It’s hard to imagine a better venue for the study of viticulture than Monticello, the home of America’s first great connoisseur of wine, and so I counted myself fortunate that this weekend’s class on vineyard diseases was taught on the small mountain that was Jefferson’s home.
I’m sure someone will question my description of Jefferson as the nation’s first great wine connoisseur, preferring another term in its place, but I think my words cover the subject better than any others. Jefferson is sometimes called America’s first great viticulturist, and the notebooks he kept while touring the world’s great wine regions reflect an extraordinary knowledge of the subject. Sadly, though, he was never successful in growing wine grapes at Monticello. But he loved wine – that too comes across in his notebooks – and he devoted huge sums of money, as well as significant amounts of his time, toward procuring and enjoying wine (more on this subject in a future post), and so it seems most accurate to think of him as not just a lover of wine, but as the young nation’s foremost authority on the subject. A connoisseur, and yes, much more than that.
Of course, Jefferson was an authority on many things, which is another reason why it seemed so special to be part of a class at Monticello. There are few people today, indeed, few people in history, whose expertise ranged over so many subjects. When you
consider how many hours that men of his age spent on the things we devote minutes or hours to – letters and travel, among them – it is nothing short of astonishing that Jefferson accomplished so much.
And for those of us (hopefully all of us) who care about the freedoms inscribed in the First Amendment, Jefferson is a name to be revered. While Madison may be the author of the First Amendment, Jefferson’s influence was vital. Free speech, free press, and the separation of church and state were central concerns for him. The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Virginia, where I worked for two years while occasionally attending classes, cited Jefferson proudly and perhaps defiantly in its masthead: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.” I always thought that quote was the most elegant and eloquent summation of the argument for a free press that I have ever heard.
Back to the class. It was taught by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s assistant director of gardens and grounds and the father of Virginia’s wine industry. Gabriele arrived in the United States in 1976 from his native Italy, thinking he needed to learn a bit more English before returning to the wine country of Australia, one of several wine regions he apprenticed in. At that time, the prevailing wisdom was that Vitis Vinifera, the great wine grapes of Europe, could not be grown in Virginia. Gabriele decided to contest the prevailing wisdom, even though, as he told us on Saturday, everyone thought he was crazy.
But of course, he was right.
Today, Gabriele is the state’s best known vineyard consultant, and the wines he makes himself are elegant in the best traditions of Europe and, yes, Virginia. More on Gabriele in a future post, but for now, let me just say, that if you are lucky enough to taste his wines at a Virginia wine show, you should buy some, as it may be the only chance you get. His winery produces no more than 1,300 cases a year, so they are not only treasures, but they are rare.
Monticello and Gabriele. Life doesn’t get much better. I’ll post something in a few days about the class itself, but for now, I’ll just say that for those of us involved in the Virginia wine industry, even amateurs like me, the spirit of Jefferson will always be an inspiration.
Coming up next weekend: the North American Wineblogger’s Conference in Charlottesville. It says a lot about how far the Virginia wine industry has come that this conference is being held in Charlottesville, in the center of the Monticello AVA. And one of the events I am looking forward to most is the wine tasting at Monticello. It’s not like I’ve never been to a wine tasting, but the very idea of tasting wine at the home of Jefferson is humbling, to say the least.
I’m sure Jefferson will be watching over us, and wishing for just a sip of a true Virginia wine.