If TJ did it, why can't we?


When Justin Sarafin talks about being in charge of “dependencies,” he’s not referring to the unfortunate habits of social misfits. Monticello’s assistant curator is talking about the work and storage spaces beneath the great house—many of which have been refurbished and opened to the public for the first time in the past month. Among these, wine enthusiasts, is Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, about which we can joke with Sarafin that the other meaning of “dependency” might equally apply. Go ahead and chuckle; Sarafin seems, at the culmination of a restoration project that has taken nine years of his professional life, like a guy who can take a joke. 

The dumbwaiter in TJ’s wine cellar, now plain to see thanks to comprehensive restoration, could transport as many as four bottles—often the finest Bordeaux—to the dining room.

The cellar itself, which used to be visible only from behind a cell-like iron grate, is now accessible, the better to appreciate the four-bottle, wooden dumbwaiter system that eased the passage of Jefferson’s revered French (red) and German (white) wines from the cellar to the dining room above.

Sarafin, who trained in art history and architectural history at UVA, had his interpretive work cut out for him when it came to how Jefferson binned his bottles, which at their peak numbered 980 (at his death in 1826, Virginia’s leading wine lover had 586 bottles stored). Architectural and archaeological evidence—they dug a 5’x5′ area in the cellar in the research phase—did not point to a permanent, built-in binning system. But the prescriptive literature of the 19th century called for bottles to be stored on their sides, so Sarafin believes Jefferson would have taken that approach, too. Moreover, the cellar was not intended for aging wine, because, as Sarafin says, “at the provisioning stage, Jefferson gets the wine at the right age.” In other words, he bought stuff that had already been aged sufficiently to drink—the procurement of which about more below. “There had to be a more improvised ‘plantation solution,’” Sarafin says. “Given the small space in that room, we decided it had to be a vertical type of binning solution.” Hence, the tall, wooden racks now on display. Those racks, by the way, feature both the square-shouldered glass bottles that would have contained Madeira and other fortified wines (more to the English taste) and the sloping bottles of the French wine for which Jefferson developed a connoisseur’s appreciation—the blends of the great Bordeaux houses like Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Haut-Brion.

So much is already known about Jefferson’s love of wine and his heartbreak at being unable to grow decent wine at home. There is little new to report on that score, but there is one point about Jefferson’s buying habits that takes on renewed relevance in light of a present-day political debate about consumers’ rights. Jefferson’s correspondence shows his penchant for buying wine directly from the winery at hand. “Jefferson’s thinking behind having it bottled there is that it ensures the first quality of the wine,” says Sarafin. “He had tasted lighter French and German wines on site. He wants them, and he wants them not compromised.” Currently wending its way through Congress, H.R. 5034 would severely restrict consumers’ ability to do exactly what our wine-loving Founding Father did, namely, to order wine directly from a winery and have it shipped to our homes. There’s a rebuttal that’s worth a call to your Virginia Congressmen who support the bill. We’re looking at you, Glenn Nye and Gerry Connolly.

We’ll leave this discussion with one more sip of wine wisdom from the third president, this time on the subject of pricing: “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” he wrote in 1818. In other words, do the country a favor and splurge a little on the good stuff. Order it directly from the winery. And tell them Tom sent you.