Monticello-area winemakers proudly refer to Thomas Jefferson as their founding father, saying that their growing industry fulfills his dream. But Monticello's groundskeeper, Peter Hatch, wonders just how serious Jefferson's intentions were to make wine at his mountain-top home.
"Here he is," in 1807, says Hatch of Jefferson, "planting 25 varieties of grapes. One wonders how intense his effort was to make wine at Monticello, considering how many different grapes he grew, how many of those varieties were table grapes rather than wine grapes, and how few plants of each variety he actually planted."
It's the diversity of grape plantings recorded by Jefferson in 1807 that made Hatch decide on that specific year as the historical guide to his restoration of the Monticello vineyards. In the vineyard, as in every other phase of restoration of the gardens and grounds at Monticello, historical accuracy supercedes every other consideration except pure and simple gardening sense. "It's kind of an uneasy relationship between horticulture and history," says Hatch, who has come as near as he can to planting just exactly the type of grapes Jefferson was planting in 1807.
Whether or not Jefferson envisioned Monticello as a winery, he did indeed foresee a time when Central Virginia farmers might grow grapes suitable for making wine. The debate over whether to grow native American grapes or the European vinifera varieties dates as far back as the effort to grow grapes in this country. In Jefferson's day, it was one or the other, and horticulturists didn't have the advantage of understanding why one grew better than the other.
The native American grapes -- from the wild fox grapes that grow in the Monticello woods to the sweet and tasty scuppernong -- thrive in Virginia despite cold winters, rots and mildews, and the pest phylloxera. The problem is, the wine they make can't compare in flavor to any of those made from the European vine. But European varieties -- chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, all varieties of the species vinifera -- can't withstand the Virginia growing conditions. Try as he might, Jefferson couldn't get his favorite wine grape varieties to grow in his Monticello vineyards.
Records that he kept show him planting a vineyard in the 1770s, replanting it with German and French cultivars in 1807, replanting it with native grapes in 1811, and planting both native and European grapes again in 1816.
"He constantly had to replant," says Hatch. "That detail suggests that he was having trouble with grape growing in Central Virginia."
A few varieties worked better than others, and they happen to foreshadow the solutions worked out by American viticulturists today. One successful grape Jefferson called the cape of good hope or alexander, named after the gardener who grew it on the Penn plantation. Its wine, Jefferson reports, tasted like a fine burgundy.
"What it was was a hybrid," says Hatch. "There were viniferas growing nearby." European varieties cross-pollinated with American varieties, and the resulting new plant combined the flavor of a European wine with the hardiness of the American vine.
Whether the cape of good hope grape still exists is debatable. Hatch acquired from the Carroll estate in Maryland twigs that he thinks may be a related grape. For most of the other varieties growing at Monticello in 1807, Hatch ordered twigstock from the Foundation Plant Materials Service at the University of California at Davis, after doing a little horticultural detective work to figure out what current-day grape Jefferson's language designated.
For instance, "black cluster," Hatch decided, was Jefferson's name for cabernet sauvignon, "white frontignac" his name for muscat blanc.
But he didn't have the same horticultural worries that must have plagued Jefferson, because viticulturists on both sides of the Atlantic these days grow vinifera grapes onto native American grape rootstock, a botanical marriage that provides weather- and pest-hardiness with the flavor that we expect our wine grapes to have. Jefferson understood about grafting, but he didn't seem to see it as a solution to the "malaise" that inflicted his grapes.
"It's interesting that Jefferson was such a keen grafter of fruit trees," says Hatch, "but he didn't realize the potential of grafting rootstock on grapes." It took several generations of trans-Atlantic grape exchanges and the near-devastation of the European grape population (which fell victim to the pests and diseases brought from America on hardier rootstock) before the international solution to the problem arose.
Two hundred forty grape plants now climb split-rail posts downhill from Monticello's vegetable garden. No grapes will be harvested until 1987 and even then Monticello won't be making much of its own wine. "Like Jefferson's, it's an experimental vineyard," says Hatch. "You could mix the grapes all together and make something unique. We will probably make a wine, but it's just going to be for fun."