The Vineyard Tapes

The Vineyard Tapes

“I got nothing to say about these things I write, I mean, I just write ’em.”—Bob Dylan, England, 1965.

One hundred percent of winemakers will tell you that “great wine is made in the vineyard” and for 90 percent of them, it’s complete bullshit. Jim Law, however, embodies the remaining 10 percent. He doesn’t go to festivals or allow tour groups at his Front Royal winery. He doesn’t advertise. He also doesn’t call himself a winemaker. He’s a winegrower, and he mostly tends to the grapes, the vines, and the very dirt in which they grow.

A self-described member of the back-to-the-land movement, the 53-year-old Law came to Virginia in 1981. Four years later, he planted the vines that comprise Hardscrabble Vineyard, an 18-acre swath of granitic dirt that surrounds his winery. “Hardscrabble” is apt; it’s the kind of meager, rocky land where Southern Gothic dirt farmers die slow deaths. But grapevines love that kind of soil, and Jim Law, more Ken Kesey-esque than Faulknerian, has thrived there. Linden Vineyards may well be the best winery in Virginia.

The simple answer: To make his wines, Jim Law doesn’t add sugar or oak chips or anything else. He just grows better grapes.

On a whim, I ask him to drive an hour and a half down to Charlottesville to have dinner, and he agrees, bringing with him a selection of his wines stretching back 20 years. There are six people present for dinner, seven if you include Elizabeth, a dog that on a dark night could be mistaken for a horse. Over about four hours and nine wines, we experience what my friend Jeff, the host and evening’s cook, pronounces “an historic occasion in Virginia Wine.” Hyperbole? Not in the slightest.

Jim pours the first of his wines, a 1993 Chardonnay. Blind, I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy and at least 10 years younger. Next up, the 1998 Hardscrabble Chardonnay is a different wine altogether—strong and beautiful, tasting like a marble fist.

People always ask Jim why his wines age so well, and for a long time he had to tell them that he honestly didn’t know. Now, however, he believes he has the answer. “I’m a really lazy winemaker,” he says. “I’d rather be out in the vineyard than down in the cellar.” To make his wines, he doesn’t add tannin, tartaric acid, malic acid, citric acid, glycerine, oak essence, oak chips, grape concentrate, sugar or any of the other additives winemakers use to “fix” their wines. He just grows better grapes; the wines make themselves.

We start the reds with a bottle of his 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon, the second vintage at Linden, and although still dark and structured, it’s showing its age (Jim still bottled by hand in the ’80s, and he feels the wines may have aged faster for that reason). The 1990 Cab is silky and smooth with soft fruit, and the 1991 amazes—dark and rich with plenty of life left. The elegant 1997 reserve red, with a more floral nose than the others, is still quite young and brooding.

Jim grew up listening to Bob Dylan, whose genius often arises from his music’s very imperfection. Similarly, Jim likens “perfect” wines to Muzak piped into elevators. On the other hand, he calls wines that express something else—something unique, natural and expressive of the place they come from (warts and all)—“Dylan wines.”

Case in point: the 1999 Hardscrabble Red. It’s Dylan gone electric—monumental, with a color like the inside of a deep cave, and a pruney richness I’ve never had in a Virginia wine before. Everyone goes spastic trying to express how good it is. Jim just smiles. He’s serene and sober as a monk (he’s been spitting his wine out all evening on account of the long drive back). Not so the rest of us. We are drinking, and laughing, and conversing, in a ragged, Dylan-esque kind of way.

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