The Birth of America & The Virginia Wine Industry

I have written about the wines of northern Virginia and the history of the Leesburg in Loudoun County area and its impact on the Revolutionary War. Another story dealt with both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars when I visited Valley Forge & Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This time I spent a week in south and central Virginia where America was born. Working with three different Convention & Visitors Bureau’s I put together my story covering history and the burgeoning Virginia wine industry.

Did you know that 8 US Presidents were born in Virginia and that 4 out of our first 5 were born there when Virginia was still a colony of Great Britain – Washington (1), Jefferson (3), Madison (4), and Monroe (5)? The other four are: Harrison, (William Henry), Tyler, Taylor and Wilson. An even stranger fact is that three US Presidents died on July 4th, two on the same day, several hours apart. – Jefferson & Adams on July 4th, 1826 & Monroe on July 4th, 1831. Jefferson died 50 years to the day that the Declaration of Independence was signed- July 4th, 1776. Adams lay dying and was heard to say: “Jefferson lives” when in fact he had passed away a few hours earlier.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Continental Congress was a convention of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies that became the governing body during the American Revolution. They first met in 1774 and declared the United States colonies independent of Great Britain two years later. Virginia was the largest and wealthiest of the 13 colonies. We all studied the birth of our country and I wanted to relive those days, so off I went on Air-Tran non-stop from LaGuardia to Newport News/Williamsburg airport in just over an hour.

I dropped my bag at the Williamsburg Lodge where I spent an hour interviewing Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Bill Barker in costume) who discussed his efforts in the birth of our nation as well as his role in the establishment of the wine industry in America. Jefferson called wine a “necessary of life”. As our nation’s second ambassador to France (he replaced Benjamin Franklin who introduced him to French wines) he loved everything French and visited vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy, purchasing wine for his enjoyment. He planted vineyards at his home at Monticello and experimented with grape growing in his Paris garden. Before going to France Jefferson met Dr. Philippo Mazzei in Williamsburg in 1773 and encouraged him (and his nine other Italian vigneron’s) to plant vines near what is now known as Jefferson Vineyard. Jefferson invited Mazzei to Monticello and gave him 193 acres for that purpose. Unfortunately, that enterprise failed, mainly because of Phylloxera (a sap-sucking insect that feeds on the roots of grapevines cutting off the flow of water to the vines). Thomas Jefferson accurately predicted that America would some day make wines as good as those of France. He was a wine advisor to Presidents Washington, Madison and Monroe.


EDITORS NOTE: Billionaire’s Vinegar, The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace (Crown Publishing) tells the story (soon to be a motion picture) of the 1985 sale at Christie’s auction house in London. The item was a bottle of Chateau Lafite 1787, with the initials Th.J etched in the glass, that sold for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. Harvey Rodenstock (not his birth name), a German collector, claimed he unearthed this bottle and others from a cellar in Paris. Entrepreneur Bill Kock sued Rodenstock in 1988 over 4 other bottles he bought that supposedly came from the same cellar. I recommend reading this book.

Ron Touring Richmond on a Segway

From 1699 to 1780 Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia. When the capital moved to Richmond in 1780 Williamsburg declined until, in 1926 John D. Rockefeller Jr helped restore the city. The owner of the 301-acre Historic Area is the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which keeps the one-mile stretch along Duke of Gloucester Street open 365 days a year. There are costumed craftsmen, shops and taverns breathing life into colonial times. The two-hour drama “The Revolutionary City” was in rehearsal while I was there. This live dramatic program combines large-scale streetscape performances and multiple simultaneous vignettes. Visitors are able to relive the everyday life of Colonial Williamsburg. We toured the Governor’s Palace that served as British headquarters and the Capitol where the first vote for independence started. The Raleigh Tavern, whose bakery still serves food and drink, was the site of many debates of the times. For tavern fares try King’s Arms, Chownings and Shield’s taverns. The Magazine was where the colonists stored their guns and ammunition. Thomas Jefferson spent 20 years in Williamsburg. He went to the College of William and Mary and practiced law there. Later on in this story I discuss his founding the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Historic Triangle’s Welcome Center

The Williamsburg Lodge is part of Colonial Williamsburg, as are the Williamsburg Inn next door and the newly opened spa. Guests at any of the Colonial Williamsburg Resort Collection’s six properties can use the spa facilities. After my interview with Thomas Jefferson I sat in on the Saturday Wine, Wit & Wisdom class ($25- a bargain) with Sommelier Charles Birr and Executive Chef Rhys Lewis leading a discussion of Virginia artisan cheese and New World wines. The hotel’s wine list has over 250 selections with a large Pinot Noir and Virginia wine selection. I recommend starting your Colonial Williamsburg tour at the visitor’s center, using the free shuttle buses which circle the Historic Area. Make sure to watch the film on Williamsburg- The Story of a Patriot.

