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Part 1: Our dinner with Thomas Jefferson (1823)

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Thomas Jefferson's botanic and culinary contributions to the American heritage, and his interest in wine and viticulture, are all well known.  Often forgotten, however, is the significance of these devotions to his prescient political and socioeconomic convictions, very much pertinent to how we look at food and wine today, and thoroughly entwined with the same passages in the Declaration of Independence that continue to inspire us.  Hence, this tale of an imaginary meeting, told with post-millenial hindsight:

The letter arrived, twenty years earlier in 1823, as the winter frosts beneath the tulip maple and white pines surrounding our Georgia mountain homestead began to thaw. It read:

Dear fellow vignerons,

We share a mutual interest in the fruits of the vine…

The letter went on to explain its provenance:

Recently I have been enjoying bottles of your Mother Vineyard Muscadine, as generous gifts from Nicholas Ware, the distinguished Congressman from Georgia. I wish to learn more about how you produce a wine of grace and honesty. Indeed, the Mother Vineyard seems to shout, “I am a proud American.”

At the end it was signed:

I am with great esteem, your most obedt, humble servt,

Thomas Jefferson

… the very same Thomas Jefferson: third President of our United States, former Secretary of State, author of our Declaration of Independence, architect, archeologist, gastronome, Renaissance man, and we are proud to say, flattering fellow farmer and family friend.

With the letter came an invitation to dinner and lodging, to which we immediately responded with enthusiasm, as we had long put off a visit to close family members residing in nearby North Carolina. In any case, a request from one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers made the journey an immediate necessity!

So we shall never forget that mid-day in July of 1823, when our horse and carriage passed over the bridge at the foot of Monticello, the “little mountain” serving as Mr. Jefferson’s five thousand acre plantation. We cannot promise that our recounting of conversations, two decades after the fact, is word-for-word, but please bear the circumstances in mind: since they remain the highlight of our lives, what came to pass has been permanently imprinted by both countless retellings, and the ever growing fondness of those memories.

At an hour arrange previously through correspondence, we were met at the bridge by a middle-aged gentleman of lean stature, kind eyes and a strong, narrowing chin: Captain Edmund Bacon, the longtime overseer of Monticello. Alighting from his chestnut sorrel, Captain Bacon bowed and introduced himself and his horse, Peacemaker, saying, “Welcome to Monticello, the very heart and mind of Mr. Thomas Jefferson!”

Engaging him in kind, we boldly inquired as to the meaning of his cryptic greeting. Captain Bacon’s reply, expressed with some bemusement: “You will find it to be no mystery, but on the contrary, something plain to see everywhere you shall go – that Monticello is not simply a mountain upon which my famous master as resided following long service to his country.

Monticello is a living, breathing extension of Mr. Jefferson’s passions, hence his heart, and the science and rationality with which he has always undertaken to answer the endless questions springing from his mind – which I assure you, is keener than ever, despite his advanced age of eighty years, and his consuming taste for spirits of the vine, which he has told me is the purpose of your visit. So then, are you representatives of the wine trade?”

Not exactly, we explained, for we are ourselves plantation owners; coming from the foothills of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from Fort Peachtree along Chattahoochee River, where businessmen grown fat on the revenue from railroads have recently taken to calling Atlanta. In our own home we endeavor to ply multiple industries; notably fruit and nut orchards, timbering, and a modest bit of horse husbandry.

“We actually make wine for pleasure," we told Captain Bacon, "although we are not opposed to sharing the wealth with neighbors and friends of influence... but insofar as the hard labors inherent in the stewardship of a mountain plantation, we are eager to see how much more, besides wine and grapes, we have in common with Monticello.”

“Oh, I believe you will find quite a bit!” Captain Bacon jovially replied. With that, he led us slowly up a winding road for approximately a country mile, steadily climbing about another 300 feet in elevation as we neared the top. Passing through patches of native woodland between industriously farmed wheat, oats, rye, rooted vegetables, and mixtures of row crops on the lower slopes, we were surprised to see corn in just a few small patches; and no tobacco, a commodity still synonymous with Virginian and Caroline plantation life.

Responding to our observation, our guide explained: “Quite some time ago Mr. Jefferson banished the leaf, which he calls a ‘slovenly business’ despite the profit possible in its addictive properties, after becoming disenchanted with the harmful effects the growing of it has on the land. The same for corn, which like tobacco, requires year-round attention to the detriment of other food crops Mr. Jefferson deems essential, as well as on the raising of livestock we consider of equal importance.

“Subsequently, Mr. Jefferson insists on year-round rotation of crops; an action that enriches the earth, bids defiance to droughts and insects, yields in abundance and of the best quality. Ultimately, this wholesome balance nourishes a populace of even stronger constitution. The farms that you see here, and eastward across the Rivanna River another four miles where the property ends, are divided into forty acre parcels, each managed by families or individuals belonging to our enslaved population.

“While slaves they may be, we purchase the crops and livestock that they raise on their own, and the rest they may sell to neighbors or in nearby markets, for fair prices contributing to personal income. In return, they are happy to follow Mr. Jefferson’s directives concerning the farming of Monticello.”

Searching our eyes to glean a hint of discomfort, after being apprised of this most unusual relationship between master and slave, Captain Bacon added: “I may as well give warning, before you meet the great man himself: no servants ever had a kinder master than Mr. Jefferson. Whether or not you may agree, he does not like slavery – I have heard him talk a great deal about this during all the time I have known him, which is well nigh twenty years. He believes the institution of slavery to be a bad system, and he has prophesied that it will soon bring our country into a ruinous divide.”

Before fully contemplating the gravity of Captain Bacon’s insight, we found ourselves distracted by our approach to the top of the mountain, catching our first sight of the majestic dome crowning the Monticello home, followed by the dramatic emergence of a spectacularly tall (at least 18 feet), glass doorway – as if signifying the transparency of the man and his property – between four white columns...

Tomorrow:  Part 2 (reaching the Monticello summit and meeting Mr. Jefferson)

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