George Washington longed for the day when good wines would be produced in America. As he travelled throughout the country, he often noted how well grapes were growing as a sign of potential success for the wine industry in America. During one journey to the Ohio frontier in 1770, Washington noticed "some other Woods, that grow Snarly, and neither Tall nor large, but coverd with Grape Vines."1
George Washington believed that the cultivation of grapes held great promise for the Chesapeake region. As he explained in a letter from July 1779 written to an Italian correspondent who had sent him information on viticulture, "I have long been of opinion from the spontaneous growth of the vine, that the climate and soil in many parts of Virginia were well fitted for Vineyards and that Wine, sooner or later would become a valuable article of produce."2
Throughout the eighteenth century, Virginians tried to produce grapes for making wine. However, by Washington's own admission, while there were certainly grapes available for eating, the wine-making ventures were unsuccessful. In March of 1760, Washington began his own attempt by planting fifty-five cuttings of the Madeira grape at Mount Vernon. Eight years later he continued his efforts, writing to a firm in Madeira for "a few setts or cuttings of the Madeira."3
When these foreign grapes proved unsatisfactory, Washington suggested several possible reasons for the problem, including use of the wrong variety of grape, lack of skill in viticulture, and the intense heat of the southern summer and fall. To remedy, Washington decided to experiment with the native varieties of grapes.
A few years before the American Revolution took him away from Mount Vernon, Washington planted about 2,000 cuttings of a local wild grape, "which does not ripen with us (in Virginia) 'till repeated frosts in the Autumn meliorate the Grape and deprive the Vine of their leaves," when "the grape (which is never very pallitable) can be Eaten." He lamented in a letter to a French correspondent after the war that his eight year absence from Mount Vernon prevented the completion of this experiment: "Had I remained at home, I should 'ere this, have perfected the experiment which was all I had in view."4
After the Revolution, Washington turned once more to Madeira grapes, asking a correspondent to send him "a few slips of the Vines of your best eating Grape." Those cuttings, however, were damaged by the long sea voyage and most died on the trip. All of the Malmsey grape were lost, but a few plants, described as Muscat and Vera, showed "signs of feeble life."5
Several years later, John Bartram, a noted Philadelphia botanist, gave Washington some grapes of "a very fine kind," which the Mount Vernon gardener was instructed to "take particular care of." Another source of Washington's grapes was Senator Benjamin Hawkins of North Carolina, who gave the president "sundry cuttings of valuable Grape vines," along with a letter giving "an account of them, and his manner of treating them."6
The grapes were cultivated at Mount Vernon in an enclosure below the lower garden, on the hill leading down towards the family vault. To protect the fruit from depredations, Washington approved fencing the vineyard with thorn bushes and honey locusts, "or I shall never be able to partake of the fruits that are within the enclosure." After fertilizing the ground with manure, the cuttings were set out in rows according to their variety or type. As with other fruits and vegetables, Washington grew both what he called summer and winter grapes, a strategy for keeping the fruit available for use on his table for as many months as possible.7
3. "21 March 1760," The Diaries of George Washington; "George Washington to Scott, Pringle, Cheape & Company, 21 March 1760."
7. "George Washington to Anthony Whiting, 27 January 1793," The Diaries of George Washington; "20 November 1771," "16 December 1771."