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True Story:

In 1820-something, John Adlum, one of America’s first wine geeks and sometime correspondent of our TJ’s, writes to his friend Nicholas Longworth, “In bringing this grape [by which he meant the Catawba] into public notice, I have rendered my country a greater service, than I would have done, had I paid the national debt.”  Twenty years later, in corresponding with one C.W. Elliott, Longworth repeats Adlum’s comment.  Elliott publishes his correspondence with Longworth – including Adlum’s comment – in The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.  The comment is also subsequently published in all sorts of fora, including Patent Office documents, wine encyclopedia, and other journals.

Fast-forward to 2009: every single wine website on the planet is trumpeting the quote, “By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt…”  – Thomas Jefferson

How did this come to be attached to Jefferson?  As I said, he did correspond with Adlum, and on the subject of wine.  Perhaps someone saw the statement out of its original context and assumed it appeared somewhere in Adlum’s letters to Jefferson – a not-unreasonable assumption, actually.  It’s only a short leap from there to attaching the statement to Jefferson himself.  Generally speaking, I suspect that the obscure and feeble chain of this quote’s true genealogy was no match for the gravitational pull of Planet Jefferson.

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It’s a topic that has proved endlessly fascinating for a long time (and has inspired quite a body of writing): Thomas Jefferson and his love of wine.

It’s probably because a lot of us can sympathize.

We were excited to learn that a locally-produced story about Jefferson, wine, and the efforts to restore the wine cellar at Monticello was picked up by NPR and made it to last week’s Weekend Edition Sunday on NPR.  You’ll hear from Monticello’s own Justin Sarafin (Dependencies Project Coordinator), Gabriele Rausse (Assistant Director of Gardens & Grounds), and Peter Hatch (Director of Gardens & Grounds).

From the NPR write-up:

In the early days, Jefferson drank what most Englishmen enjoyed: heavy, sweet wines like port and sherry. But Gabriele Rausse, who came to Monticello from Italy to tend its modern-day vineyard, says Jefferson’s tastes began to change during the Revolutionary War. That’s when he came in contact with German mercenaries known as Hessians who fought for the British and were being held prisoner near his home.

The Hessians introduced Jefferson to German wine and gave him cases of it to take with him during his ambassadorship in France, Rausse said. But it was when Jefferson discovered French wines that he became enchanted.

I have to agree–I can’t stand that sweet, fortified stuff myself.  I’m still curious about the Scuppernong that Peter Hatch talked about.  Maybe we can fire up a local production one day, in a way reminiscent of what Mount Vernon has done with their reconstruction of Washington’s whiskey distillery.

But that’s just my thought.

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