Thomas Jefferson envisioned vineyard land spreading over most of the eastern seaboard and hoped that wine, drunk in moderation, would become an American staple. In fact, disease and rot doomed the European grape varieties -- known as vitis vinifera -- Jefferson attempted to grow, and it would take a century and a half for wine to gain popularity among Americans.

Today, however, thanks to anti-fungal chemicals and greatly improved viticultural methods, the European grapes that Jefferson loved are thriving in the eastern states. Until recently, their wines were still no match for wines from Europe and California. But that is changing as East Coast winemakers learn more. Today there are many good examples of European varieties made within 100 miles of Washington.

Harvest will soon be underway in these vineyards; weekend visitors in the autumn will see pickers bringing in first the white grapes and then the red, which ripen later. Most of the wineries can find time to sell a bottle or two, and maybe to shed some light on the Jeffersonian renaissance.

After recently tasting dozens of wines made within easy striking distance of the nation's capital, I found the results generally encouraging, and in some cases striking. I would like to pass along the good news, starting with that all- American favorite (at the moment), white chardonnay. There are several good ones made in Jefferson's state, including those from Piedmont Vineyards of Middleburg, Va., Naked Mountain of Markham and Ingleside Plantation of Oak Grove. Creditable chardonnay comes from Oakencroft Vineyard and Mont Domaine Cellars, both of Charlottesville.

Maryland also produces some star chardonnays. Those from Whitemarsh Cellars in Hampstead, Boordy Vineyards in Hydes and Catoctin Vineyards in Brookeville are all very drinkable and stylish. Montbray Vineyard of Westminster makes a barrel-fermented, brawny chardonnay that is sold out soon after release. It, and the one from Catoctin, would confound the Californians and the French in a blind tasting.

Montbray also makes a fine cabernet sauvignon -- America's current favorite red -- that is drinkable at a young age, while Catoctin Vineyards' cabernets are moving into the class of those from Napa and Bordeaux. Allegro Vineyards of Brogue, Pa., makes a good cabernet sauvignon that is improving with every harvest, and for years Byrd Vineyard of Myersville, Md., has been producing cabernets that are flavorful, tannic -- and overpriced.

Among the slightly less mainstream varieties, Rapidan River Vineyards of Culpeper makes a consistently good, flavorful riesling, while Naked Mountain makes one with lots of fruit and a dry finish. A decent, slightly sweet '86 white riesling comes from Mount Hope Estate & Winery of Manheim, Pa. Piedmont Vineyards makes a stylish, reasonably priced semillon -- the only one I know of on the East Coast -- and Meredyth Winery of Middleburg makes a fine sauvignon blanc.

The wines of this area will, I predict, increasingly come into the public view because of their improving quality and the special characteristics of soil and topography that make distinct wines anywhere. ::