Soil boom: Keswick’s Beacon Tree Vineyard sets down roots

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Once their newly planted vineyard becomes established, Jonathan Baird and Mariana Bell plan to make wine under their own label at Keswick’s Beacon Tree Vineyard.
Image: John Robinson Once their newly planted vineyard becomes established, Jonathan Baird and Mariana Bell plan to make wine under their own label at Keswick’s Beacon Tree Vineyard. Image: John Robinson

In the spirit of a barn-raising, friends from around the country gathered to help at a vineyard planting party. It was April of this year, and the crowd came armed with s’mores, guitars, babies, potato salad, and sunscreen. Once tents were pitched in a neighboring field, I trekked through a patch of woods to get to the planting site. This was also high morel season, and in the forest my eyes routinely scanned for mushroom treasure (none found), but as the ground transformed from a dry leafy carpet to a verdant sun-splashed lawn, I looked up. We had arrived at Beacon Tree Vineyard. Perched at the crest of a series of gently sloping hills, to the left, the vineyard disappeared into the same forest from which we had just emerged.

Underfoot, silty loam laid a solid foundation for something special. In geology-speak, this kind of semi-permeable and well-draining soil is called Manteo. Once used primarily for corn and hay production in Virginia, Manteo soils have proven to be superior sites for cabernet franc. As with other regional farms, the Beacon Tree vineyard land has a history of hay production and in the early 1900s, was a dairy farm.

Local musician Mariana Bell grew up on this farm, and when her family purchased it in the late 20th century, it functioned as “a working horse farm and steeplechase breeding operation in addition to cattle production,” says Bell.

She has fond memories of the old cedar tree that “stands in the middle of the field as a beacon,” says Jonathan Baird, Bell’s husband, as he explains the significance of the vineyard’s namesake tree.

Though this is the first time they’ve planted a vineyard, Baird comes from a solid wine background in retail and restaurants. With Bell’s close ties to this land, and Baird’s love of all things wine, the Beacon Tree vineyard, seems destined. But getting to this point was anything but a clear-cut journey.

Baird studied art history at UVA and cooked at local Charlottesville restaurants before moving to Los Angeles and diving deep into wine at Greenblatt’s Deli-Restaurant & Fine Wine Shop, a historic restaurant and retail shop in Hollywood. After three years at Greenblatt’s, he joined the sommelier team at Hatfield’s, a now-closed restaurant in L.A. known for its unique wine program. Baird worked for sommelier Peter Birmingham before taking the helm of the wine program in 2011. During his four year tenure at Hatfield’s, the program ranked as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Best Wine Program award, and Wine Enthusiast featured the establishment as one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants.

Baird describes his approach to wine list creation as “familiar yet different. Many of the wines were obscure, but I’d make sure you’d get what you wanted flavor-wise.” His first foray into agriculture on Keswick land follows a similar ethos. In addition to the newly planted Beacon Tree Vineyard (which will not produce commercial fruit until at least 2020), there’s an organic garden of diversified crops that echoes the description “familiar yet different”: heirloom tomatoes the size of golf balls that glow half green and half purple, watermelons with pale snowy flesh, okra that bleeds the color of a fire engine, and fist-sized yellow squashes the shape of acorns and concentrated with earthy flavor.

When Baird and Bell decided to plant a vineyard, Baird signed up for viticulture classes with Jake Busching at PVCC, and took a crash course in practical grape farming. Acclaimed local vineyard consultant Chris Hill stopped by the site as well, and “talked me out of growing syrah,” says Baird with a smile. After digging soil pits with geologist Ernest “Bubba” Beasley, they came up with a plan.

With seven acres dedicated to the vineyard, four are planted with cabernet franc, one is planted with chardonnay; the remaining two will likely become chenin blanc. Chenin blanc?

“In my brain, if franc does well, we should be able to do chenin as a Loire-like counterpart,” says Baird. “Cabernet franc and chenin blanc grow together in France’s Loire Valley, and though Virginia has imported and committed to the cabernet franc part of the equation, there is almost no local chenin blanc.”

Poking around through Bell and Baird’s wine cellar, you’ll discover the dedication to chenin blanc, chardonnay, and cabernet franc is a pretty serious thing. They have the benchmark bottlings from around the world, and plan to have their fruit stand up next to the best. They’ll experiment with the first 2019 harvest, then sell grapes to Jake Busching beginning with the 2020 vintage.

A newly planted vineyard is not a pretty site; it’s certainly not the bucolic wedding backdrop you might imagine. Baby grape vines look like thick twigs sticking up from the ground, gnarly little things rising up from mounds of clumped topsoil. Soon after planting a new vineyard, the landscape is temporarily interrupted as each vine is enshrouded with a ‘grow tube’ to protect it through the early months as the roots stretch deeper toward the Manteo. But despite the early aesthetics, the Beacon Tree site has some sort of indescribable X-factor going for it. When you step onto the vineyard, there is a palpable sacredness to the place. You get the same feeling when you first put your feet on a site like Corton in Burgundy, Falling Man in New York, or Bloom’s Field in Santa Barbara—you know instinctively that, no matter what, special wine will come from here.

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