By Don Clemens
Anyone who considers themselves to be a reasonably well-informed wine drinker knows that America’s West Coast is loaded with delicious wines coming from all three of the states bordering the Pacific Ocean. They probably know that New York State has a bunch of wineries on Long Island and in the Finger Lakes District. If they live in or are familiar with the Midwest, they know that Michigan and Ohio have long been making wines. Most people do not realize that all 50 states have at least one bonded active winery – even Alaska! (Yes, they import their grapes from other regions, but...) The love of wine and the desire to make wine seems to be a universal fact of life among people whose lives have been somehow touched by people where grapevines have been historically present. It was clearly true for the earliest emigrants to what was to become the United States of America. And, we probably have no more famous example of this than our second President, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson famously planted vineyards on his Virginia estate, which he named “Monticello”, and even enlisted the help of an Italian vintner, Philip Mazzei, to help guide him with his vinous adventures. Unfortunately for Jefferson, the European grape vines that he imported had no natural defenses against that nasty, ubiquitous plant louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix, which NOBODY knew existed at the time.
The first recorded winemaking in the American Colonies apparently took place in the Jamestown Colony in 1607, using grapes from the abundant wild vines that were climbing in virtually every available tree. Unfortunately, even though wine was made, it wasn’t up to the standards of European viticulture. Yes, ethanol was created, but so was an abundance of what the French call “Gout de Renard”, or “foxy taste”, something most definitely not desired in a glass of wine. The attempts at winemaking continued to go on, as we know from Jefferson’s example. Things didn’t really improve as Virginians attempted to emulate the wines of Europe over the next couple of hundred years, until an inspired project which became to be called Barboursville Vineyards happened in the 1970’s. But, even with the influx of dedicated, knowledgeable vintners from northeastern Italy, things were not working out. It wasn’t really until the understanding of the role of Phylloxera on imported grapevines that Virginia’s winegrowing would survive, let along thrive.
From a mere handful of wineries, more like hobbies than businesses in the 1970’s, the growth has been nothing short of explosive. Today, about 50 years later, there are almost 300 active wineries in Virginia, and several American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) have come into existence. But, when talking about American wineries (as well as other producers of beverage alcohol), one must consider the role of America’s tangled response to our history regarding Prohibition, and its resulting crazy-quilt sets of regulations about who has a say about what is or isn’t legal when it comes to beverage alcohol. To put it mildly, Americans’ ability to purchase wines is dependent upon the whims of city councils, county boards, state legislatures and federal bureaucracies. Like many states, Virginia hasn’t quite yet faced the reality of American consumerism. There is generally decent allowance for statewide distribution of the wines being produced in Virginia for Virginia consumers. Wineries have some relationships with distribution warehouses within the state, but the Commonwealth’s former regulatory stances, which were rife with roadblocks to commercial sales, had a powerful disincentive for national growth. It’s getting exponentially better these days.
I mentioned the Barboursville Vineyards earlier. Virginia can once again thank the Italians (and the English) for their interest in Virginia’s winegrowing potential. I look upon the fortuitous 1976 marriage of the British investment and land development company, Western American Finance, and Italy’s largest wine producer, Zonin, as the biggest development in modern viticulture for Virginia. It was Gianni Zonin who decided that rather than developing another California vineyard and winery, he would look for someplace that more resembled his native northern Italy. The investment would be approximately $5 million over a period of ten years to construct a new vinifera winery and chateau north of Charlottesville in Orange County, Virginia. Gianni Zonin felt that Virginia’s climate was much like northern Italy, and that its emerging wine industry offered the chance for gaining traction. I’m grateful that he had the vision to make this happen. It wasn’t going to be easy though. With the purchase of the former 700-acre sheep farm, Virginia’s wine history took a sharp upward curve. The Barboursville Estate contained the ruins of a manor once owned by Virginia governor James Barbour. The manor had been designed by Thomas Jefferson and was situated about midway between Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier. Gianni Zonin and his wife Silvana were so interested in the historic nature of the two connected structures (built in 1804) on the property that they refurbished and converted it into a second home and a boutique hotel, which they named The 1804 Inn.
