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Is Virginia for Wine-Lovers? Introduction


Everywhere I travel these days seems to be wine country. I’m not complaining, of course – there’s nothing I love more on my sojourns than tasting local wines – but I know my high strike rate is a result not of choosing destinations for their vineyards, but because wine is a growth business enticing farmers and entrepreneurs the world over. Be it Greece, Mallorca, Ohio, the New York Finger Lakes, or now Virginia, in the south-western corner of which my wife and I just borrowed her a lake-side cabin for a week, what was once a risky niche business is fast becoming a profitable tourist attraction. Is wine the new golf?

Yet Virginia has a greater claim on the wine trade than most American states. The wine business in the State dates back to 1607 when the first English settlers arrived; they described their first vintage, harvested just a year later from the omnipresent indigenous grapes, as “foxy,” a term that has endured to plague the American wine business ever since. Indeed, the Jamestown settlers were so disappointed by the fermented fruits of these American vines that they soon began importing European vinifera grapes, but when these struggled in the hot summers and cold winters, the farmers gave up; by the start of the 18th Century, native grapes once again ruled the land, “foxy” aromas and all.

Virginia is a vast State, now producing wine in almost all corners. The bulk of it comes from Central Virginia, with notable wines from Barboursville and Horton just north of Charlottesville, and from northern Virginia, where the traffic from Route 66 out of Washington, DC ensures a constant flood of visitors.

Almost a hundred years later, no less a Virginia-based wine authority (and Statesman) than Thomas Jefferson revived the idea of making wine from European vinifera at his estate in Monticello, where he planted some 24 different European varietals. There is no evidence that he succeeded in producing as much as a single bottle, despite thirty years of trying: confessing that growing grapes was “like gambling,” Jefferson saw his vines continually torn up and replanted as they succumbed to various diseases. The man who declared that “wine for me is a necessity of life” instead ran up a $11,000 tab on imported wines during his four years at the White House (approximately $175,000 in modern currency). In defense of the American wine geek’s founding father, Jefferson eschewed hard liquor, proclaiming “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as its common beverage.” He had a point.

Fast forward almost 300 years, and it was at Monticello that Italian wine-producer Gianni Zonin purchased former Governor James Barbour’s old plantation, intent on reviving the Virginia wine business. His idea was initially ridiculed, but Zonin had the advantage of the extra centuries’ experience, and by grafting European vinifera onto local rootstocks, he made them more resistant to disease. Barboursville Vineyards was founded in 1976 and has gone on to become the flagship winery for the State; its 1999 Viognier, which made it up to a local Brooklyn store, woke me up to the potential for Virginia wines. So, too, around the same time, did a Syrah from Horton Cellars. Could Virginia, I wondered, be the new northern Rhône?

We were in the South-Western corner of the State, home to barely 10% of the State’s 120-odd wineries. An enthusiasm for the motor vehicle is an essential part of the tasting experience.

Not overnight, it can’t. In the wake of Barbourville’s success, Virginia’s enthusiastic immersion in the modern wine business is proving indicative of the new world at large, in that it too often mistakes quantity for quality. Virginia widely flaunts the fact that it has the fifth largest number of wineries of any American state – 119 and rapidly counting – but a quick look at these wineries’ websites reveals that most of them make far too many wines to make many good ones. Wine-tasting has, certainly, become something of a 21st Century non-cardiovascular sport (the new golf!), and if a winery needs to produce a blush wine and a couple of sweet fruit wines to make ends meet, along with the sale of not-so-local condiments and Chinese-manufactured table settings, it has my sympathy. But I’m wary of any winery that makes more than a dozen wines, all the more so if they come with either “cutesy” proprietal names or boast openly of their sweetness and/or blending with other fruits.

It was for these reasons that we headed off on a hot mid-August Monday morning to a couple of small, family-owned wineries in the farthest corner of the State, staunchly ignoring the winery closest to our holiday destination: Chateau Morrisette, one of the biggest and most visited in the State. After all, would you trust a winery whose URL is thedogs.com?

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