A Look Inside Thomas Jefferson’s Wine Cellar

It was a hot July evening at Monticello and people looking for cool shelter were told to check out the wine cellar in the passageway under the house. When they did, Wine Blogger Conference attendees stepped into Thomas Jefferson’s now fully restored wine cellar and got a glimpse into the important role wine played in his life.

Jefferson, in addition to being third President of the U.S., is often called America’s First Wine Connoisseur. His appreciation and knowledge of wine grew greatly serving as Minister to France in Paris, 1784-1789, where he was able to tour wine regions of Germany, France and Italy. Upon his return to the U.S., he began his prized wine cellar; served as wine advisor for Presidents Washington, Madison and Monroe; and in 1807, planted grapes at Monticello with hopes of his home state producing wines that rivaled those of Old World Europe.

Prior to the cellar restoration, you could only peer into the room from behind iron bars. Now thanks to Justin Sarafin, Assistant Curator and Project Coordinator at Monticello, and the restoration team’s great work, you can step onto a raised platform in the cellar to take it all in. Jefferson letters and an archaeological dig under the very spot provided insights and artifacts into his wine consumption. The restored cellar tells you that story.

  • Wine Consumption: Monticello consumed 400 bottles per year. Wine was served in the formal English manner, following dessert after the table cloth was removed (vs. French manner where wine is served throughout the meal). They used glass decanters, silver and wood wine coasters and a seau crenelé for chilling and rinsing glasses. The cellar is just below the Dining Room and the dumbwaiter carried the wine straight up for serving. One of the two dumbwaiters is now restored to working condition.
  • Wine Shipments: Jefferson’s good taste included wines of the great French château, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion and Château Lafite. Once back in the U.S., Jefferson would write directly to the vineyards to acquire the wine to ensure their quality. At the time, wine dilution and blending once wines left the vineyard happened often. Wooden crates on display in the cellar show you how Jefferson would receive his shipments.
  • Wine Storage:  Excavation did not expose any remnants of wall attached wine racks so it’s thought the cellar used freestanding racks (similar to those now on display). The cellar also features the house’s only original double-thickness door. The door and iron bars over the window shows the importance of his collection.

While Jefferson’s dreams for Virginia wine were not realized in his lifetime, his love of wine can be felt and seen at Monticello and across Virginia and the now vibrant winescape of the Monticello Wine Trail.

* Special thanks to Monticello and Justin Sarafin for the reception and insight into the Wine Cellar. Photo credits: Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., photograph by Philip Beaurline.