Celebrating American Independence with A Renewed Partnership in Wine

On July 3rd, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending an event that represented the renewed partnership between Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, and Philip Mazzei, an influential figurehead in both European and American history.  This event featured the unveiling of the 2008 Philip (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from two

2008 Philip (portion of the proceeds go to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

2008 Philip (portion of the proceeds go to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

vineyards: Castello di Fonternutoli and Belguardo Estate) and a ceremonial planting of 3 Sangiovese grape vines from the Mazzei estate.  First, since this is The Academic Wino you all get a little history lesson first.


Born on Christmas Day in 1730 in Poggio a Caiano, Italy, Philip Mazzei lived a life full of patriotism and knowledge, was greatly respected throughout the world, and who also had very close ties to Europe and America.   Mazzei comes from a long line of winemakers and viticulturists, with the Marchesi Mazzei estate in Chianti having been established and in operation since the year 1435.  Though he came from this long line of vignerons, for Mazzei’s first career, he focused on medicine.  Throughout his entire life, in addition to being a doctor; he had also been a “merchant, horticulturalist, viticulturist, pamphleteer, political activist, linguist, diplomatic agent, historian, and royal advisor”.

After leaving his medical practice in Tuscany and later Turkey, Mazzei moved to London to revisit his wine roots and pursue what would be a nearly 20 year career as a wine merchant and importer of olive oil, cheeses, lemon tree shoots,

Gabriele Rausse and Francesco Mazzei walking toward the future vineyard site on Montalto.

Gabriele Rausse and Francesco Mazzei walking toward the future vineyard site on Montalto.

etc.   As it turned out, this decision to move to London changed the course of Mazzei’s life, as well as the course of European and American history.

When Mazzei first arrived in London, he was commissioned by the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany to purchase two Franklin stoves.  While on this quest, Mazzei met with the one and only Benjamin Franklin, who was in London at the time as an agent for the American colonies.  Franklin spoke to Mazzei in great detail about the colonies and the impending revolution, which piqued Mazzei’s curiosity very much and led to him travelling across the ocean to the American colonies.  If the Grand Duke hadn’t asked Mazzei to acquire some Franklin stoves, Benjamin Franklin and Philip Mazzei may have never met and forged a friendship, which could have led to history being written in a much different way.

Not long after Mazzei arrived in the American colonies, Thomas Jefferson; the Father of the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, and the third President of the United States; instantly befriended Mazzei and gave him 193 acres of land on the south side of Monticello, Jefferson’s home estate.  Eventually purchasing another 700 acres of land, Mazzei named his farm Colle and planted the first European vines ever at that site.  With his strong horticultural and viticultural background, coupled with this acquisition of land, Mazzei was inspired to create a viticulture program for the colonies, with the intent to bring Tuscan winemaking traditions and styles to the colonies.

In the spring of 1774, frost destroyed the first vines that Mazzei had imported and planted from Italy.  Despite this setback, Mazzei was convinced that the soil and climate in Virginia was “better calculated” than any other location for

Ceremonial vine planting on Montalto

Ceremonial vine planting on Montalto

making wine, and so he had shipped over even more vines and vignerons from Italy which is often thought of as the first “wine company” in America.   In addition to attempting to establish Italian grape vines in America, Mazzei also made two barrels of wine from native grapevines that he found on the property.  He enjoyed this native wine so much that he said “when the country is populated in proportion to its extent, the best wine in the world will be made here”.

Mazzei’s focus eventually became that of politics and the movement toward independence, and became heavily involved in matters such as those throughout the colonies and throughout other troubled regions around the globe.   At one point during his political crusades, Mazzei said that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.  Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government”.  If this sounds at all familiar to any of you Americans reading this, it should: this quote from Mazzei was Thomas Jeffersons’ inspiration for the introduction of the Declaration of Independence, a copy of the document of which was copied by Thomas Jefferson and given directly to Mazzei due to their close friendship.

Due to Mazzei’s political efforts, he eventually became frequently absent from his vineyards at Colle.  In fact, at one point while he was away, his estate was rented out to a European general whose horses decided to go for a nice romp through the vineyard and destroyed a significant portion of the vines.  After returning to Virginia in 1785, Mazzei decided to give up on the viticulture program in America and left Colle for good.  His political life continued abroad and he continued to be influential in spreading the message of democracy and independence throughout the world.  He spent his last years writing and spending time with his wife and daughter, and passed away in 1816 at the ripe old age of 86.

“Mazzei was a prolific writer, transmitter of revolutionary ideals, liberal thinker, visionary and citizen of the world. He is a significant exemplar of the trans-Atlantic nature of the American Revolution and may be considered the first Italian immigrant to promote economic and political relations between the United States and Italy”.

