Having a storied and prolific history of grape production doesn’t guarantee a winery’s success, and to suggest so is unfair to the vintners and vineyard managers who have labored to perfect their crafts. But starting a winery at a farm that already boasts some of the oldest and most vigorous vines in the region can certainly give you a leg up on the competition.
With the opening of Grace Estate Winery at the scenic Mount Juliet Farm in Crozet, owner John Grace and winemaker Jake Busching aim to do just that, and from the early look of things, they are well on their way to accomplishing their goal of establishing a sustainable, terroir-driven, Virginia winery.
While it is technically true that Grace Estate Winery is brand new, having just opened its doors to the public this past April, it is inherently evident as you approach the converted barn that serves as both the winery and satellite tasting room (plus an old silo that’s home to a handful of park benches and some truly wicked acoustics) that this is not just some upstart operation. Not only are there already a few vintages available for public consumption, but the vastness of the 55-acre vineyard in addition to the size and thickness of the vines themselves suggest that some serious viticulture is well underway.
Mount Juliet Farm has been a major player on the Virginia wine scene for nearly two decades, having first planted vitis vinifera in the mid-’90s, and it’s proved to have the ideal growing conditions to support what has now ballooned to 14 different varietals, including the usual suspects like viognier, chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot, but also more exotic and enticing varietals like chenin blanc, pinotage, and tannat.
The term winegrower reflects a person who oversees all aspects of the winemaking process. It is a holistic approach that places as much, if not more, importance on what goes on in the vineyard as the winery. Busching embodies this identity. He doesn’t fancy himself a great winemaker and will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t subscribe to the tricks of the trade that many modern winemakers employ to further extract and manipulate their juice in an effort to cater to the mighty critics who aim to homogenize wine by overemphasizing its most obvious characteristics.
Outside of occasionally adding a little sugar or tartaric acid to keep the pH in check, Busching tends to let nature take its course, and allow the hard work that he’s put into the vineyard speak for itself. Under his guidance, Grace Estate takes the sustainable approach to vineyard management: It eschews the use of chemicals whenever possible, preferring a specialized lawnmower to maintain unwanted undergrowth in the vineyard instead of the harmful sprays and pesticides that most wineries opt for. Of course, none of this would matter if the final product didn’t speak for itself, and in that regard the wines from Grace Estate more than deliver. Achieving the extraction and structure that only vines of considerable maturity can produce, the six estate-grown wines currently being offered in the tasting room are well worth the trip.
The Le Gras Cuve and Le Gras Baril are Grace Estate’s version of the respective white and red table wines that have become so synonymous with the region. They are both soft, fruity, and outright drinkable, but it is the single varietal offerings that truly excite. Grace Estate is currently limited to pouring viognier, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and tannat, which has proven to thrive in the heat and humidity of summer in central Virginia. However, the number will likely increase as Busching continues to experiment with new varietals in a push to ramp up production to between 5,000 and 6,000 cases over the next few years. While things are sure to change as the winery grows and the newly planted varietals come into their own, the current stars are the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2012 Viognier (see sidebar).
Grace Estate Winery is still growing and exploring ways to make its own mark on Virginia wine. With tons of activity happening throughout the vineyard, ranging from the renovation of the old castle that sits atop Mount Juliet into a permanent, state of the art tasting room with breathtaking views of the entire vineyard, to a team of geologists pulling soil samples to best determine why certain grapes thrive in one area of the vineyard but not others, the groundwork is being laid for a truly exceptional winery experience. While only time will tell what heights Grace Estate will actually reach, the ceiling is sky high and the silo will be full in no time.
Two to try
2012 Viognier: Executed in a style that veers slightly from the traditional Virginia viognier, this viognier quickly engulfs the glass with pure, floral esters and finishes with tons of ripe, white stone fruits and minerality. It retains a lively acidity that is often overpowered by the oak treatment given to most viogniers in the area, and, as a result, it’s one of the rare Virginia wines that is great by itself but actually may improve with food. ($22.95)
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: Talk about extraction! Boasting all of the currant and cassis that one would expect from a good cabernet, with well-integrated, yet still prevalent tannins, it is a true representation of a great vintage in Virginia. ($29.95)—Andrew Cole