Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 4 Spring 2003

Student Paper

Thomas Jefferson and the History of Wine in Virginia

By Alexis K. Brown

Virginia, being one of the oldest colonies and states in America, has a history that spans many centuries, entails many events, and follows many cultural trends. Virginia has been home to many great people who have shaped and influenced the history of the state in which they lived. Thomas Jefferson loved wine, and thus the great Virginian influenced the history of wine in the commonwealth. The history of wine in Virginia dates back to the earliest inhabitance of the area, yet Jefferson brought popularity to winemaking in Virginia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and inspired the persistence of winemakers in Virginia in centuries to come. Virginia has a vast number of successful wineries today, many of them influenced by Jefferson's passion for wine.

English colonists settled at Jamestown, Virginia in April 1607. In 1609, only two years after they settled in America, "the settlers at Jamestown performed their first crush and made their first wine" (Lee, 11) with English grapes. While these winemaking attempts by the Jamestown settlers proved fruitless, the wine-loving English colonists persisted. The colonists, especially officials of the Virginia Company of London, tried several techniques and made many attempts to make Virginia a successful wine country. In 1619, twelve years after the colony was first settled, wine was a concern for the first House of Burgesses. Included in legislation regarding the prosperity, security, and economic growth of the colony was, "Acte Twelfth of Sixteen Nineteen [which] required that every householder plant-each year-ten vines for the purpose of growing and making wine" (Weems, 66). In the 1620s and 30s, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed several other legislative acts to promote and aid the settlers in winemaking in Virginia. These efforts by the Jamestown settlers proved unsuccessful, however, as winegrowers regrettably discovered that Virginia did not have the wine-growing potential the settlers had hoped, and all efforts to create successful vineyards from European grapes failed. More than one hundred years later, the General Assembly in Williamsburg, Virginia "passed legislation in 1769 called 'An Act for the Encouragement of the Making of Wine' (Lee, 14). This attempt yielded poor results in the advancement or promotion of Virginia as a wine-growing country, and had little impact on wine-growing in Virginia compared to Thomas Jefferson and his own influence on the industry.

Thomas Jefferson was a great man who not only influenced his commonwealth of Virginia, but also served as a founding father of the United States of America. Jefferson's influence encompassed both politics and culture. Thomas Jefferson loved wine and hoped Virginia could be a great wine-growing state. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson gave two thousand acres of land adjacent to his home of Monticello to an Italian for the purpose of growing a vineyard. Filippo Mazzei, an Italian viticulturist recommended to Jefferson by fellow founding father Benjamin Franklin, "believed the land was ideally suited to wine grapes" and brought "vine slips and vignerons from Italy" (Lee, 18). The following year, in 1774, Mazzei planted vinifera varieties at his vineyard adjacent to Monticello, and had some early success in winemaking at his Virginia vineyard. Mazzei's work was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War, however, and "in 1778, Jefferson and Patrick Henry arranged to send Mazzei to Italy to borrow money for the support of the Virginia war effort" (Lee, 19). In Mazzei's absence, the vineyard deteriorated and was finally destroyed during the war, and "for several decades Jefferson tried, without success, to grow palatable wine on his estate at Monticello" (Weems, 10). While Jefferson and Mazzei proved unsuccessful at wine-growing, Jefferson's love for wine continued. It was not Jefferson's success in winemaking that influenced fellow Virginians to strive to develop a successful wine industry in Virginia, but rather his deep passion for wine and winemaking, and his aspirations that his be-loved state would be a great wine country. Thomas Jefferson's "contribution to the development of wine in Virginia and the nation is that he became the nation's first wine connoisseur. Jefferson's heritage to America's appreciation of wine has undoubtedly been more lasting than any technical triumph he might have made in the vineyard" (Lee, 18). While Thomas Jefferson himself did not enjoy great success in winemaking in Virginia, his love for wine and wishes for his state to become a great wine country inspired later Virginians to develop new methods and techniques for recognizing Jefferson's dreams.

Virginia today is home to numerous successful wineries, many inspired by Thomas Jefferson and his passion for wine. In the 1960s, Virginia experienced a resurgence of interest in the field of winemaking. Hindered by failure and prohibition, wine-lovers had been unable to recognize the dreams of Thomas Jefferson in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the help of new hybrid wine grapes and new attempts to plant vinifera, however, "Virginia began to experience a revival of its grape industry" (Lee, 29). Since the 1960s, the wine industry in Virginia has only continued to grow, and Virginia is now home to successful vineyards in every region of the state. Thomas Jefferson would be proud of his state's vineyards today, especially with such wineries as the Barboursville Vineyards, the Blenheim Vineyards, and the Simeon Vineyards near Jefferson's home of Monticello, Virginia prospering and honoring his love of wine and winemaking. Thomas Jefferson once said that, "good wine is a necessity of life for me" (Weems, 10). Today, Virginia winegrowers take Jefferson's love of wine to heart and work to fulfill his dream that his state would one day be a great wine country; their appreciation for Virginia's past shapes both the state's present and future.


Lee, Allan E. and Hilde G. Lee. Virginia Wine Country. White Hall, Virginia: Betterway Publications, 1987.

Weems, Faye. Virginia Wineries: Your Complete Tour Guide. Richmond: Auburn Mills, 2001.

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