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Central Virginia Wine In Pursuit of Excellence

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By Frank Morgan

Two hundred years after writing, “we could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe: not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good,” Thomas Jefferson’s dream is being realized throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Veritas Vineyards

Veritas Vineyards

Today, Virginia is home to 285 wineries, about 3,200 acres of grapevines, and ranks sixth in the U.S. for wine grape production. The wine industry employs over 8,200 people and contributes nearly $1.4 billion to the Virginia economy.

About 75 wineries and 1,300 acres are located in and around the Monticello AVA — named for Jefferson’s beloved home in Charlottesville — in the central part of the state.

Though Virginia’s viticulture history dates back 400 years, to 1619 when the House of Burgess passed Acte 12 requiring all colonists to plant ten grapevines, the state’s wine story began in the mid 1970s.

In 1976, Gianni Zonin, 6th generation Italian winegrower and head of the Zonin wine family, purchased an 870-acre Antebellum property situated on rolling hills in Orange County that would be the home of Barboursville Vineyards.  

Located about 20 miles northeast of Jefferson’s Monticello, Barboursville Vineyards was the fifth winery in Virginia and is today one of the most recognized and historically significant in the Commonwealth.  

The Barboursville Vineyards property was home to Virginia Governor James Barbour and the ruins of his former family home, designed by Thomas Jefferson (and burned down on Christmas Day 1884), still stands on the property, a short walk from the tasting room.

Gabriele Rausse
Gabriele Rausse photo by Peter Rausse

Gabriele Rausse, referred to as the father of the modern Virginia wine industry, arrived in the Commonwealth from his native Valdagno, Italy, in the spring of 1976 to help establish the initial vineyards at Barboursville.

Rausse went on to help establish Simeon Vineyards (now Jefferson Vineyards) in 1981, which is adjacent to the vineyard Italian viticulturist Philip Mazzei planted for Jefferson over 200 years ago. He also planted the initial vineyard at Kluge Estate (now Trump Winery) and started his own label, Gabriele Rausse Winery, in 1997, along with a dozen other vineyards in the region.

As the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, Rausse farms a one-acre vineyard in the south orchard where Jefferson attempted to grow grapes. The site includes a half-acre planted to Sangiovese and another half-acre planted to 20 of the 24 varieties that Jefferson planted in 1807.

Making wine from these grapes grown in the red clay soils at Monticello, Rausse has succeeded where Jefferson failed.

Virginia winegrowers today may not face the same challenges that contributed to Jefferson’s viticulture failures, but Mother Nature is unrelenting. Late spring frost, intense summer humidity, hail storms, and harvest season rains are common themes in Virginia.

“Every vintage in Virginia is an adventure, a beautiful adventure because you’re dealing with Mother Nature,” said Rausse, referring to the challenges of grape growing in Virginia. “This challenge and the potential is what attracted me to this region.”

The potential of establishing a wine industry in America’s old world wine region has continued to attract winegrowers from Europe and other regions who have brought unique talents and old world sensibilities to Virginia.

Luca Paschina came to Virginia from his native Alba, Italy, in 1990 to take over winemaking responsibilities at Barboursville Vineyards. In his 27th vintage, Paschina has helped grow Barboursville into one of the largest and most recognized wineries in the region.  

Luca Paschina

Luca Paschina photo by Jon Golden Photography

“In the beginning we chose to grow the best grapes suited for the soils here at Barboursville and not be distracted by what is trendy,” said Paschina. “The newest style or latest variety is always changing, so we stay focused on what works for our land. We are not trying to be California or France or any other region. We are Virginia.”

Paschina, with viticulturist Fernando Franco and team, continue to replant vineyards to learn which varieties are best suited for the Davidson red clay soil at Barboursville.  

“To make great wine we never stop learning about our land and continue to reinvest in our vineyards by replanting varieties better suited for a particular parcel.”

Recently planted varieties like Vermentino and Fiano are thriving at Barboursville.  

Beyond experimenting with new varieties, Paschina’s pursuit of excellence includes new approaches in the vineyard.  “A few years ago our Italian counterparts helped with improving our pruning techniques, which has resulted in improvement in vine health and better wine.”

Paschina and Franco farm 185 acres of grapevines planted in the clay soils at Barboursville and produce 35,000 cases annually from estate fruit.

Horton Vineyards Winery Building 600

Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville, northeast of Charlottesville, has played a critical role in building the foundation of the Virginia wine industry by experimenting with many different varieties to find those best suited for Virginia’s fickle climate.

The pioneering Horton planted his initial vineyard in 1983 and was the first to cultivate some of the state’s most important grapes including Viognier (designated the state’s official signature grape for national branding purposes in 2011), Petit Verdot, Tannat, and Rkatsiteli.

Horton’s most important contribution to the local wine industry may be his emphasis on recognizing the importance of matching variety to a specific site and Virginia’s climate.

