Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jefferson's wine cellar

Monticello has restored Jefferson's wine cellar and you can now tour it:
Opened in June, the cellar looks as it did during Jefferson’s retirement (1809-26). To ensure authenticity, Monticello’s archaeology and research crews scoured meticulous inventories and notes, along with correspondence, drawings, and other documents. The archaeologists also conducted a dig in the space, unearthing artifacts and other clues to the cellar’s appearance two centuries ago.

One side of the cellar showcases the dumbwaiter system Jefferson used to transport wine from the cellar to the dining room. Four bottles at a time—two in each dumbwaiter—could be lifted up to the dining area, where the bottles would be stored in locked cabinets on either side of the fireplace until they were ready to be served.

"We spent several days in here really looking at the dumbwaiter," Sarafin says. "It's such a simple pulley and weight mechanism, yet it took a number of people and a number of hours to document it down to the last nail and figure out how it works."

Only one of the two dumbwaiters in the cellar has been restored to working order. Sarafin and his team have chosen to arrest the deterioration of the second to showcase its original wood and fabric, but did not initiate additional restoration.

An even bigger challenge for the project team was to determine precisely how Jefferson stored his wine. Archaeologists searched the walls and ceiling for traces of attachment points where storage units may have been placed. Finding nothing, they concluded there must have been a freestanding structure. They studied the binning systems used by the French and English in the 19th century and designed shelves that Sarafin says fit the "utilitarian plantation" method of construction seen elsewhere in Jefferson's home—that is, materials available at the plantation.

The restored space also demonstrates how Jefferson had his wine bottles shipped from Europe in large, straw-filled crates—a testament to how serious he was about his wine. Convention at the time would be to purchase wine from merchants, who often blended or diluted the wine they received from vineyards before selling them to the public. But records indicate Jefferson wrote to the vineyards and asked them to ship their wine directly to him in wood casks.

"We have the bottles and crates in the space to show what makes Jefferson unique at the time," Sarafin explains. "He really wanted to ensure the quality of the wine. He wanted to get exactly what he ordered—not something blended or adulterated."

The room also features the only surviving original door in the underground corridor: a solid door two inches thick, with iron strap-work reinforcement and two locks requiring separate keys.

"This room was probably the most precious commodity on the mountaintop, as evidenced by the level of fortification here," Sarafin says, adding that Jefferson also installed an iron grate over the small window in the room.

Jefferson actually tried to grow his own grapes to make his own wine, but never produced a successful vintage. Jefferson, who was sure Virgina could produce wine, would probably be thrilled with the Virgina wine industry today:
Since Jefferson's days in the hills above Charlottesville, Va., more than 160 wineries have cropped up in the state. Monticello even hosted the 2010 Governor's Cup for White Wine in September, just months after opening the restored cellar.

What would Jefferson make of these developments?

"Establishing the wine industry in Virginia was at the top of Jefferson's list. He was a big proponent of that," Sarafin says. "I think he'd be pretty thrilled."

1 comment:

Greg Bevier said...

We went to Monticello last March...Too early to see the cellar finished, but we did get to see it in progress. Guess we'll just have to sacrifice and make another trip back...