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Jefferson's Virginia Legacy (June 11, 2015)

Of all American Presidents, the one who knew wine best and cared about it most was Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson acquired his knowledge during his time as the US ambassador to France between 1784 and 1794. During his tour of duty, he travelled extensively through the wine regions of France and beyond to those of Germany and Italy.

According to James Gabler in his book, Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, in the garden of his Paris residence on the Champs-Elysées, Jefferson experimented with grape growing. He planted vine cuttings acquired from such famous vineyards as Montrachet, Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Hochheim and Rüdesheim.

Jefferson returned from Europe to Virginia with a magnificent cellar which he kept stocked throughout his life, as well as advising Presidents Washington, Adams, Madison and Monroe on what they should lay down in the White House cellar.

At a White House dinner to honour recipients of the Nobel Prize on August 29th 1962, President Kennedy welcomed his guests by saying: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

To the curriculum vitae of his extraordinary life Jefferson could add the title, "Sommelier."

"Good wine is a daily necessity for me," Jefferson wrote, and more famously, "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage." (Nota bene LCBO.)

As a Virginian farmer, the third president of the United States grew grapes for fifty years on his Monticello estate in Charlottesville. He also grew hemp (marijuana). The authenticity of the following quote attributed to him has not been proven in court but like all good gossip, it's worth repeating: "Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see." But I'm sure he would have had a glass of wine in hand if not a reefer.

Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, died, ironically, on July 4th, 1826. After his death, Virginia wine seems to have petered out, a gradual decline hastened by the Prohibition years. But the state's wines continued to win the occasional gold medal in international competitions – usually for the Native North American grape Norton (incidentally, still the official grape of the State of Missouri).

It wasn't until the late 1950s that the first European vinifera varieties were planted. They rejuvenated the local wine industry. By 1995 Virginia had 46 wineries. Today they have 280 – mostly small boutique operations, though in terms of the number of wineries, the state ranks No. 5 in the US and 12th in total production.

There are echoes of Jefferson's wine evangelism in the career of an adopted son of Virginia: Burgundy-born Sébastien Marquet. Marquet currently makes wine at Doukénie Winery in the Short Hills Mountains of Loudoun Heights, a 45-minute drive northwest of Washington DC. He also consults, with his French Canadian wife Isabelle, to six other Virginian wineries.

Marquet's grandmother was a winemaker and his parents owned a restaurant. At the age of 13 he was sent by his parents, at his own request, to the Lycée Viticole et Oenologue de Beaune to learn winemaking. Students there have ten hours a week of wine tasting (God bless the French).

From 1993 to 1996, he managed vineyards and produced wine in Languedoc-Roussillon. Looking for further challenges, in 1996, with the assistance of the French government, he launched a vineyard on Martinique, the first such enterprise in the Caribbean. (Irrelevant digression: the unofficial flag of Martinique is the old French Ensign, a white cross on a blue field with fer-de-lance vipers in each quarter of the cross. These snakes are native to the island.)

Such are the climatic conditions on Martinique that Marquet was able to get two and half crops a year from his vineyard, which was planted to Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, as well as table grapes.

On Martinique in 2000, he met Dr. D'Arcy Dornan, a specialist in tourism studies at UC Davis, who suggested he come to California. Marquet spent eight vintages in Sonoma and Napa making wine at several wineries. Then Virginia beckoned and he was hired by George Bazaco as winemaker and general manager of the family winery, Doukénie. Doukénie is Greek for "Duchess," the name of George's grandmother who emigrated from Greece to the United States at the age of fourteen.

Sebastién Marquet's first vintage at Doukénie was in 2007 and since then he has produced a range of red and white vinifera wines from Virginian grapes. Assessing his own history in Virginia, along with that of his colleagues, he told me, "I think Thomas Jefferson would be proud today."

Of the wine they're growing, I imagine, not the hemp.




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