“Excellence is closely related to a deep investment in a vineyard site,” said Michael Heny, winemaker at Horton Vineyards. “Investing in the correct varieties planted with a rootstock and trellising combination that matches the vigor of the site, farmed by a crew with a deep understanding of how the plant’s react.”

Dennis Horton and Mike Heny 600

Dennis Horton and Mike Heny

“At Horton I think our strength is our vineyard crew’s long history of working with the same vineyard that is the key to our ongoing success. There is a detailed understanding of how the plants will react in different sections of the vineyard. We really farm not block by block, or acre by acre, but plant by plant.”

Building on the foundation of quality and sweat equity of Virginia wine pioneers like Horton, Rausse, and Paschina, the next generation of winegrowers are as fiercely dedicated to producing world-class wines.

One of the region’s most notable winemakers helping write the next chapter of the Virginia wine story is Emily Pelton, winemaker at Veritas Vineyards and Winery in Afton, west of Charlottesville.

What started as five-acre hobby vineyard for Pelton’s parents, Dr. Andrew and Patricia Hodson, is today one of the region’s most notable wineries. Pelton, who completed a Master’s degree in Oenology at Virginia Tech, has been the winemaker at Veritas for over a dozen vintages and is known for crafting some of the most elegant wines in the region.

Pelton says of her approach to winegrowing, “excellence in wine is attention to detail with every nuance and working with a team of people that all understand and adore the final product, that work tirelessly and meticulously in everything they do from pruning each vine, to picking tons and acres, to processing an almost unending harvest trailer, to punching and pumping and cleaning.

Also among this group of accomplished winemakers writing the next chapter is Stephen Barnard, who came to Virginia from his native South Africa in 2002 through the Ohio State internship program, after completing a degree in Enology and Viticulture at Elsenburg Agricultural College.

“We are actually looking back to move forward, playing around with stem inclusion, whole cluster ferments, natural fermentations, and lower sulfur levels,” said Barnard. “We are focused on better clonal and rootstock selections more suited to our soils, elevations, slopes, and rainfall. We have increased our planting density significantly in order to ask each vine to produce less fruit but better quality.”

Being part of Virginia’s emergence as a world-class wine region has not only helped cultivate talented local farmers and attracted winemakers from around the world who bring new and old world winemaking sensibilities, but also enthusiastic entrepreneurs eager to learn and contribute.

Former AOL executives Jean Case, and her husband Steve, purchased Early Mountain Vineyards (formerly Sweely Estate Winery) in 2011 and have since invested in vineyard and winery improvements. What the Case’s lacked in wine experience they made up with enthusiasm and desire to build community and contribute to the industry.

As part of promoting the industry, the Cases established a ‘Best of Virginia’ program that features a rotating selection of some of the top wines from wineries across the state for tasting and purchase in the Early Mountain tasting room. Putting profits from Early Mountain back into the Virginia wine industry.

Ben Jordan and Maya Hood photo by Johnny Shyrock

Ben Jordan and Maya Hood photo by Johnny Shyrock

The Case’s biggest investment has been in building a team that understands Virginia’s fickle climate and the importance of site and grape selection. Winemaker Ben Jordan and Oenologist and Vineyards Manager, Maya Hood White, share the Case’s vision of making world-class wines at Early Mountain.

“Site is paramount,” said Ben Jordan, Winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards. “Selecting the site you plant or the vineyard you work with is one of the most important decisions we make, but you only get to make those decisions every so often.”

“Over time you identify your best performing blocks and keep them in focus. After that, the best thing we can do is to be critical, open minded, and creative. This is at once the most exciting and challenging part of working in East Coast winegrowing.”

With a wide range of soil types, climates, and and over 65 grape varieties cultivated for wine production in vineyards across Virginia, the Commonwealth boasts a diverse viticultural scene.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, are the quiet heroes of Virginia, while varieties like Petit Manseng, Albarino, Tannat and Petit Verdot are thriving in vineyards throughout the Commonwealth and showing great promise as varietal wines.

“I expect Petit Verdot to eclipse many other red grapes for production as the industry finds its way into the future,” said Jake Busching, who has spent each of his 20 years as a winegrower and vineyard consultant in Virginia. “Petit Verdot shows our terroir well.”

Mike Heny captures the spirit of Virginia’s pursuit of excellence and emergence as a world-class winegrowing region, “while no site is perfect, I believe in Virginia we have many examples of top estates deep into the journey of understanding what grapes are ideally suited for a particular site. It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes decades, lifetimes.”

Other Central Virginia Wineries to Visit:

This article is just one of our exclusive “In Pursuit of Excellence” series that highlights the champions of wine quality in Eastern U.S. wine industry who are impacting the reputation of the entire region. In Pursuit of Excellence is also the theme for the 2018 U.S. Wine & Beverage Exposition & Conference scheduled for February 21st & 22nd in Washington, D.C.

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