Of course, now came the fun part. Of extreme importance was the hiring of a general manager to establish the vineyard planting who would develop the vineyards and who would oversee the hiring of vineyard workers who knew something about winegrowing practices. Gianni hired Gabriele Rausse - a happy decision for Barboursville’s development. Since this is only an article and not a biography, let’s just say that Gabriele Rausse is somewhat of a legendary figure in the modern history of Virginia winemaking. Ultimately, his efforts and successes in creating high quality, viable vinifera vineyards helped to change the trajectory of the development of an entire segment of an agricultural category in Virginia. It wasn’t easy. Early on, the vineyards that were planted had to be ripped out because of dying vines and various plant diseases. Trial and error, and the pullout of their financial partner because of the cost were only the beginning challenges. They also had little help from Virginia’s Agriculture Department or the USDA. No one really believed that Gianni and Gabriele would have success planting the vinifera vines that they wanted to establish. Over the next few years, Gianni and Gabriele WERE successful at finding the right plant material - healthy vines that were resistant to the various diseases and critters that are the bane of vineyards everywhere. Finding the most appropriate varietals for individual vineyard sites on the property was another challenge that was successfully overcome. Because of the size of this project, Barboursville reached the “economy of scale” needed to produce enough wine to achieve the capacity to engage in NATIONAL distribution, the first Virginia winery to accomplish this distinction. I still remember when I first tasted a Barboursville Vineyards wine, in the early 1980’s. It was a Cabernet Franc, one of the many successful wines created at the estate. Today, there are at least a dozen different wines being featured.
I recently tasted, along with my co-editors, a range of wines from Virgina. They were all wines that had been awarded the accolade of category winners for Virginia’s “Governors Cup”, an annual event wherein Virginia wineries submit samples of their finest wines of the vintage. Out of the dozen wines that we were presented with, two of them were from Barboursville Estate.
I’ll address the other wineries later, but just to give an overview, those “Governor’s Cup“ wineries were Delaplane Cellars (“Williams Gap” 2017), Afton Mountain Vineyards (“Tradition” 2017), Pollak Vineyards (“Smuggler” 2017 and “Monticello” Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017), Michael Shaps (“Meritage” 2016 and Shenandoah “Meritage Reserve” 2017), Pippin Hill Vineyards (“Petit Verdot” 2017), Lake Anna Winery “Tannat” 2017), 868 Estate (Vidal Blanc “Passito” 2017) and Rockbridge (V d’Or 2017).
We started out with the Barboursville Vermentino Reserve 2018. I have learned from some of my more experienced Virginia wine pros that this is a wine that ages well and is best tasted with a few years of bottle age. So – this wine was demonstrating more of the youthful citrusy, lemon-lime notes and less of the minerality and heft that I would expect with appropriate aging. Nonetheless, it was delightfully fresh and appealing. I would recommend this young wine with delicate seafood or freshwater trout.
We then went on, after a number of other winners that I will comment on in the next issue, to the Barboursville “Octagon” 2014, which is the premier red wine from the estate. “A wine of highly distinctive character, achieved in blending estate-grown Bordeaux varietals, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Petit Verdot, Octagon’s great prestige rests further on its being created only in fine vintages, and with the most astute selection from the harvest. This is the highest expression of our estate’s European derivation and inspiration, crafted to be a wine of distinctive character and age worthiness in every incarnation.” (www.bbbvwine.com) You can believe the hype. This is a delicious, full-flavored, very well-balanced wine with enough bottle age to really show its stuff. Opaque, almost black, with haunting notes of black cherries, cassis and something akin to pecan streusel or caramelized brown sugar; rich but not flabby; a long finish with sufficient acidity and tannin to pair well with a grilled prime ribeye steak.
Other than Barboursville Vineyards, the other wines that we tasted are all (unless you live in Virginia, Washington, D.C. or New York) only available through Direct To Consumer (known widely as “DTC”) avenues. This is a topic that I will address in the next issue, as well as reviewing more of the “Governor’s Cup” winners, as well as some other wineries that submitted samples to Chicago Wine Press. Of note were a couple more top-flight Michael Shaps wines and some delightful wines from Early Mountain Winery. There are some terrific wines being produced in Virginia. I hope to help you access them!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a terrific series of podcasts, eight of them so far, about Virginia wines, from Fred Reno, a good friend who has spent his life in winery management and key distribution management. They are accessible at Fine Wine Confidential Podcast, wherever you access your podcasts. Fred is about to release a book under the name Fine Wine Confidential. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. There’s not much about the business of wine that Fred hasn’t experienced.