Confidence. That’s the mood filling the room as Al Schornberg, joined by the shining blonde triumvirate of his wife, Cindy, and their two youngest daughters, addresses four or five dozen partygoers. The occasion? The grand opening of Keswick Vineyards’ tasting room. A single overhead light shines down milky white and sickly into the cavernous winery, arrayed with tables of food and wine, shadowing everybody’s eyes and making us look like ghosts.
“If in the next 20 years,” Schornberg says, “we see the same progress we’ve seen in the last 20 years, I truly believe [Virginia will] be the No. 1 wine destination in the country.”
Vine, thanks, how are you: Al Schornberg drinks to the future of the Virginia wine industry at the opening of his new tasting room at Keswick Vineyards.
Rarely is the opening of a tasting room a grand event—certainly not an occasion for a party. Tasting rooms open everyday, and most of the time we pay them no mind. But that may be changing, because Virginia wine is moving fast, becoming impossible to ignore as an agricultural product and as a tourist attraction. Polls show Americans now prefer wine to beer. Wine is sexy and happening, and Virginia wine is coming on strong, poised to be the next big thing.
In 2000 the Schornbergs, having sold their $30 million software company, moved to Virginia from Michigan to fulfill their dream of making wine. They purchased the 400-acre Edgewood estate in Keswick, planted vines, and in 2002 bottled their first vintage. The reserve Viognier from that year was named “Best White Wine in the U.S.” at the Atlanta International Wine Summit.
Surrounded by oak barrels and large steel fermenting tanks in the winery behind the new tasting room, guests move among tables sampling the hors d’oeuvres from Café Europa that have been paired with Keswick wines. Little crab cakes with the Viognier, duck confit and plum sauce in crepes with the Norton, and the Nektar dessert wine with Roquefort-rolled grapes dusted with ground pistachios. The wines are good, but the pairings are perfect.
Gabriele Rausse, the man who made real Jefferson’s dream of a Charlottesville wine region, is here and, as always, is surrounded by a crowd. Stephen Barnard, Keswick’s young winemaker, approaches humbly to thank Rausse for coming. It is a telling moment, as two generations of Virginia winemakers, one, Rausse, an Italian, and the other, Barnard, a South African, come together. It is not a passing of the proverbial torch, for torches burn a long time in the wine world, but it signals the depth of what is happening here: Talents that span 30 years and the entire globe are converging in Central Virginia. Barnard turned down an assistant winemaking position at California’s well-known Beringer Vineyards to come here. “You can’t make wine in Virginia,” he says he was told, to which he says he replied, “Sounds like a challenge.” That winemaking in Virginia is a “challenge” is something that is repeated almost universally by everyone making wine or growing grapes here, yet still they come, expanding the industry every year. There are currently over 120 wineries in the state, 30 of them within a 40-mile radius of Charlottesville. “Virginia,” Barnard says, “is just a few steps away from becoming a major wine area in the country.”
Chris Hill, like Rausse, was here at the start of the expansion, and he’s at Keswick tonight, tall and white-haired in a green sport coat. The Virginia native’s name appears on not a single bottle, but he is a force in the business—the epitome of a gentleman farmer and a vineyard consultant for a great many of the state’s wineries. Someone asks him what the biggest difficulties are that face the industry today. Normally a deliberate speaker, he answers quickly: failed immigration reform and the rising price of land. “When you go from $10,000 an acre to $30,000 an acre,” he says, “there’s gonna be consequences.”
Undoubtedly this is so, but for the next couple of hours confidence, optimism and enthusiasm carry the room anyway. Most of the guests are not in the wine industry. They are media people, lawyers, restaurant managers, PR people, B&B owners, politicians. Yet they too are joining the wine world here in a major way as collectors and investors, critics and consumers. They swirl and sniff with growing assurance. Sure, another tasting room is opening, another destination for tourists. But under the surface, it’s infrastructure that’s being born, a growing network that carries one clear message: If you’re not drinking Virginia wine now, you will be soon. Believe the hype.
New Tasting Room
Thursday, June 28