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Wine: Forefather of the Vine

Bill Whitman

Winter is a quiet time at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s eccentric estate near Charlottesville, Va. The summer and autumn crowds have come and gone, and the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge that reminded Jefferson of Bordeaux—and inspired him to attempt to produce fine wine in his native Virginia—are shrouded in mist and rain. But last January 8, a determined group of wine pilgrims gathered at Jefferson’s home, many of them having traveled long distances, including the courier who flew by private jet from California and the Texas couple who made a two-day drive from Dallas. Their mission was to arrive on the release date of the 2000 Monticello Sangiovese, the wine that Jefferson, despite his persistent attempts, never succeeded in creating. Their precise timing was necessary, because all 744 bottles were snapped up by 4 pm the next day.

The story of Monticello Sangiovese began in 1985, when Monticello’s director of gardens and grounds, Peter Hatch, began the meticulous restoration of Jefferson’s original vineyard. Using Jefferson’s handwritten Garden Book as a guide, Hatch replicated the exact vineyard—vines, grapes, and split rail trellises—that Jefferson laid out on Monticello’s slopes more than 200 years ago. After serving as the U.S. ambassador to France, Jefferson brought European vines back to America. He had difficulty growing the vines, either because they were damaged en route, were improperly planted, or were ravaged by disease, and eventually replanted the vineyard with vines native to America.

Hatch first planted Monticello’s Northeast Vineyard with Trebbiano grapes, along with Chasselas and Alexander—two varieties rarely seen today, but which Jefferson thought had a future in America. Then in 1993, Hatch and Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s associate director of gardens and grounds and a leading figure in Virginia’s flourishing wine industry, replanted Jefferson’s Southwest Vineyard with Sangiovese grapes, another Jeffersonian favorite. Using hand-harvested grapes crushed and pressed in wood, Rausse began making Sangiovese at Monticello in 1995. Since then, production has moved to Rausse’s small country winery just a few minutes away, but the result is still remarkable.

More than just a historic oddity, Monticello Sangiovese is a sumptuous wine, smooth and soft, with rich berry flavors. “Monticello Sangiovese has more intensity and polish than any Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted,” says Rausse.

Looking ahead to January 2003, when the 2001 vintage will go on sale, Rausse expects that the number of bottles available will be close to 1,000 and predicts that each bottle will cost between $40 and $50. Sales of Monticello Sangiovese, which must be purchased in person, are restricted to 12 bottles per customer.

If Jefferson were here today, we can be sure that he would raise his glass to the contemporary growers and winemakers who have fulfilled the notion he conceptualized two centuries ago: producing a world-class wine at Monticello.

Monticello Mountaintop Shop, 434.984.9840, www.monticello.org

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