Rekindling the Bond Between Mazzei and Jefferson:

Fast forward to 2013 and we come to July 3rd, 2013, with the ceremonial planting of 3 grape vines from the Marchesi Mazzei estate of Fonterutoli by two direct descendants of Philip Mazzei and one of Virginia’s own fathers of modern viticulture.

The Mazzei family, represented by the brothers Filippo Mazzei (owner) and Francesco Mazzei (VP & CEO), were welcomed to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, VA, by His Excellency Mr. Claudio Bisogniero (Italy’s Ambassador to the United States), Gabriele Rausse (“Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry” ), Luca

Ceremonial vine planting on the top of Montalto (Gabriele Rausse in the center, Francesco Mazzei to the left, and Filippo Mazzei to the right)

Ceremonial vine planting on the top of Montalto (Gabriele Rausse in the center, Francesco Mazzei to the left, and Filippo Mazzei to the right)

Paschina (winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards), and the members of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

The 2008 Philip, unveiled by the Mazzei family on July 3rd and available to the public on the American Independence Day on July 4th, was created to honor Philip Mazzei, and which “embodies the ‘New World’ spirit of Tuscan wine-making, best represents the revolutionary character of Philip Mazzei, and expresses the Mazzei’s family desire to pursue life, liberty and happiness”.   This wine was created to represent and revive the friendship between Philip Mazzei and Thomas Jefferson, as well as between Italy and the United States, with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the 2008 Philip going directly to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, supporting mission and programs associated with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and ideals.  How was the wine, you ask?  I have to say I thought it was lovely, and if you have a chance to purchase this bit of “living history”, I recommend you buy a bottle or two (or more), as 1) you’ll be consuming a lovely Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2) a portion of the proceeds from the sale of that wine will go to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

So much more than a bottle of wine from Tuscany, the Mazzei family, together with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation also unveiled the site of the new vineyard to be planted on Montalto at Monticello, which further deepens the bond between

Francesco Mazzei, Filippo Mazzei, and Luca Paschina

Francesco Mazzei, Filippo Mazzei, and Luca Paschina

Mazzei and Jefferson, as well as the collaboration and friendship between Italy and the United States.  This collaborative vineyard between the Mazzei family and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation will be managed by none other than Gabriele Rausse, who is considered to be the “Father of modern Virginia Wine”.

I spoke with Francesco Mazzei for a little while about this new joint venture between the Mazzei family and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who described for me just how they planned on creating the vineyard and how they are trying to recreate Philip Mazzei’s character and agenda, and to finally finish what Philip Mazzei started 240 years ago.

According to Francesco Mazzei, the vineyards at the Mazzei Estate in Italy are extremely variable in terms of their soils, climate, and environmental conditions.  As a result of this, he says they currently have 36 different biotypes of Sangiovese planted at the estate.  Since each biotype thrives under different environmental conditions, requiring 36 different biotypes shows just how variable the vineyards are at the estate.  That being said, Francesco Mazzei explained to me that the idea is that hopefully at least one of those 36 biotypes will be appropriate for the climate and conditions in Virginia, so they will start their experimental planting by bringing over 1000 vines of 4 or 5 different biotypes.  Whichever biotype(s) thrives best under the conditions on Montalto, eventually the entire vineyard will be planted with that/those biotypes in hopes that a Tuscan-style American wine representing the friendship between Philip Mazzei and Thomas Jefferson will be created and live on.

When asked what the plan was, the Mazzei brothers insisted that they have not planned too far into the future, as it is still relatively unknown which Sangiovese biotypes are going to thrive at Montalto (if any at all!) and so the plan right now is just to plant, then wait and see what happens.  They said once the plants complete the quarantine process at UC Davis, it will take another year to plant the vineyard.  Then, they will wait 3-4 years to see what happens with the biotypes they plant, and during that time will develop further plans in terms of winemaking, marketing, etc.

The history between Philip Mazzei, Thomas Jefferson, and what they contributed to the principles of democracy and

Francesco Mazzei, Gabriele Rause, and Filippo Mazzei

Francesco Mazzei, Gabriele Rause, and Filippo Mazzei

independence is very fascinating and inspiring.  This collaboration between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the Mazzei Family is a wonderful way to bring Mazzei’s and Jefferson’s vision to life, and I wish them all the best with this endeavor.  I will surely report on the progress of the vineyard in a few years!

A big thank you goes out to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Monticello for hosting the event, as well as Palm Bay International for putting this all together.

For more information on the history between Thomas Jefferson and Philip Mazzei, check out the Monticello website here:  http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/philip-mazzei  (As a side note: I highly recommend you visit Monticello if you’re in the Charlottesville area in the future!  I love this place!)

For more information on the Mazzei Estate in Italy, you may visit their website here:  http://www.mazzei.it/eng_intro/