Thomas Jefferson's Wine
Monticello Restores Its Wine Cellar
By Lauren Walser | Online Only | Nov. 29, 2010
When Thomas Jefferson began building Monticello in 1769, he started with the room that would eventually become his wine cellar—fitting for the man many considered America's "first distinguished viticulturist."
Jefferson famously declared wine a "necessity of life," and he tried in vain to produce wine at his Charlottesville, Va., home. Although he was certain the United States could rival Europe in wine production, his own two vineyards never produced a successful vintage. Instead, the third president, who served as wine adviser to his predecessor George Washington and successors James Madison and James Monroe, relied on frequent shipments of wine from overseas, which he stored in the wine cellar beneath his dining room and served to many delighted guests.
Now, 200 years later, Virginia boasts a thriving wine industry. Jefferson's fully restored wine cellar is open to the public, permitting visitors to experience the room that once held his prized collection of European wines.
The new incarnation of the cellar represents a dramatic departure from its previous state, when the space was blocked off by an iron-bar door. Today, visitors can enter the cellar and stand on a wood platform constructed atop the original brick floors, overlooking dumbwaiters, crates, and reproduced wine bottles.
"We wanted people to be really able to come in and experience this room," says Justin Sarafin, an assistant curator at Monticello and project coordinator of the wine cellar restoration.
Opened in June, the cellar looks as it did during Jefferson’s retirement (1809-26). To ensure authenticity, Monticello’s archaeology and research crews scoured meticulous inventories and notes, along with correspondence, drawings, and other documents. The archaeologists also conducted a dig in the space, unearthing artifacts and other clues to the cellar’s appearance two centuries ago.
One side of the cellar showcases the dumbwaiter system Jefferson used to transport wine from the cellar to the dining room. Four bottles at a time—two in each dumbwaiter—could be lifted up to the dining area, where the bottles would be stored in locked cabinets on either side of the fireplace until they were ready to be served.
"We spent several days in here really looking at the dumbwaiter," Sarafin says. "It's such a simple pulley and weight mechanism, yet it took a number of people and a number of hours to document it down to the last nail and figure out how it works."
Only one of the two dumbwaiters in the cellar has been restored to working order. Sarafin and his team have chosen to arrest the deterioration of the second to showcase its original wood and fabric, but did not initiate additional restoration.
An even bigger challenge for the project team was to determine precisely how Jefferson stored his wine. Archaeologists searched the walls and ceiling for traces of attachment points where storage units may have been placed. Finding nothing, they concluded there must have been a freestanding structure. They studied the binning systems used by the French and English in the 19th century and designed shelves that Sarafin says fit the "utilitarian plantation" method of construction seen elsewhere in Jefferson's home—that is, materials available at the plantation.
The restored space also demonstrates how Jefferson had his wine bottles shipped from Europe in large, straw-filled crates—a testament to how serious he was about his wine. Convention at the time would be to purchase wine from merchants, who often blended or diluted the wine they received from vineyards before selling them to the public. But records indicate Jefferson wrote to the vineyards and asked them to ship their wine directly to him in wood casks.
"We have the bottles and crates in the space to show what makes Jefferson unique at the time," Sarafin explains. "He really wanted to ensure the quality of the wine. He wanted to get exactly what he ordered—not something blended or adulterated."
The room also features the only surviving original door in the underground corridor: a solid door two inches thick, with iron strap-work reinforcement and two locks requiring separate keys.
"This room was probably the most precious commodity on the mountaintop, as evidenced by the level of fortification here," Sarafin says, adding that Jefferson also installed an iron grate over the small window in the room.
The cellar restoration sheds light on the story of domestic life at Monticello and the people who kept the estate running. It is part of an underground space that houses all the "dependencies," or essential service rooms, including the kitchen, workrooms, storage areas, and slave quarters. The wine cellar is flanked by both a beer cellar and an icehouse or storage room, which Monticello's archaeologists believe was used to store cider.
At the southern end of the all-weather passageway is the kitchen, where Jefferson's trademark French-inspired cuisine was prepared. Jefferson fell in love with French wine, cuisine, and culture while serving as the American minister to France in the late 1700s, and all of his slaves were eventually trained in the art of French cooking.
Since Jefferson's days in the hills above Charlottesville, Va., more than 160 wineries have cropped up in the state. Monticello even hosted the 2010 Governor's Cup for White Wine in September, just months after opening the restored cellar.
What would Jefferson make of these developments?
"Establishing the wine industry in Virginia was at the top of Jefferson's list. He was a big proponent of that," Sarafin says. "I think he'd be pretty thrilled."
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