End of an era

End of an era

Felicia Warburg Rogan, founder of Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery, is one of a handful of people who can rightfully be said to have helped create the Virginia Wine industry. Oakencroft is not only the closest winery to Charlottesville, it is the oldest winery in Albemarle County, and Mrs. Rogan’s list of accomplishments is long: First chairman of the Virginia Wine Grape Growers Advisory Board, founder of the Jeffersonian Wine Grape Growers Society, and create the Monticello AVA. She has been a tireless promoter of Virginia Wines, even traveling, in 1988, as far away as Taiwan.

Big gulp: As hard as it is to believe, Oakencroft will be shutting its doors after 25 years. “I think we’ve been an icon,” founder Felicia Rogan says.

But now, after 25 years, Oakencroft is shutting its doors on December 31. As I talked with Mrs. Rogan about what those years have meant, she regularly drew my attention to the various waterfowl surrounding the lake, including a magnificent blue Heron and a gaggle of Chinese geese. She’d been up at 7:30 that morning to feed the geese, who, she said, ran after her like dogs. Oakencroft is one of the only wineries in the state that is an actual working farm, and there is something about the winery and its owner, some marriage of agriculture with high culture, that is to me quintessential Charlottesville.

C-VILLE: Why are you closing Oakencroft?

Felicia Warburg Rogan: Oakencroft is going to be closing because, as many people know, we’re the oldest winery in Charlottesville. We just celebrated our 25th anniversary, and as the Walrus said, “The time has come to talk of many things,” and many things includes a wonderful 25 years. …The winery has been very exciting, the most exciting part of my life.

Twenty five years ago there was probably quite a different wine culture here.

There wasn’t a wine culture here. I remember having lived in New York City, we drank wine regularly for dinner, and when I came down here, people said, “What would you like to drink?” and I’d say, “A glass of white wine.” It was as though I’d asked for Pernod or something. People were drinking hard liquor.

You must feel an enormous amount of pride about how far the industry has come.

I do, tremendous pride. I always visualized this area as the Napa Valley of the East.

In those 25 years you’ve seen wine become a big tourist draw for the state.

Oh, absolutely. It’s agri-tourism! That word didn’t exist when I moved here in ’76 and it’s a whole new way of tourism. Unfortunately, the economy is terrible and gas is awful, but here, why not just stay here in Virginia and do wine touring? I mean it’s just perfect. You could spend a whole summer just visiting the hundred wineries or so that we have here.

Do you feel that the reliance on tourism may hinder the quality of the wine at our wineries?

You mean to make an inferior wine because, in theory, anybody’s just gonna buy wine no matter what the quality?

That’s harsher than I would have put it.

But realistic. No. I don’t think that anybody has made a point of lowering their standards to meet the tourist trade. A lot of the tourists come because they’ve heard about the countryside and the wineries, and a lot of them don’t know much about wine, but I’ve always felt that it was our role to educate them, and in educating them you make the best quality wine that you can.

What do you think has been the most important element in Virginia wine gaining the respect it has?

I think it’s the dedication of the people who’ve put down roots here, who have made a great effort to study, which [we didn’t do] in the beginning, the kind of rootstock that’s necessary to plant, the site selection. There was nobody when we all started, we felt our way. And now everybody has the benefit of what we have learned. There are some very, very knowledgeable vineyard people, and of course winemakers. Every region is different. You can grow grapes probably almost anywhere, but you have to know the micro-climates and you have to know the elevation. I’ve always said this is a three-tier business: it’s agriculture, it’s the growing of the grapes; it’s the making of the wine, which is a very technical quality that you have to know; and then it’s marketing. You’re nothing if you don’t know how to market your product.

What’s the next step for Virginia wine?

I see the industry only growing in stature, in hiring people who are knowledgeable. A lot of the wineries in the beginning started with families, and there are still a lot of families, where the family does all the work. I must say they are probably financially the most successful. I mean, I don’t have any family who work here, and of course having a large staff with all the incumbent financial problems makes it very difficult to make any money. But small families who are willing to invest time and money and to find out where the best of everything is to make their winery positively financially successful—that’s where I see people learning more.

What will be missing from the Virginia Wine industry when Oakencroft is gone?

Well, I think we’ve been an icon, and I think we’ve gained the respect of the industry and the people I’ve had work for me everybody thinks very highly of. We’ve set a standard, and I think they’ll miss that standard—everything that I’ve tried to do, we’ve tried to do, with this lovely setting and making it appealing for people to come and sit and sip wine here. We’re not modern. There are many wineries that have all modern equipment and have chefs working there. I really wanted to keep it as a simple and beautiful farm winery. And that will be missed because I don’t know any wineries that are working farms in this area.

Who, beside yourself, would you list as the giants of Virginia wine?

Oh well, Gabriele Rausse without any question. He comes to mind immediately. And Mrs. Furness who had the Piedmont Winery in Northern Virginia. She was one of the first to plant Vinifera vines. Extraordinary lady. The winery has been sold and now a German couple own it. But she proved to people that Vinifera could be grown here. I think those two, though there are a lot of other people who started at the time I did. And there’s certainly people in the restaurant business who were bold enough to put Virginia wines on their list. I certainly would like to see, in the future, certainly in the state of Virginia, but just locally in Albemarle County, more variety of Virginia wines on the menus in restaurants rather than so many different ones. I think the restaurants could do more to promote Virginia wines. They haven’t quite done it yet.

Any last words?

Sounds like my epitaph.

I didn’t mean it that way!

I’ve been so fortunate to be able to do this. It has been a dream come true, and my sadness is that so many of the people that have brought it to fruition are going to have to leave because of my closing it.

The seeds you’ve sown…

Yes. Will grow further from the roots. There’s no question about it.

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