In 1607 Jamestown was established as the first permanent English settlement in North America. The National Park Service and Preservation Virginia co-administer Historic Jamestowne where over three million artifacts have been excavated by ongoing archaeological digs from the original James Fort, as well as the remains of the early 17th-century church tower. There are also statues of Pocahontas and John Smith. The visitor center has an excellent multi-media theatre and exhibits. Take note of the importance of both tobacco and slaves to the economy of the settlement. The adjacent Jamestown (no “e”) Settlement is run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The indoor galleries take you through Jamestown’s founding and its time as Virginia’s first capital until 1699. The outdoor living history areas include a re-created Powhatan Indian Village, an early colonial fort and replicas of the three ships that carried Jamestown’s first settlers.

My America’s Historic Triangle tour was complete with a tour of the Yorktown Battlefield and Victory Center. Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown are within a 15-20 minute drive of each other or one can make use of the free shuttle buses that visit all three areas. Yorktown was the site of the decisive battle of the American Revolution. The National Park Service Visitor Center has an orientation film, a museum with artifacts from the battle, including the original tents used by General George Washington. The Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution, combines gallery exhibits and outdoor living history at a re-created Continental Army encampment and 1780’s farm.

Knowing I was going to be drinking wine all week we stopped at Kingsmill Resort where Executive Sous Chef Justin Watson prepared a beer tasting luncheon. Operated by Anheuser Busch-InBev and located between its two theme parks- Busch Gardens and Water Country USA -Kingsmill is Virginia’s largest golf resort with 63 holes and 425 rooms. Dinner was at The Trellis where Marcel Desaulniers has been serving the locals since 1980. He is the author of Death by Chocolate (among his many dessert books). They carry over 20 Virginia wines. My last night in Williamsburg was spent at Wedmore Place at the Williamsburg Winery. Opened in 2007 and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels, Wedmore has 28 different European inspired rooms, each with a fireplace and filled with period antiques. Owner Patrick Duffeler has built the winery into the largest in Virginia with over 50,000 visitors and sales of over 60,000 cases.

Duffeler & Son with Ron Kapon

I was on my way to the state capital Richmond and stopped at New Kent Winery (15 minutes outside Richmond and opened in May 2008) to see how vineyards and a winery can be selling points for a new luxury development. Homes, shops, golf course and spa are all being developed around the vineyard plantings. The winery was built from materials reclaimed from buildings and structures over a century old.

Legislature Room Richmond State Capitol

I was looking forward to the Segway tour of downtown. Leaving from the Richmond Region Visitors Center (located within the Greater Richmond Convention Center.) We drove (is that how you refer to a Segway?) along Canal Walk a new area of restaurants, clubs, condos and hotels along the James River. Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America, and we stopped at the White House of the Confederacy and the state capitol for a tour. The capitol was designed by Thomas Jefferson (did he ever sleep?) and contains the only statue of George Washington that he posed for (not from a drawing.) The Executive Mansion next door is the oldest continuously occupied governor’s home in the U.S. (since 1813). Metro Richmond has a population of about 1 1/2 million, the third largest in Virginia. Another bit of trivia- Richmond is the only U.S. city to offer Class IV whitewater rafting in an urban setting.

Overnight was at the Omni Hotel. It sits in an area known as Shockoe Slip, a neighborhood with cobblestone streets, reconstruction-era buildings, shops, bars and restaurants. Dinner was at CanCan, which offers free wine and beer tasting. It lies within Carytown, Richmond’s nine-block “Mile of Style” full of independent and eclectic restaurants and boutiques. The next morning we toured the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. I knew Poe had lived for several years in NYC, a few blocks from my apartment, but I did not know he grew up, married and gained a national reputation in Richmond. He died and is buried in Baltimore. 2009 is the 200th anniversary of his birth. There are original manuscripts, letters, first editions, memorabilia and personal belongings. One room is dedicated to The Raven, and the courtyard area contains gardens and seating areas. “Poe Revealed” is Virginia’s Bicentennial Poe initiative. I enjoyed the tour of Hollywood Cemetery (originally Holly Wood named for the trees). President Monroe and Tyler are buried here, as are 28 Confederate generals and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. I was handed off to the Charlottesville folks for my hour trip.

