Well-rooted: Winemaker Gabriele Rausse has made Virginia home

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Photo: 621 Studios Photo: 621 Studios

When Gabriele Rausse was a boy in northern Italy, he had a Saturday routine. Along with his family, he’d visit two small local farms and pick up shares of vegetables, fruits, eggs and chickens. It was an experience of connection.

“There was a very precise schedule during the week on the use of everything that was brought home,” he remembers. For example, “On Monday was risotto with chicken liver.” After the chickens had been killed fresh on Saturday, he explains, “the liver wouldn’t wait too long.”

The artistry of farm and kitchen, weaving together the production of food and its intelligent use, impressed him early, as did the self-sufficiency of the little farms. “I fell in love with agriculture,” he says, “because on each one of the farms there was everything—cows, chickens, orchards, vineyards, vegetables.” And: “A small amount of wine was made on the farm.”

Fast-forward to his university years, when despite his father’s wish that he study law, he entered agricultural school. “At the time that was totally out of fashion,” he says. “Everybody said, ‘You will never find a wife.’”

The irony, of course, is that today Rausse is a beloved icon of the wine industry here in central Virginia, where growing and making wine and food is about the hippest thing going. He’s routinely referred to as the “father” of the Virginia wine industry, because not only was he involved in its birth at Barboursville in the late ’70s, he’s mentored a number of other budding winemakers since then. For the hundreds of vineyards and wineries now operating in the commonwealth, he is a guiding light.

But in 1976, when he arrived in Barboursville for what he thought would be a short sojourn, growing grapes in this region was seen as a foolish experiment. It took some real experimentation to figure out how to coax vinifera vines to survive and produce in the local climate, with its temperature swings and heavy humidity. The key went back to Rausse’s ag-school roots—he had to perfect the grafting process before he could grow grapes reliably.

He knew he was here to stay when he realized the freedom his life in Virginia offered. “I like to work all day, to be able to produce something,” he says. “[At Barboursville I thought,] I just work all day; I am in heaven. One heaven is enough.”

He still nurtures that ethic today, says Eleanor Gould, his colleague at Monticello, where Rausse is now the director of gardens and grounds. “Gabriele never assigns a job to anyone that he wouldn’t do himself,” she says. “His favorite Jefferson quote is ‘It is neither wealth nor splendor but tranquility and occupation which bring happiness,’ and he truly lives by that precept.”

Occupation, indeed. Rausse has kept busy. After launching Barboursville—now respected nationwide and named one of America’s top 50 vineyards by MSN.com—he went on to consult with and mentor dozens of other startup wineries, including White Hall, Blenheim, Afton Mountain and, notably, Kluge Estate. He’s been on staff at Monticello since 1995, and his own label, Gabriele Rausse Winery, entered the scene in 1997.

He’s relished his role as guide, which has sometimes bred long-term connections. Years ago, he remembers, a new grower named Jim Piggott approached Rausse at a grape growers’ meeting. “He said, ‘I planted cabernet sauvignon and I have some grapes this year for the first time. Are you willing to buy and process them?’ I said, ‘You know, I’ve already got enough cabernet sauvignon, but thank you for asking.’ A week later the guy came back and said, ‘I’m sorry, but my wife said nobody’s allowed to touch our grapes but you.’” Rausse relented, bought and processed the grapes, and was so impressed with the results that to this day, his Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is made exclusively with Piggott’s grapes.

Rausse’s current role at Monticello goes well beyond wine—he oversees vegetable gardens, orchards and woodlands in addition to the vineyards that replicate some of the varietals planted by Jefferson. It’s full circle, in a way—no one was a greater champion of the small, self-sufficient farm, the kind of place Rausse fell in love with as a child, than Jefferson.

Direct involvement of a grower with the final product, Rausse says, breeds quality, and he’s long believed that Americans were ready for a quality wine. “If a guy only makes the wine, of course he will do whatever he can with what he gets,” he says. “If he does both [growing and winemaking] he will want to grow the best possible grapes and then make the best possible wine.”

Gabriele’s favorite flavors

Sage
It is one of my favorite herbs because at home it was used in many recipes. My favorite recipe is sage fried in butter, used as a sauce for noodles.

Rosemary
My second favorite herb. In “potatoes as they go they go” (which means potatoes sliced with different thickness), rosemary is the most important herb.

Eggplant
I love it because it reminds me of Sicily. Now I found my favorite eggplants at Afghan Kabob on Emmet Street. I am not sure how they are cooked but I think they are baked first and then cooked again in a pan.

Roses
I like risotto with rose petals. Of course roses taste like roses. …How can you not like roses?

Risotto with red wine
I don’t use red wine on the roses risotto, but I love risotto with red wine, mainly because, despite cooking the rice for 18 minutes, the results will be beautiful if the wine is beautiful.

Nebbiolo
It is one of my favorite wines, especially when it is more than 25 years old. There is some oxidation but Nebbiolo is able to preserve its characteristics: tobacco and leather.

Viognier
I love this wine with a touch of apricot flavor. I love it because Jefferson discovered it in the Côtes du Rhône more than 200 years ago and he said it was wonderful. …But nobody paid any attention to what he said and, in the ’70s, when the variety of grapes was rediscovered, it was almost extinct.

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