Wine in Early Virginia

Plantations in eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia were all suffering from a stressed tobacco market. Futures in growing tobacco were dim. Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that “there is no prospect that the European market for tobacco will improve” (Jefferson 2002a 227). With little hope that tobacco would work as a strong cash crop, as it did back in the earlier days of colonial Virginia, plantation owners decided to shift away from tobacco and experiment with various crops that they hoped would be able to substitute tobacco’s once preeminent position in Virginia’s plantation agriculture. Plantation owners who were a major part of this experimental agriculture movement included premier founders of our nation such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and George Mason. Thomas Jefferson in particular was a major advocate for Virginian planters to leave tobacco, remarking, “Good husbandry with us consists in abandoning Indian corn and tobacco” (Jefferson 2002 a 227). Jefferson in general shifted his plantation to the production of various foods and stated his perception of the state of the Virginia planter to Jean Baptiste Say, saying “Our culture is of wheat for market, and of maize, oats, peas, and clover, for the support of the farm” (Jefferson 2002a 227). However, these weren’t the only crops that Jefferson experimented with.

Probably the most interesting crop that Jefferson and his cohorts tried was grapes for wine. The prospect of growing wine in Virginia was not a new prospect. Before the British came, Spanish explorers reported seeing a Native American village with “a beautiful vineyard, as well laid out and ordered as the vineyards of Spain”(Painter 4). The founders were also left with documents such as Wriothesley’s treaty, dating back to 1622, noting that “Vines doe both grow naturally in Virginia”. (Wriothesley B2) This was mainly due to the fact that at that time there were many grapes that grew out in the abundant and thick forests of Virginia. The idea that Wriothesley and the colonial planation owners had was that the Virginia forest grapes have “bushes and weeds, so much choke and cover them, they cannot come to their full ripeness” (Wriothesley B1) and if they took these grapes and put them in ideal grape growing conditions they would be a solid source of income. There had been little execution on this prospect during Virginia’s early years as producing tobacco was such a safe way for plantation owners to make tons of money. However, as tobacco became less and less profitable, prospective crops that had been hypothesized to grow well in Virginia during the colonial years were coming to the forefront of agricultural conscious at the time. These were the justifications that Virginia plantation owners used to push forward the new culture of agricultural experimentation. Agricultural experimentation, particularly experimentation with wine, was highlighted and pushed forward by the Philip Mazzei Agricultural Company.