Sour grapes: Jefferson's vines withered

As wine connoisseurs know, the American wine industry began in the '70s when a wealthy gentleman with an interest in agriculture decided to turn pasture on his expansive country estate into vineyards. After consulting with European experts, he planted grapes, firm in his belief that America could produce wine as good as any from France or Italy– a dream that still flourishes.

The gentleman wasn't Robert Mondavi. We're talking about the 1770s, not the 1970s, and the estate was in Virginia, not California. Thomas Jefferson had the idea first.

However, Jefferson is better known as a statesman for a good reason. Unlike Mondavi's, for all his high hopes and careful husbandry, Jefferson's efforts didn't produce one drop of wine.

According to his extensive records, the third President planted grapes at Monticello at least six different times between 1774 and 1824, but he never reported that any of his plantings met with success.

"Our first interpretation is that the grapes were dead before they were planted, or that that they weren't taking care of them properly," says Gabriele Rausse, associate director of gardens and grounds at Monticello.

Jefferson wasn't the only hopeful enophile of his day. In 1773, he met Philip Mazzei, an Italian merchant who had been brought to the Colonies by Benjamin Franklin and businessman Thomas Adams for the purposes of conducting "an experiment in Mediterranean agriculture" in Augusta County. Those winemaking dreams ended when the two visited Jefferson on the way to the site, and Jefferson convinced Mazzei to ply his trade on 193 acres of land that Mazzei renamed Colle.

Investments poured in from such notables as George Washington and George Mason, but the venture was put on hold when Jefferson left for Philadelphia to participate in the Continental Congress and Mazzei went back to Tuscany to raise money for the American war effort.

However, Mazzei's home at Colle was leased to Baron Frederich von Riedesel, a Hessian general who had been captured at the Battle of Saratoga and who, according to Chad Zakaib, director of marketing at Jefferson Vineyards, did not share the colonists' passion for wine.

"The general brought all his officers and their servants and, of course, all of their horses. When the horses were turned loose in the vineyards, that was pretty much the end of it," Zakaib says.

Not the permanent end of it, of course. These days, you can buy bottles of "Monticello Sangiovese" from grapes from Monticello's southwest vineyard– and Colle is now the home of Jefferson Vineyards.