Thursday, June 20

Drinking Wine with Thomas Jefferson

Photograph courtesy of The Random Oenophile.

Meet Marie Stitt, who will be guest-blogging for us about Southern wine culture. A native of Birmingham, Marie received a BA in Art History from Rice University and an MA in Gastronomy from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Bra, Italy. She now lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where she works as a portfolio manager for Grassroots Wine. You can follow Marie on Twitter at @MarieStitt.

Marie Stitt (l), hard at work with her boss (and SFA board member) Harry Root.
 Marie calls her SFA blog posts—of which this is the first—"A Mini-Series on Southern-Infused, Wine-Soaked Movers and Shakers." It's only fitting, she explains, to begin with a lesson on Thomas Jefferson (or "TJ," as she affectionately calls him). And this post is especially timely as we're in Virginia this weekend for our Summer Symposium, where we will be serving and sipping—what else?—Virginia wines!

It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey. —Thomas Jefferson on wine

Like many things wonderful and Southern-born, wine in the south can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson. Besides writing the Declaration of Independence, founding UVA, overseeing the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, serving as Secretary of State, VP, and third President of the US, Thomas Jefferson was also a wino. If the term “wino” conjures any negative connotations I hope that you’ll dispel them now, because, when applied to Thomas Jefferson, this term means oenological connoisseur; it means impassioned viticulturist and patron saint of American wine growing. He was truly a lover of good wine and believer in its abilities to improve the quality of life; he was a drinker, an importer, and a wine advisor to George Washington. Jefferson's vineyard at Monticello was one of the first planted in the U.S., in 1774.*

As you can see, I kind of have a thing for TJ.

You see, he was not only a founding father of these United States (and inventor of the swivel chair), but also of American wine culture. Viewing wine growing as an integral part of the agrarian ideal he imagined for the fledgling nation, Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Good wine is a necessity of life for me,” a quote which has been borrowed by the California-based wine merchant Kermit Lynch and appears on the back of every bottle he imports to the US.

Don’t get me wrong, booze crossed the pond before TJ's time. But beer, cider, and of course, whiskey, were the real players in pre- and post-Revolutionary America. The first commercial brewery in what is now the United States opened in the 1600s. Despite the competition, the visionary gourmand Thomas Jefferson was committed to the idea that Americans should drink wine for health and pleasure. One day, he believed, the U.S. would rival Europe as a producer of his favorite beverage.  I like to think of Jefferson as the original back-to-the-land, food-and-drink-loving homesteader. Basically, TJ was a hipster.

Photo courtesy of

Although Jefferson’s attempts at planting a vineyard at Monticello ultimately failed, he continued to hone his wine expertise and personal cellar and pioneering the American wine industry. Although the vast majority of wine in America is now grown on the west coast, it began here in the South. Today all 50 states produce wine, and this can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian, the Southerner who introduced wine to America.

* (Since this is a foodways blog and all, I might add that it was also Thomas Jefferson who basically invented what we now know as mac and cheese—a dish that fuses traditions from Southern Italy and the Southern U.S. and epitomizes soul food as an example of cultural overlap in relation to diaspora cuisine and whose boxed and powdered form eventually probably fed many a late-night, bleary-eyed UVA student. In 1802, Jefferson even served a version of macaroni and cheese at a state dinner. But that's another story for another time.)