A Toast to Our (Almost) Founding Vintner

In honor of Presidents' Day, wineries with ties to Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln.

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

Thomas Jefferson was a lusty and passionate Founding Father, both when it came to women (see Sally Hemmings) and to his food and drink. His accounts of his journeys through the vineyards of Europe show that he could be considered America's first wine critic — the Robert Parker of the Colonial Era. Jefferson also imported a lot of wine into the U.S., mainly for his personal use, but he was a total bust at becoming our founding vintner, failing repeatedly at growing winemaking grapes at his estate in Monticello, Va.

Still, as we celebrate Presidents’ Day, we must note the historic vindication of Jefferson, because the area around Monticello and nearby Charlottesville today yields a bounty of well-made American wines from locally-grown grapes. In fact, in the same vineyards where Jefferson's vines failed, very good wines are being made today by Jefferson Vineyards winery.

Jefferson failed with his original vineyards in the 1770's because of vine diseases and severe winters, problems that science and better vineyard management have since brought under control. His vineyards, replanted 30 years ago in 1981, today produce 4,000 to 8,000 cases of good wine annually, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc.

George Washington did not share Jefferson’s passion for winemaking, but he did have his own wine cellar, which can be visited May 13-15 during Mount Vernon’s Spring Wine Festival. There is also a winery which shares a geographic tie to Washington. Crossing Vineyards is a frequent stop for tourists who visit Washington Crossing, Pa., where then General Washington forded the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776 to rout the Hessian soldiers at Trenton.

President Lincoln fares less well in wine history. While there is a winery near his home in Springfield, Ill., the area has never been a hotbed of grape growing, and most of the establishment’s grapes or grape juice is grown elsewhere. And just in case the wine business goes bust, it has a Plan B — its official name is the Walnut Street Winery Plus Sauna.