On a grey day in February, when the weather is still cold, I think I see the future of Virginia Wine. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he’s cooking me lunch, flipping steaks on the grill with his bare hands. Andy Reagan, the 32-year-old winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards, will later pour me his 2007 and 2008 reds, a set of wines that could very well make him a household name. We eat in the old farmhouse at the winery that doubles as an office, drinking his 2008 Pinot Grigio while Crocket the dog complains at our feet. “My goal is to make the best wine in the world,” Reagan says, and even though he often laces his conversation with sarcasm, I get the sense that he isn’t joking in the slightest.
Reagan was born and raised in Norfolk where his dad was in the Navy. In high school he worked summers in upstate New York with his sister, then winemaker at Benmarle Vineyards, where he drank 25-year-old Rieslings and developed his nascent palate. College was not his thing, so after high school he joined the Marine Corps Reserves. When his hitch was up, his sister asked him to be her assistant winemaker, which he did for a while, but he wasn’t “sold on being in the wine industry.” So he left and floated for a while, taking a few classes and working at a furniture store. It wasn’t long before he was going out of his mind. Luckily his sister wasn’t through with him. She decided to return to school and asked Reagan, at 22, to take over head winemaking duties at Benmarle. He said yes.
“I was kind of coming out as one of the best winemakers in the world,” Reagan says, describing the arc of his career. He pauses to chew his food thoughtfully and then continues. “I’ve always tried to be very modest, but it gets harder as, like, the gold medals stack up.” Understand that Reagan is joking, something he does all the time, but also understand that he does so with little trace of self-doubt.
Although he’s never worked outside of the East Coast, Reagan’s experience is pretty broad. He’s made wine in New York, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. He’s worked at America’s oldest winery (Benmarle) and one of Virginia’s biggest (Williamsburg). He’s made wine out of all kinds of grapes, from Riesling to Muscadine. “Not only can I theorize and put things together mentally,” Reagan says modestly, “but I can work a cellar like nobody else can. I mean I’m a United States Marine Corps-certified fork-lift operator!”
After a stint at Middleburg’s Chrysalis Vineyards (the 2004 Viognier he made there is still one of the best I’ve had), Andy wound up at Jefferson Vineyards in 2005. He’s stopped wandering. He’s sold on the wine industry. His 2007 reds are awesome—the Merlot, the Petit Verdot, the Estate Reserve, all poised to put Virginia reds on the map.
Reagan lays down his winemaking philosophy as we eat. “I’ve always thought, you know, the more flavors you have, if they work together, the more complex the experience your palate’s going to go through,” he says. “Even when I was in boot camp it was like you only have three minutes to eat your food, so you mix everything together … It’s actually the United States Marine Corps that taught me how to blend.” He points down at the lunch we’re eating. “I put basil in the salad. I’ve never done that before.”