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Winery with links to Jefferson acquired by Monticello’s foundation

Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, April 2022. (Ian Atkins/Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

Virginia’s wine community has long tied its story to Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s “first oenophile,” who famously believed that his native region could grow world-class wine, though his own attempts at Monticello failed. The region around Charlottesville is known today as the Monticello American Viticultural Area, and the wineries market themselves as the Monticello Wine Trail. That spiritual tie to one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence was strengthened in early January when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, acquired the nearby Jefferson Vineyards.

The winery was established in the 1980s as Simeon Vineyards by Stanley Woodward Sr., a retired diplomat and Democratic Party activist, and his wife, Shirley. Their son, Stanley Woodward Jr., renamed the business Jefferson Vineyards when he took over in 1994. In the three decades since, the winery helped prove Jefferson right by becoming one of the state’s best, winning several awards for its viognier and Bordeaux-style red wines. Its bottles are embossed with Jefferson’s signature, as if they came from his personal cellar.

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In 2013, the winery passed to the third generation of Woodwards, five siblings dispersed around the globe. For family reasons and because of the pandemic, they decided it was time to sell, Attlia Woodward, who had been largely managing the business, told me in an email.

The Woodward siblings thought the foundation was the ideal entity to take over “because of our shared values” of Jefferson’s wine legacy and the foundation’s commitment to education and land preservation, Attila Woodward said. His grandparents had placed their land under easement — the first in Albemarle County — to protect it from development when the interstate highway was built nearby.

Woodward announced the sale in early January on his social media feeds, though the winery website has not been updated to reflect the new ownership. The Jefferson Foundation has not announced the transaction either, though it plans a media rollout this spring, according to foundation spokesperson Jennifer Lyon.

“As neighbors that share a common history through Thomas Jefferson, this acquisition furthers our ongoing efforts to safeguard the historic and scenic nature of the lands adjacent to Monticello,” Lyon said in an email. “It also presents new education and interpretation opportunities, both at the vineyard and at Monticello.”

The winery’s link to Jefferson is stronger than its mere proximity to Monticello, about two miles, halfway to James Monroe’s Highland Estate. Part of the winery and its vineyards sits on land briefly owned by Jefferson in the early 1770s, which he gave to Filippo Mazzei, an Italian winemaker who brought a team of vineyard workers to develop a wine industry in Augusta County, a bit farther west. Jefferson persuaded Mazzei to stay in Albemarle and gave him 193 acres of land. Mazzei then bought more adjacent land where he built his own estate and planted a vineyard, which he named Colle, Italian for hill. He established the Virginia Wine Co., the first in the colony. Jefferson and George Washington were partners.

Mazzei’s vineyards showed promise but, according to one legend, were destroyed during the Revolutionary War by rambunctious Hessian prisoners bivouacked there. He was never able to revive his viticultural endeavors and returned to Europe. (Mazzei’s descendants still make wine in Tuscany.)

The Jefferson Vineyards sale includes the winery and about 400 acres of vineyard land. The Woodward family retains about 300 acres, including the Colle site of Mazzei’s home and vineyard. The Jefferson Foundation did not disclose the purchase price, though Charlottesville media quoted $11.75 million. Woodward would say only that local reports of the price were “not entirely accurate.”

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We’ll see how the foundation, a nonprofit entity, succeeds in managing a winery, a type of business that does not always fit comfortably into a corporate culture. Lyon, the foundation spokeswoman, said no changes in staffing or operations are planned and winery operations will remain under the leadership of winemaker Chris Ritzcovan, who has been on staff for more than a decade. In a statement provided through the foundation, Ritzcovan expressed optimism for the winery’s continued success.

Integrating Jefferson Vineyards into one of Virginia’s largest tourist attractions could boost the profile of Virginia wine, especially as tour buses stop at the tasting room after leaving Monticello.

And the foundation has an opportunity to weave Jefferson’s legacy even more intimately into the story of modern Virginia wine. Jefferson Vineyards’ first winemaker was Gabriele Rausse, who came to Virginia in 1976 to help start Barboursville Vineyards as a U.S. outpost for Italy’s Zonin wine empire. Barboursville today is arguably Virginia’s most significant winery and has thoroughly wrapped itself in Jefferson’s wine mythology.

Rausse planted Jefferson’s initial vineyards and remained as winemaker until 1994, when he left to oversee the gardens and vineyards at Monticello. At 77, he is still there as director of viticulture and farming. Lyon told me Rausse would not have a formal role back at Jefferson Vineyards under the foundation’s ownership, “but we envision valuable collaboration and potential opportunities to highlight his early work” there.

As the closest modern link to Filippo Mazzei, Rausse would appear to be the ideal choice to link Monticello’s past to the present story of Virginia wine and its success in fulfilling Jefferson’s dream.