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Jefferson and his oenological snipers

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It's seems that Thomas Jefferson's position as a Virginia wine pioneer is under siege. First, a Virginia winery, Philip Carter Winery, claims that an ancestor of the Carter family, Charles Carter, made wine out of Vinifera grapes in the 1760's, succeeding where Jefferson failed, a preposterous notion debunked in this column in the article, New Virginia wine from an old Virginia familyy. And now, esteemed Washington Post political columnist Dana Milbank has taken a tour of Virginia wine country and has come back with the conclusion, "As a winemaker, Jefferson was a disaster." Whatever one thinks of Jefferson's attempts to establish a vineyard of European grapes at Monticello, it's hard to see how winemaking no matter how poor, can be a disaster, unless the third President inadvertently brewed up a batch of Sarin gas.

As evidence of Jefferson's disastrous winemaking, Milbank says Jeffersons vines"were killed by insects, fungus, and harsh winter. Some were trampled by horses." So according to this logic, Jefferson was to be blamed for not possessing effective fungicides and insecticides that were not invented until 150 years after his death, the Virginia climate, and the fact that British calvary decided to teach an upstart rebel leader a lesson by ransacking his property.

If this faulty logic weren't enough, Milbank makes the ludicrous connection between the outbreak of phylloxera louse that killed most established vineyards in Europe and Jefferson's vines by saying, "Jefferson may have set in motion the devastation of the wine industry in the old world." His rationale, "The phylloxera vine louse, believed to have killed off Jefferson's vines, were eventually exported to the Old World." Apart from this head scratching logical leap between these two statements, the contention that "the phylloxera louse, believed to have "helped kill off Jefferson's vines." is a misrepresentation. Most viticultural historians believe that the description of the diseased vines by Fillipo Mazzei and other viticulturalist more likely indicate the existence of fungus disease, like black rot, that still affect Virginia vineyards. Few wine tourist know that the beauty of Virginia wine country and the excellence of Virginia wines is made possible by a cocktail of a dozen potent herbicides and insecticides applied on a regular weekly of biweekly schedule. For details, check out the Virginia Tech Department of Viticulture's web site.

And Milbank gets the small things wrong. "And for the next 200 years. wine in Virginia -based on native grapes not susceptible to the dreaded louse - were mostly undrinkable, when oenological pioneers revived winemaking in Virginia, the result was, often as not, something that tasted like detergent." In fact the modern Virginia wine industry -- think Virginia's first modern-era winery, Meredyth, was based on French-American hybrid grapes like Seyval Blanc developed by French oenologist's in the 19th century to counteract phylloxera. Native american grapes, like Catawba, were and are extremely drinkable. the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow compared it to French Champagne, celebrating it in his poem "Catawba Wine" with the verse:

"Very good in its way, Is the Verzenay, Or the Sillery soft and Creamy; But Catawba wine Has a taste more divine, more dulcet, delicious, and dreamy."

It worthy of note that John Adlum, the discoverer of the Catawba, was a protogee of Jefferson's who sponsored some of Adlum research.

And the contention that Jefferson just walked away from his vinifera experiment is wrong. Jefferson tried seven times to establish a vineyard at Monticllo between 1770 and 1825, the year before his death. It is unlikely that many current Virginia winemaker's would be that intrepid.

Charles Josef Duch



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