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Meet Philip Mazzei

Meet Philip Mazzei

A Tuscan wine dynasty reintroduces America to Philip Mazzei, friend of the Founding Fathers and the man behind Virginia’s first commercial vineyards

What are you drinking on Presidents Day? If you haven’t a clue, let me suggest a wine that’s fit for the occasion: Philip, named after Philip Mazzei, an intriguing, if minor, player in the formative years of the United States of America. Never heard of him? This wine is meant to change that.

“It’s a tribute to this guy who’s not as well-known as he should be,” says Francesco Mazzei, a descendent who spearheaded the Philip Project at Castello di Fonterutoli, one of Tuscany’s most historic wineries.

What makes Philip Mazzei so special? For starters, he’s the one who brought the first vitus vinifera to the Colonies and planted the first commercial vineyards in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This was in 1774 on land obtained through his neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, as well as on Jefferson’s own Monticello plantation.

Another claim to fame: It’s believed Philip’s words inspired Jefferson’s indelible phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. Mazzei, who wrote under the pseudonym Furioso, penned these words: “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government.” Without question, the men’s thinking was in sync, and the two politicos were tight friends who shared progressive libertarian ideals, traded volumes of private letters, and even published writings together.

Philip the man

The label for Philip was inspired by this 1790 portait in the Louvre by Jacques-Louis David 

The label for Philip was inspired by this 1790 portait in the Louvre by Jacques-Louis David 

When Francesco Mazzei was growing up, Philip was not just some dusty portrait in the stairwell of Castello di Fonteruoli, a medieval property that the Mazzei family inherited in 1435—57 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America. His older brother Filippo (and fellow CEO) took Philip’s name, and the household was generally aware of their 18th century ancestor’s exploits.

“I don’t want to say he was the black sheep of the family, but he was kind of nervous,” says Francesco over lunch at Manhattan’s General Assembly, where a ruddy-checked Philip gazes out from the wine label, a modern reinterpretation of his Louvre portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Francesco finally settles on the right word: “Irriquieto,” he says. “Restless. He couldn’t stay in one place, and he had to always do new things.”

Like Jefferson, Philip Mazzei was a quintessential man of the Enlightenment. His professions included medicine, trade, horticulture, viticulture, politics, and pamphleteering—vocations that took him around the globe. “This guy chose to call himself ‘a citizen of the world,’ ” says Francesco. “He was eager to develop new things, to conquer the world, to cross borders. He lived in, not just went to, Tuscany, Turkey, England, Virginia, France, Poland, Russia, and back in Tuscany,” he says, tapping the table for emphasis. “This was before airlines, so it wasn’t easy.

“When writing pamphlets in Virginia, he called himself Furioso, which in a way incorporates his character: a fighter,” Francesco continues. “If you look at the writings of Jefferson, it’s clear that Jefferson loved him, but also hated him. He was pushy, always asking ‘I want to do this, I want to do that.’ So he was a bit of a pain. There are notes of Jefferson that say, ‘This guy is…’ ” Francesco shakes his head with a grimace, then breaks out in a laugh.

The American chapter of Philip’s life began when he was running a trading company in London that imported agricultural products from Tuscany. A friend from home, the powerful Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, asked him to acquire one of the latest modern conveniences: a metal-lined fireplace, named the Franklin Stove. Philip got in touch with its inventor, Benjamin Franklin, who was then working in London as an agent for Pennsylvania and other American colonies. They struck up a friendship, and through Franklin, Philip met Virginia businessman and politician Thomas Adams. Both Americans encouraged Philip to come up with a plan to cultivate Mediterranean vines, olive trees, citrus, and silk in the Colonies.

In 1773, Philip set sail for Virginia with his plants and 10 vineyard managers. “According to the records,” says Francesco, “he came with about 10,000 vines in the first shipment, a combination of vines from Tuscany, Piedmont, Burgundy, Champagne, and some other places. He came with a broad range, because they had to experiment and see what worked.”

Philip quickly entered political circles in Virginia, where he was welcomed for his liberal ideas and his wit and energy. Jefferson provided the initial land for Philip’s venture: 193 acres on the south side of Monticello. Philip purchased another 700 next door, named his farm Colle, and started planting on both farms.

Bad luck followed. In the spring of 1774, a severe frost hit, destroying the baby vines. Undeterred, Philip brought over another shipment, plus dozens more vignerons. To finance the operation, he created a wine company—American’s first—called the Wine Society, which was meant to produce and sell wine. Thirty-one investors shelled out 50 pounds sterling per share; many prominent colonial leaders were among them, first and foremost Washington and Jefferson.

