What would happen if you took a handful of the world’s greatest chefs, put them in a kitchen filled with spoiled meats, wilted vegetables, a pantry filled with the most unappetizing food-products known to man, and gave them each an hour to cook the best meal imaginable with the ingredients given? Chances are, not much. Although this particular premise is a little harsh, and probably more suited to a Food Network special than an allegory for making wine, the same principles can be applied. A winemaker is a lot like a chef in that he takes an agricultural product and turns it into something more by applying his technique and knowhow, and the same as a great chef demanding that only the best ingredients make their way onto the menu, starting with a good crop goes a long way in winemaking. While it’s unfair to winemakers (and chefs) everywhere to simplify it to the point of saying that great grapes equal great wine, I’m sure they all would agree that their lives are a lot easier when everything comes together in the vineyard.
The theory behind this rhetoric is currently being applied all around us, with area wineries constantly trying new techniques in the vineyard to coax a more consistent harvest out of Central Virginia. This was particularly apparent on a recent trip to First Colony Winery, where the vineyard was alive with activity despite the fact that the visit occurred on an early weekday afternoon, and the only other patrons were a couple of newlyweds enjoying a picnic on the patio. Acquired by new owners Bruce and Heather Spiess and their partner, Jeffery Miller, back in the waning days of 2012, First Colony is in the thick of many changes as the team prepares for this year’s harvest. As evidenced by the abundance of activity all around the vineyard, a renewed commitment to the winery has accompanied new ownership, along with major upgrades to the processing facility and big plans for the future.
When I joined vineyard manager Austin Hamilton, who has recently taken over a majority of the responsibilities within the vineyard alongside winemaker Jayson Hayman, he was busy repairing the netting he installed to prevent the birds, squirrels, and other winery pests from eating the berries that become mighty appetizing as they approach appropriate brix, or ripeness. After reclipping the damaged netting and freeing the remaining winged culprits, we hopped in the farm’s Jeep Cherokee and started our tour.
Despite many fears, the early-season rains have finally broken, and the conditions at the winery are shaping up quite nicely. Although there’s some evidence of mold and other unwanted effects of excessive rain, it’s not nearly as extensive as I’d expected. In fact, a majority of the damage that had occurred was the result of those damned birds. Great effort had also gone into the meticulous trimming of this year’s excessive vigor and maintaining the spray programs necessary to prevent grape berry moths and other pests from feasting on the grapes, and mold from destroying both the fruit and foliage. (Look, I don’t like the use of chemicals and pesticides any more than the next guy, but the fact of the matter is that outside of places with perfect conditions, it is almost unavoidable in viticulture if you hope to run a profitable winery each and every year. The risk of crop loss is too great without it.)
I eagerly tried samples of the cabernet franc and petit verdot grown on the estate. The cab franc was further along (as to be expected), but both were appropriately juicy and, although still a little tart, given a few more weeks on the vine and the right amount of sun, both could turn out to be quite exceptional. Hamilton also spoke of an effort to increase the winery’s current production from 2,100 cases per year to 6,000-7,000. He showed me the fledgling 4.5 acres of merlot and cabernet sauvignon that were planted this year. Along with the acreage already cleared and earmarked for additional vines, these new sites should drastically increase First Colony’s production ability by the end of the decade. While that may seem like a long time, it takes years for a vineyard to mature to the point of producing a viable harvest.
Not long after we made our way to First Colony’s prized chardonnay vines, Brad McCarthy, a long-time consultant and Virginia wine veteran, sputtered up to us on a finicky John Deere riding mower. Recently taking on a much larger role at First Colony, McCarthy lends his years of experience and know-how to the team, helping to ensure that everything continues to trend in the right direction under Hayman and Hamilton. We sampled the chardonnay, and McCarthy and Hamilton huddled together, formulating plans to take samples and meet in the lab later to test sugar to acid ratios. They also discussed transitioning to cane pruning in the new vineyards as well as selective cane pruning in the older vines to remove excessive wood growth, allowing the plant to put all of its effort into new vines and fruit production. Cane pruning requires a more experienced eye, but it provides better frost protection and allows for more evenly dispersed grape clusters. At this point, I bid my adieu and joined Martha Hayman, general manager and Jayson’s wife, in the tasting room.
I made my way through the wines that were still available at the winery. While currently out of dry red wines, the winery offers up two Chardonnays, a Rosé, and three different styles of dessert wines that, while typically a little too sweet for my palate, would certainly prove quaffable to those preferring a sweeter tincture. As is usually the case with Chardonnay, I preferred the stainless steel-aged offering, which retails for $14, as opposed to the oaked reserve. It exhibited the green apple and lushness that one would expect, but finished with a crisp, refreshing acidity. If you prefer the buttery effects of oak treatment, then the richer, more heralded Chardonnay Reserve ($20) will be more to your liking.
As for the reds, while First Colony would of course prefer to have some available (for tasting purposes at least), I got the sneaking suspicion that they weren’t too upset about having run out, evidence that it’s having no problem selling the current inventory. Moreover, the coming releases are supposed to serve as a reintroduction of sorts, with a new label and a sort of subtle exuberance that seemed to permeate the atmosphere.
Andrew Cole is the manager and wine director at tavola.