle in Oregon – works with the winemakers at those three properties to craft Dough Wines Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and an Oregon Pinot Noir. The result is a trio of food-friendly wines (all under screw cap) that reflect the sensibilities of chefs and a sense of place from their respective sources.
Affordable (All three wines sell for under $25) and accessible, these are fine wines for a worthy purpose.