But this project had a stronger start than finish. Philip the Restless became increasingly disengaged as he became more involved in the birth of the nation. He went back to Tuscany at Jefferson’s request to solicit funds for the State of Virginia from his old friend the Grand Duke and to promote the Colonies’ perspective. Meanwhile, he rented Colle to a European general. “But there was another problem,” says Francesco. “The horses of this general broke out of the fences and ate everything.” Again the grapes were destroyed. “He had a lot of disasters. But I don’t think he really cared that much after awhile about the vines. He was much more involved in politics.”

Jefferson, instead, hung onto both his vineyards and his political activities. He hired one of Philip’s vignerons to take charge of Monticello’s vineyards, and thus Philip’s legacy lived on.

Philip the wine

In the family archives: Filippo and Francesco with their father, Lapo Mazzei Courtesy Castello di Fonterutoli

In the family archives: Filippo and Francesco with their father, Lapo Mazzei Courtesy Castello di Fonterutoli

In the library of Castello di Fonterutoli, giant tomes line the walls, each with refined, spidery handwriting crawling down the leather spine. This is the Mazzei archive, going back to the 1500s. “It’s now under state control, because it’s considered a piece of history,” says Francesco, a lean, debonair man, whose confident, easy manner is well suited for the heir of one of Italy’s 10 oldest family-run companies. Wine was always part of the equation; records show the Mazzeis made wine as far back as the 1300s. What’s remarkable is how many oft-told tales of Chianti intersect with the Mazzei family history. The first written mention of Chianti wine, in 1398, was penned by a Mazzei: the notary Ser Lapo. Then there’s the legend of the Black Rooster, which recounts how Florence and Siena settled a longstanding territorial dispute through a horse race; the resulting border falls precisely at the hamlet of Fonterutoli.

Philip Mazzei is but one brief chapter in this long family history. But his story had gotten lost with the passage of time. Some kind of tribute was due.

The question was what? “We had to make a wine that has some coherence with this guy. Not just use his name, his story, and bottle any wine whatsoever,” Francesco explains. “So we said, ‘He was a citizen of the world, always traveling. Let’s go with the most international variety there is: cabernet. But at the same time, let’s make it Tuscan, because he was from Tuscany.’ So we sourced cabernet from our two properties in Tuscany, which are a little bit opposites: Fonterutoli, in Chianti Classico, is up on the hills, where you get a cabernet with lots of elegance, acidity, freshness, length, and complexity. Belguardo in Maremma is a much warmer area by the sea. Here the cabernet is bigger, spicy, a little rustic. So we said, let’s put these two together and see how it works. And we were very happy with the results. It’s a cabernet with a quintessentially Tuscany character.”

Made with natural yeast and minimal interference, Philip is matured for 24 months in barrique, primarily American oak that’s about 40 percent new. It’s a delicious wine—bursting with dark fruit, with a background of spice and cedar, offering plush tannins that give structure without being overbearing. This wine could dress up for an elegant prime-rib dinner or go casual for a picnic of sloppy joes and BBQ.

Philip had its launch party on July 4, 2013, at Monticello. Eighty percent of its first vintage—the 2008, with 18,000 bottles—sold in the U.S. Not surprisingly, it’s quite popular in the Washington DC and Virginia markets and sells like gangbusters at the gift shop in Monticello.

The tradition continues: Francesco and Filippo Mazzei planting vines at Thomas Jefferson’s Montalto property. Courtesy Castello di Fonterutoli

The tradition continues: Francesco and Filippo Mazzei planting vines at Thomas Jefferson’s Montalto property. Courtesy Castello di Fonterutoli

But the story doesn’t end there. The Mazzei winery has partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to bring Tuscan vines to Virginia, fulfilling Philip’s promise. The idea is to add a special plot to the vineyards now on the presidential property adjoining Monticello, named Montalto. “Jefferson bought Montalto because he didn’t want anybody building houses in front of him,” says Francesco. “It’s spectacular: a plateau on top of a hill, with a magnificent view. And it’s very windy. One of the big problems in Virginia is humidity”—the bane of mold-prone grape clusters. This well-ventilated hillcrest might even accommodate sangiovese, Tuscany’s defining grape, and its fussiest. The hope is that Mazzei will plant some of their own sangiovese biotypes, unique to the Fonterutoli estate. “At the moment, we’re analyzing the soil,” says Francesco. “Then there is the [quarantine] procedure with UC Davis. So it’s going to be awhile.”

In the meantime, Philip is waiting to make your acquaintance. You’ll find him very pleasant company indeed—whether on President’s Day or any day of the year.

Published in the February 2015 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.

 

 

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