What the Founding Fathers foundered at, 21st century Virginians are perfecting. Thomas Jefferson tried for 36 years to grow grapes suitable for winemaking. George Washington kept at it for 11. Virginia had the “soil, aspect, and climate of the best wine countries,” Jefferson contended. “We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” We could and now we have.
As American Minister to France between 1784 and 1789, Jefferson fell in love with wine. As president from 1801 to 1809, he spent $7,500 on the stuff, even managing to bore John Quincy Adams with his dinnertime discourse on the subject. (“There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying.”) At Monticello he and his household drank 400 bottles per year.
But he never bottled his own. Even with the help of Florentine viticulturist Filipo Mazzei, with whom he imported European grapevines and planted a 400-acre tract adjacent to Monticello, Jefferson failed to produce a drinkable vintage, thwarted by frost, mildew, the phylloxera pest, and the hooves of Hessian horses. Some of his vines may even have been dead before they were planted. The Virginia Wine Company, a venture with such prestigious investors as George Washington, George Wythe and the Royal Governor of Virginia, didn’t make it either.
By the 1820s, other intrepid growers were actually making wine with Native American grapes. From 1873 until 1916, Monticello Wine Company operated a four-story, 220,000 gallon-capacity operation in Charlottesville, winning international acclaim (“best red wine of all nations”) at the Vienna Exposition for its Virginia Claret Wine made from Norton grapes, and earning the region – perhaps before the honor was worth a great deal – the title of “Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia.”
Prohibition shut down Virginia wineries, but six new ventures opened in the 1970s. By 1995, there were 46 wineries in the commonwealth, and today there are 259, mostly small and family-owned, producing 511,000 cases of wine annually.
Three centuries after grape growing confounded Jefferson, you can’t run off the road in the Charlottesville countryside without running over some winery’s grapes. Note carefully the colors of the stains on your hubcaps. If it’s dark red, those grapes you’ve just pressed before their time could have been intended for Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot, two wines we excel at. If it’s lighter in color, it may be Viognier.
It took local vintners and vineyard owners “a long time to figure out what works” in our soil and climate, notes Matthew Brown of Wine Warehouse, in an observation that wouldn’t have surprised Jefferson. “It takes 8 to 10 years of a grape being under vine for it to do great. The first two or three years you’re not getting anything out of it. You have to wait for the wines to get established.” The wait is over, however, and the knowledge has been gained. “More of the wineries are going to those varietals,” Brown says, speaking of Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot “because they produce well consistently.”
Viognier is a white wine thought to have originated in the Rhone Valley in southern France, from grape vines some believe were planted by the Greeks or Romans, but it’s a varietal we’ve made our own – in 2011 the Virginia Wine Board proclaimed Viognier Virginia’s signature grape, and in blind tastings many experts preferred the home product. Virginia Viogniers are known for their rich apricot, honeysuckle, peach and orange peel aromas, and pair especially well with pork and chicken.
Like Viognier, Cabernet Franc grapes were first planted in southern France. Like Viognier, they like Virginia’s hot and humid summers, and like Viognier, the Virginia version is developing a reputation. A Bordeaux-style wine, similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc tastes of red and black berries and plums, and pairs well with beef and lamb.
Petit Verdot is a red wine produced from grapes originally grown in the Bordeaux region of southern France. Most often, the grape is blended with other varietals; in cool growing seasons, however, it suffers. Here in Virginia, where it doesn’t have that problem, it’s increasingly becoming a star on its own, producing big, bold wines with dark hues, firm tannins, and spicy palates.
Travel and Leisure magazine has called Virginia one of five up-and-coming wine regions (along with areas of Chile, Italy, Spain and New Zealand) worthy of “the must-visit list of any adventurous wine traveler.” With wine festival season about to begin, let’s take a look at where and when to sample fine Virginia wine.
“Father of the Constitution” and America’s fourth president, James Madison owned a 2,700-acre estate in Orange County. He named it Montpelier and claimed it was just “a squirrel’s jump from Heaven.” Madison’s wife Dolley was a famously hospitable hostess not only for her husband, but also earlier for the widowed Jefferson. It seems fitting then, that Montpelier invites the public to not just one but two wine annual festivals.
The 2014 Montpelier Wine Festival on May 3 and May 4 will feature specialty food vendors, arts and crafts vendors, live music, children’s entertainment and rides, and – of course – local wine tastings.
Participating wineries will include Barboursville Vineyards; Cooper Vineyards; DelFosse Vineyard and Winery; Democracy Vineyards; Glass House Winery; Horton Vineyards; Ingleside Vineyards; Jefferson Vineyard; Lake Anna Winery; Lazy Days; Mattaponi Winery; Peaks of Otter Winery; Prince Michel Vineyards; Reynard Florence Vineyard; Rockbridge Vineyard; Trump Winery, and Villa Appalaccia Winery.
