Walking into Early Mountain Vineyards never having been to Sweely Estate in the five years that it stood as such before narrowly escaping two foreclosure sales in 2010, I couldn’t help but think, “No wonder.” Jess and Sharon Sweely clearly spared no expense when they transformed the 305-acre Madison County farm into a state-of-the-art operation with 40 acres under vine, a 27,000 square foot winery with a production capacity of 25,000 cases (most of Virginia’s annual productions span between 1,000 and 10,000 cases), and an 18,000 square foot French chateau-inspired hospitality center.
They were lofty aspirations that beg comparison to another area winery owner whose vision and spending outpaced her revenue. Both tales got recast with Forbes 400-ers as leads. Trump Winery debuted last October and Steve and Jean Case opened Early Mountain in June, yet it’s the Case’s story, as 30-year residents of Virginia and avid proponents of our local wine, that deserves telling.
Once you visit, you can’t help but call all they’re doing to bolster our burgeoning industry revolutionary. The former AOL executives purchased the winery last summer because they love food and wine and wanted to find a way to contribute to Virginia’s economy. Through one of their investment companies, they established Early Mountain as a social enterprise and will, once fully operational, put all net proceeds back into Virginia agricultural with a focus on viticulture.
The lower hanging fruit in Early Mountain’s mission to put Virginia wine on the same shelf with the world’s finest is the Best of Virginia partnership program. Wines from what in-house sommelier and educator Michelle Gueydan (who honed her palate as a sommelier at the Inn at Little Washington) calls the Godfathers of Virginia wine: Barboursville, Breaux, Chatham, Linden, King Family, and Thibaut-Janisson wines appear in flights alongside Early Mountain’s own. Visitors choose from three flights (each consisting of four two-ounce pours) for $12. Those who want to taste just the winery’s pours can do so at no cost, but the staff emphasizes the opportunity to try Virginia’s best under one roof.
Selling another winery’s juice seemed so implausible that the wineries approached reacted with knee-jerk skepticism. “They all asked ‘What’s in it for us?’” said Gueydan. “And now, wineries are beating down the door to be included.” It’s a win-win partnership that they’ll build on, adding beverage partners each year and inviting others to pour at monthly tastings with retail sales at their eat- and drink-local Market Place.
Innovation trickles down from there too. Completely gutted in January, the tasting room went from dark and draconian to airy and welcoming with large windows, an open fireplace, living room-like vignettes, and a calming color scheme accented with a burnished orange that graces everything from cushions to the wine’s capsules. A climate-controlled upper terrace with a fireplace, a lower terrace with locally-made adirondack chairs and fire pits (buy your s’mores kits at the Market Place), hammocks, loaner picnic blankets, lawn games, wildflower meadows, educational grape plots, and a bocce court and pond in the works all serve as invitation to stay a while. The Market Place stocks Virginia-made food and beverages—from cheeses to grape juice—and a tempting array of panini, small plates, and sweets can be ordered from iPod Touch-equipped servers. It’s so hospitable that you may never leave.
Amidst all that’s shiny and new at Early Mountain though, there’s one thing that’s stayed the same. Franz Ventre, the Bordeaux-born winemaker who made Sweely’s first vintage in 2006 and its last in 2007, stuck it out through three vintages with no production. Vine-t.l.c. and scrupulous cleaning meant that 2011, despite its dismal conditions, was Ventre’s comeback year and 2500 cases currently reside in their tanks, barrels, and bottles. Production will increase to just 3,000-5,000 cases even though the vineyards’ acreage is capable of producing 7,000. “We have modest goals emphasizing quality over quantity and want to understand the business first before growing,” said CEO Peter Hoehn. Retaining Ventre was a big advantage in a business that literally depends on its roots and being back in black meant he could assemble his wine-making dream team, which includes Lucie Morton as consultant.
Early Mountain feels like a party house —the one that belonged to your rich friend whose parents were never home, yet there’s no debauchery or illegal consumption happening here. Instead, it’s a beautiful shrine to Virginia resurrected by a benevolent pair with can-do pockets and a want-to-do spirit.