My home for two nights was the Hampton Inn & Suites at the University of Virginia. A perfect choice as I had an opportunity with my free time to walk to the “Corner” where students eat, drink and buy all things UVA. Thomas Jefferson chartered the university in 1819 and two other presidents Madison and Monroe (it was his land where the university was built) were involved both as students and administrators. Along with Monticello, the university is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only university in the US so designated. In the 2009 edition of U.S. News & World Report UVA is ranked as the number two best public university (University of California Berkeley is number one). The original university was set around The Lawn, which now houses 104 students. Although these very small rooms have no toilets or showers there is a lottery used to allocate these rooms to senior leaders in the school. The 10 Pavilions house these rooms with faculty living on the upper floors. The Rotunda, formerly the library, (designed after the Pantheon in Rome) is the face of the university. In 1895 it burned down, and noted architect Stanford White was commissioned to redesigned it. At Pavilion 7 I noted the inscription for the 7 Society, founded in 1905 and the most secret of Virginia’s many secret societies. Membership is only revealed after a member’s death.

Monticello means “little mountain” in Italian and was designed by Jefferson in 1770 with the dome completed by1809. The new visitors center opens April 15th with many interactive displays, a museum shop, café and theatre showing a terrific film about Monticello. A bus takes visitors up the hill for their tour of the house. The first floor is the only one open to the public (besides the gardens and basement storerooms) and contains 11 rooms. If you look at the reverse side of the 5-cent piece you will recognize the image of Monticello. Jefferson lived there for the last 17 years of his life, and it was sold after his death to pay off his debts. In 1923 the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the property.

New Executive Chef Terry Sheehan at The Boar’s Head prepared a Virginia wine pairing dinner for me. Covering 573 acres, with 170 rooms, (including 11 suites) the resort is owned and operated by the University of Virginia Foundation. The 1834 original timbers are now used throughout the Main Inn, the resort’s most historic building. A member of the Historic Hotels of American and an AAA 4 Diamond resort. Tennis Magazine called it one of the top 50 U.S. tennis resorts. Golf Digest said it was one of the Best Place to Play Golf. There are almost 300 wines on their list including 40 from Virginia.

The next day we visited Monroe’s home- “Ash Lawn-Highland. ” It was much more laid back than “Monticello” with only a few people waiting for the 10AM opening. The 535-acre working farm is now owned by the College of William and Mary and was the home of the Monroe family from 1799-1823. Jefferson encouraged Monroe to buy the farm that is only a few minutes from “Monticello.” They may have had their political differences but remained close friends.

I then began my “Monticello Wine Trail” odyssey (22 wineries) with a stop at Kluge Vineyards. This 2,000-acre estate (200 acres of vines) was started in 1999 by Patricia Kluge. Most of the vineyards are at elevations around 1,000 feet, overlooking Monticello. The boutique Jefferson Vineyard has exclusive rights to the Thomas Jefferson signature bottles. 80% of the 6,500 case productions are sold at the winery, many to Monticello visitors. King Family Vineyards, started in 1998, sells 95% if its 5,000 case production on site. Winemaker Matthieu Finot came from the Rhone Valley of France 5 years ago and never returned home. Located in Crozet about 15 minutes outside Charlottesville, nearly all its fruit is estate grown. My last stop was another family owned winery Veritas Winery, started in 2002. Located in Afton, also at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 80% of its 8,000 case production is sold at the winery. Although in the next county it is still in the Monticello AVA- American Viticulture Area, similar to the French AOC regulations. I did not get to a few wineries that I have visited in the past: Afton Mountain Vineyards, Barboursville Vineyards, Horton Vineyards and Prince Michel Vineyards.

Virginia had 143 wineries at the time this article was written, fifth largest number behind California, Washington State, Oregon, and Ohio. I have concluded that Virginia makes excellent Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, two of the 5 grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are the other three). Viognier is a Rhone Valley varietal that also does well. Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc do less well here. I spent an hour walking around the Downtown Mall area, which is car free and contains mainly restaurants a some shops. The 3,500 seat outdoor amphitheater and the renovated Paramount Theatre are both located here. Dinner was at “C&O,” named for the railroad with an impressive list of 200 wines of which 25 are from Virginia.

If you admire my writings please be aware that Mark Owen is my editor. My last night was spent at his parent’s home in Waynesboro, about 1/2 hour from Charlottesville. Jan Owen drove me back to Charlottesville for my 6AM Starlight Express luxury bus ride back to NYC. My week in Virginia sent me to the bookstore where I bought a Jefferson biography, rented the John Adams TV show (filmed in Williamsburg, Charlottesville and Richmond) and to purchase the aforementioned Billionaire’s Vinegar.

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