Food for sale will include breads and cheese, grilled chicken and shrimp, gyros, steak sandwiches, crab cakes, barbeque, salads, pasta, and specialty coffee. Live musical entertainment will run from jazz to bluegrass to folk music. A broad range of Mid-Atlantic area artisans and crafters will sell their wares. Winners of the 3:00 p.m. hat contests will take home a three-pack of wine. Categories will include Largest Hat, Smallest Hat, Winey Hat, Beyond Your Basic Ball Cap, Spring Bonnet, and Kids Hat. Kids will enjoy face painting, a kite-making class (for a nominal fee) and kite-flying contest, and free rides on a barrel train. Wings Over Washington Kite Club will do stunts.
Festival hours will be 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday and 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 for adults, but only $5 for teens and designated drivers. Children under 12 will be admitted free. Admission includes a commemorative wine glass, tastings from each winery, and a chance to win a door prize. Wine glasses and tastings come with full adult admission only. Adults will be asked to show proof of age.
Come fall, Montpelier celebrates the birthday of the U.S. Constitution at the Taste of Freedom Wine Festival on Saturday, September 20. Wineries, cider houses, breweries and artisans from across the state will participate. Guests will be invited to picnic on the grounds, tour the mansion, visit with “James” and “Dolley,” and enjoy live entertainment and special games and activities for children. Four thousand attendees are expected. Ticket prices will be announced.
Not every wine festival takes place at a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the Wine Festival at Monticello celebrates Jefferson’s passion for wine on Saturday, May 10 from 6:00 p.m. to 9: 00 p.m. on the West Lawn of Monticello, with Virginia vintages, live music, and tours of the restored vineyard and wine cellar.
The Wine Festival at Monticello is an adult-only event, limited to ages 21 and over. Reservations are required, and individual tickets are $55. Ticketholders are encouraged to bring blankets for picnicking. Private tables for eight are available for $750 per table, with fruit and cheese, premier seating, VIP parking, a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, and the opportunity to meet winemaker Gabriele Rausse. Each guest at the private tables will receive a commemorative gift.
Over in the Shenandoah Valley, the Massunutten Resort in Magaheysville attracts nature lovers and sport enthusiasts to its water park, golf course, and snow slopes, and foodies to its fine dining facilities. On May 24 it will host the ValleyFest Beer and Wine Festival, featuring regional beer and wines, food and crafts, and music. CrossKeys Vineyard, Fincastle Vineyard and Winery, Horton Vineyards, Kilaurwen Vineyard, Mattaponi Winery, Weston Farm Vineyard and Winery, Winchester Ciderworks, and Virginia Wine of the Month Club will pour wine. Domino’s Pizza, Jack Brown’s, Grapevine Restaurant, Kettle Corn, Rainbow Foods, Sherri’s Crab Cakes, Sweetfire Grill will offer food.
More than 4,000 people are expected to celebrate the holiday weekend at Massanutten. Festival tickets for adults will be $25 April 19 through May 23, and $30 at the gate. Tickets for designated drivers and anyone ages 11-21 are $10. Kids 10 will be admitted free. Ticketholders will receive a souvenir wine glass or beer mug while supplies last. No pets or coolers will be allowed, and proper ID may be required.
West Virginia natives, the Christian Lopez Band will play alternative folk and country rock from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The valley’s own Travelin’ Hillbillies will play southern rock infused with bluegrass, rock and roll, folk, blues, and country, and show off their three-part harmonies from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. Baltimore’s The Rollerblades will play 90’s pop covers from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. Baltimore’s seven-piece Rob Byer Band will play country, rock, pop, hip hop and R&B from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. Mike Davis will play tunes from the 60s through today In the Wine Tent, noon to 2:30 p.m., and Chad Hanger will play favorites to sing along to, 2:30 to 5:00 p.m.
The Daylily and Wine Festival at Andre Viette Farm and Nursery In Fishersville will take place against a backdrop of rows and rows of daylilies on Saturday, July 19 and Sunday, July 20. Details are yet to be announced, but previous festivals have included crafts, kites, and children’s activities.
Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery
Since 1993 Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery in Nellysford has been making wine and mead from fruit other than grapes, using recipes by ancient cultures from around the world. Their annual Blackberry Harvest and Music Festival, Saturday, August 2 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., will feature live music by The Cheezy Westerns from 10 a.m. to 1:00, and by The James River Cutups from 1:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Children under 12 are free. The admission price includes wine and mead tastings and a logo glass. Blackberries and a catered lunch will be served for an additional charge.
Jefferson Would Be Proud
Jefferson was once called “the greatest patron of wine and wine growing that this country has yet had.” What would he have thought of 21st century Virginia varietals? For all the attention the local product has been attracting nationally and abroad, there is reason to believe that it will only get better. “The potential,” Brown says, “is just now starting to be realized.”
by Ken Wilson