Yes, Virginia, there is a grape for you

Virginia is for lovers . . . of Viognier.

Able I was, ere I saw Elba.


Viogner arose long before Virginia. Although vitihistorians (yes, I just made up that word) differ in opinion, most all date the grape to at least 2,000 years ago. Virginia, the Commonwealth, dates its origins to Jamestown, just 400 years ago.

But the match of climate to plant was discovered by Thomas Jefferson about 200 years ago. We know this because he wrote down the thought. He was a fan of Rhone varietals, I learned yesterday, and viognier had not yet been dropped from that list. But recent history forgot viognier to the point, according to those vitihistorians, that it almost became extinct.

Recently the wheel was reinvented as Virginia viticulturalists (I did not make up this word) sought a grape that would tolerate the commonwealth?s challenging growing conditions; its snowy winters; its muggy summers.

Horton Winery gained fame by creating a divine wine from the fragrant white grape. And so its viticulturalist planted viognier. And now, (ironically?) the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area) has viognier planted at every turn in the road.

Jefferson would have loved to see the Horton vineyards.

Does this sound arrogant?

Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello

How could I claim to know what Jefferson would have loved?

Yesterday?s tour of Monticello, arranged by a relative who we?ll call ?Chas.,? defined the best tour of anything anywhere.

The Thomas Jefferson Society maintains the home of the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence with style and intelligence.

No argument there.

As our family strolled about the grounds, climbed stairs to disguised upper chambers of Monticello and explored the gardens, our hosts used the words ?Jefferson would . . .? to preface many thoughts. Our guides, numbering five in all, experts in wine, architecture, carpentry, Jeffersonian history as well as the president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which owns and curates Monticello,) all seemed to embody the very attitude of Jefferson himself. At least as I know him. Which is only as he has been presented to me by others.

I realized that my knowledge of the man is limited by my imagination. And by the homework I?ve done.

Gabriele, (say it GAH BREE ELL EE) the Italian viticulturalist charged with revitalizing the locust trees along the Monticello driveway; with preventing blight in the apple orchard; with keeping the vineyard at Montalto, which overlooks the Jefferson home, speaks with the clarity of the European he is. Precise, articulate, subtle.

And Italian.

Monticello's viticulturalist
Monticello’s viticulturalist

Assuming that I am aware that recent scientific analysis ? including climate clues as well as daily and seasonal temperature fluctuations, humidity and soils ? has prescribed viognier for Virginia, Gabriele pointed out that the light grape that produces aromatic wines was also Thomas Jefferson?s choice.

The Jefferson palate delighted in Bordeaux but also recognized the value of selecting wines that did not have to travel.

Jefferson was the ultimate locavore.

As in most his experimental endeavors, Jefferson?s assay into winemaking was not wildly successful. Virginia still struggles to make drinkable wine from locally grown grapes. Gabriele blames black rot, which forces him to pick grapes too early. That?s the simple version.

Like Jefferson, and there?s no ?would? in this sentence, Gabriele continues to experiment. He has planted 25 varieties.

Among them, viognier.


By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.