Thomas Jefferson's Wine

Monticello Restores Its Wine Cellar

The view from Monticello

Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

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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Submitted by jbp at: December 14, 2010
For those of you who want to get the 'slaves and French cooking' thing straight, please read The Hemingses of Monticello An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. This is an incredible view into the life of slaves, slave owners and many others during Mr. Jefferson's lifetime.

Submitted by Irwin at: December 5, 2010
"all of his slaves were eventually trained in the art of French cooking." Don't be ridiculous! The young slave Hemmings who was trained in France and returned to Monticello on the promise from Jefferson that after he had trained another to replace him, he would be free. He already knew that he was free in Paris if he so desired, but returned anyway-- maybe to protect his sister Sally.

Submitted by Woodstone at: December 3, 2010
The building has very interesting windows in it and presents a great segway into the debate of whether or not historic windows should be repaired or replaced. If a new custom finished, hardwood window, with true divided lights (not simulated), and the same details, appearance and function as the original, was available, and it provided energy efficiency, easy maintenance and a useful life longer than that of the original, wouldn’t it be worth considering? In fact, we replicated the windows in this building for a client who replicated the entire building. A photo of the replication is on our web site. See Woodstone® historic windows. Visit our web site - woodstone. com. View the Woodstone video, email us or join the Woodstone blog. Educate yourself and then decide.

Submitted by TJC at: December 2, 2010
For more info on the "unique Jefferson bottle", check out Benjamin Wallace's book The Billionaire's Vinegar published in 2008.

Submitted by Jorja at: December 1, 2010
Years ago when I was travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner, I visited Burgundy on an anniversary of Jefferson's travels there. He bought wine from the negotiator's house, E-Parent. Press reporters were given a bottle of wine in a wooden box engraved E-PARENT TH-JEFFERSON. The wine is long-gone, of course, but I keep the box on one of my bookshelves. I have visited Monticello since, but not the newly-opened wine cellar. Thank you!

Submitted by ElleFagan at: December 1, 2010
Thank you for this fine article. I will visit. Can you tell me if he was able to keep his collection? His fortunes sunk later in life and they say he finished his days in two or three rooms with a few sticks of furniture left and the rest sold to pay debts. They said that his genius was restored later by those who saved his inventions and possessions and the Foundation that has put it all back in a respectful format should be congratulated. Even by today's standards, T.Jefferson was a genius.

Submitted by jubilee at: December 1, 2010
To Rothblum, it is good that you think of enslaved people when you think of Mr. Jefferson because you then can begin to consider what life was like for all members of the Monticello community. Many enslaved individuals were given opportunities for travel and education (the nailery, gardens, etc), and some to work in France to learn the art of French cooking and the language. If you study the innovative ways Mr. Jefferson came up with to advance architecture, science, cuisine, governance and agriculture, you can begin to see beyond the issue of slavery,and accept Mr. Jefferson as a man with many talents and weaknesses, who helped to make our nation what it is today.

Submitted by JJ at: December 1, 2010
It has been quite a few years since I have visited Monticello and this so makes me want to return. With Jefferson's love of French cuisine and wine you can no doubt understand his desire to have his slaves learn how to prepare such dishes for his own table. On a side note, he even took one of his slaves to Paris for this sole purpose.

Submitted by alison79 at: December 1, 2010
I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I am a bit of a wine buff, and I enjoy reading about wine on a regular basis. I felt similarly to Rothblum, however. I can't help thinking about the slaves who most likely never got a sip of the vintage wines that Jefferson so loved. JPG, what a cool tidbit! How amazing to find such a bottle. Even if it may be a hoax??

Submitted by JPG at: December 1, 2010
I was a pleasure to read about Jefferson and it relation to wine, reminding me of a funny story that happened, here in Bordeaux, many years ago. In 1985, at Vinexpo Wine Fair, a mysterious old wine bottle had appeared at a "grands crus" auction sale. It had been found in a cellar in Paris but the seller (a German merchant, I believe) would not tell where. The bottle (not a bordeaux bottle) had been recorked and was full. It was engraved "1787 Lafitte Th. Jefferson". 1787 was a great vintage year (bien sûr). Engraving a bottle with the buyer's name was not a common practise in Bordeaux and any Frenchman would write "T." not "Th." as initial for "Thomas". Probably Thomas Jefferson enjoyed engraving his bottles himself. That unique "Jefferson bottle" was sold to an American negociant. I wonder where that unique bottle is now...

Submitted by John at: November 30, 2010
Rothblum, Perhaps you would want to consider moving to some other country where there were no slaves. History is history.

Submitted by janeite at: November 30, 2010
"[A]ll of his slaves were eventually trained in the art of French cooking." Oh, come on! That kind of statement demonstrates lazy writing and lazy editing. Do you really think field slaves needed to learn French cooking??

Submitted by Patrick in KY at: November 30, 2010
I briefly went to school in KY with a guy named Bill Massie from C-ville, VA. He once mentioned that his family had been large landowners, but had been "brought low" by the Civil War and other disasters and things. He claimed there were interactions between his ancestors and Jefferson. At the time, I thought he was lying. However... ...years later, during a visit to Monticello, I saw a feeble attempt (at the time) to bring the otherwise empty wine cellar to life for the tourist in the form of a quotation from one of Jefferson's letters, mentioning payment to "Charles Massie" for wine or cider. So...I guess old Bill Massie was telling the truth after all. I am glad they did something to make this room more accessible and to better explain its purpose, etc.

Submitted by Rick at: November 30, 2010
I thought that Jefferson ordered his wine for the Chateaux bottled, so that people could not "pinch" it.........

Submitted by Rothblum at: November 30, 2010
Sorry to be a wet blanket but I can't help thinking about slaves and slavery every time I read something about Monticello and Jefferson. I wonder if the French-cook slaves got to taste the wine. The dumbwaiters were part of the overall theme at Monticello that emphasized keeping the slaves out of sight, especially during meals.