The First Vineyard in Virginia

September 3, 2015

 

October is Virginia’s Wine Month, but any time of year is worth visiting Virginia wineries, all of which offer stunning views and a wide range of wines, not to mention what they are known for best…the fine art of Virginia hospitality! (Visit www.virginiablueridgewinetours.com)

 

  With all we know about Thomas Jefferson, I marvel at how he even found time to involve himself with establishing Virginia’s first-known vineyard! Is there no end to his legacy? As history reports to us, Thomas Jefferson and Filippo Mazzei, Italian physician and later wine importer/exporter, developed a fruitful commercial partnership and a friendship that lasted 40 years. You can read the entire story in Appendix VII of THOMAS JEFFERSON-FROM BOY TO MAN.  

 

   Here is a synopsis of their story: Filippo Mazzei was born on December 25, 1730, in Poggio a Caiano, in the Province of Prato, the Tuscany region of Italy.  He studied medicine in Florence, practicing in Italy and the Middle East for several years before moving to London to take up a career as a wine merchant, in 1754. While working in London, Mazzei met and befriended Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams, and spoke to them about his idea of importing Tuscan wine and olive trees to the New World. Franklin and Adams persuaded Mazzei to establish a plantation for the production of silk, olives, and vineyards in Virginia, and then both became his sponsor to do just that.

 

   Mazzei enthusiastically left for Virginia on September 2, 1773, with ten Tuscan farmers, a full load of cuttings, seeds, tools, silkworms, a tailor, and ten grape farmers.  Arriving in Williamsburg in November, Thomas Adams introduced Mazzei to Thomas Jefferson, who shared his extensive knowledge of Italian wines, cheeses, olive trees, and agricultural experimentation.  In hopes of one day realizing the promise of fine Virginia wines, Jefferson invited Mazzei to visit Monticello during Mazzei’s travels through Albemarle County, and together they toured Jefferson’s hilltop. As a deep friendship formed, Jefferson invited Mazzei to become a neighbor, and persuaded him to establish a vineyard on a parcel of his land below Monticello, which Mazzei called “Colle” (Italian for “hill”). Jefferson brokered the sale of his land to Mazzei, who then summoned his imported laborers from Williamsburg. After Mazzei announced his proposal to form a partnership with Jefferson for the commercial production of wine, he had no trouble finding subscribers.  Thomas Jefferson induced his friends and neighbors to invest in the Wine Company and procured their subscriptions.

 

   The first plantings of the European vinifera varieties were established in the early spring of 1774. In May, the project failed when a severe frost ruined the vines. Although Mazzei still believed that Virginia’s soil was “better calculated” for wine production than any other area, the project did not continue.

 

   The site of Filippo Mazzei’s home, “Colle” still stands, built in 1774 by Jefferson’s workers who were also engaged in building Monticello. It was recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1928, with a state historical marker. Today, “Colle” is part of the Jefferson Vineyards estate, one of the more established wineries and vineyards in Virginia. The persistence of generations of winemakers is paying off, and the vision of one of Virginia’s most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true. Wines from the Commonwealth are winning national and international recognition for their elegant qualities.

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