Grapegrower Chris Hill’s essential contribution to Virginia wine

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Vineyard consultant Chris Hill has a long view of local agriculture that he hopes will see the food production sub-economy meet Virginia’s wine success. “I love the marrying of local food and local wine,” he says. “It’s so simple. In the end it’s just all about food, and I consider wine a food.” Photo courtesy of subject. Vineyard consultant Chris Hill has a long view of local agriculture that he hopes will see the food production sub-economy meet Virginia’s wine success. “I love the marrying of local food and local wine,” he says. “It’s so simple. In the end it’s just all about food, and I consider wine a food.” Photo courtesy of subject.

“We dodged a bullet,” says vineyard consultant Chris Hill, as he tucks his hand through a grapevine thicket, revealing a cluster of grapes. He suspects the previous day’s rain may have damaged the fruit set, but the bunches look much better than anticipated. The canopy, lush with precipitation, shines a vibrant green, and hungry tendrils reach out into the rows, searching for something to grab on to. As we walk down a sloped row, vines spread across rolling hills in all directions.

Standing near the center of a 17-acre vineyard of fruit destined for Pippin Hill wine, Hill says this site is the John Teel vineyard, named for its late owner. Motioning with his arm to the greater area, he says, “This is some of the best farming land anywhere.” As if on cue, a nearby cow responds with a hearty “moo.”

Another vineyard that contributes to Pippin Hill is Grape Lawn in Nelson County, which boasts about 12 acres of sauvignon blanc, viognier, cabernet franc, merlot and tannat. Viewing an older four-acre block of cabernet franc planted in 1999, it was a treat to see the thick trunks and to wonder how old those vines will grow. Hill reminds us there is so much more out there. “What I’m showing you is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

Hill has more than a little experience in Virginia. In fall 1981 he prepped land for vineyards on the north side of the James River at Glendower Estate, near Scottsville. The following year he says he “put in chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, vidal blanc and seyval. A little later we added cabernet franc and chambourcin.” That early vineyard produced a small crop in 1983, then a larger crop in 1984.

In those early days of Virginia wine development, from about 1981 to ’84, Hill and a group that included Philip Ponton (then Oakencroft winemaker), brothers Michael Bowles (Montdomaine) and Steve Bowles (then Fat City Diner), Hans and Anna Riddervold and Paul Mierzejewski (now at DelFosse), met regularly to discuss wine at round-table sessions. “Gabriele sometimes came, too,” he says, referring to winemaker Gabriele Rausse. Many in this core group would go on to set the tone for Virginia’s current wine industry.

By 1997, Hill was working at Jefferson Vineyards on a team with two people who today have their own Virginia wine labels: Michael Shaps and Jake Busching. In 1998 this trifecta produced one of the great wines of Virginia—the 1998 Jefferson Cabernet Franc. “’98 was a great vintage,” Hill says. “Some years, with some varieties, you hit it just right. Everything came together that year.”

Talk of the 1998 Jefferson Cabernet Francs elicits great stories from those who remember drinking them.

He remembers two cuvées, or bottlings, of Jefferson Cabernet Franc in 1998, and “one was a vineyard designate [with fruit] from Glendower,” his inaugural Virginia vineyard project. “Now, I’m biased,” he says, “but that was the best wine ever made in Virginia.” Indeed, talk of the 1998 Jefferson Cabernet Francs elicits great stories from those who remember drinking them. Shaps says it’s one of his favorite wines he has ever made, and Busching points to the wine as the aha moment that set the course of his career.

In the mid-1990s, Hill began to help friends respond to issues and problems in their own vineyards, and his professional life grew slowly and organically into that of a vineyard consultant. Through consulting, he’s had a hand in a long list of wineries including Keswick, Veritas, DelFosse, Pollak, Lovingston, Barren Ridge, Virginia Wineworks and Pippin Hill. After almost three and a half decades of growing grapes in Virginia, Hill feels a sense of deep gratitude. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I’ve worked with so many great people. Look at us now, this is a great business.”

Hill sees how the booming wine business fits into a larger epicurean picture, as one well-functioning part of Virginia’s larger agricultural scene, and he wants other aspects of Virginia agriculture to experience the same success.

“Drinking wine and eating food, it’s a very communal thing,” he says. “It’s about community. And in making the grapes and wine, it’s a huge effort. The labor that goes into the vineyards, it requires a lot of cooperation.”

And these ideas relate to a bigger concept of finding happiness in the pleasures of the table. “Epicureanism is pretty important as a philosophy,” he says. “And working in Albemarle with Thomas Jefferson’s influence, epicureanism is important for our food and wine businesses.

“It’s so important…this pursuit of happiness. I mean, why would you put that into a founding document? I find that to be remarkable.”

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.

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