Every October Virginians raise a glass to living in a state with the oldest wine month in the country (it dates back to 1988). We also celebrate the fact that Virginia has become the sixth-largest wine region in the United States, contributing well over $1 billion to the state’s economy, while the industry continues to grow in both size and reputation.
The Virginia Wine Board has events planned throughout the month, including Virginia Wine 101, hosted by Jason Tesauro. In addition to his ongoing role as a fierce advocate for Virginia wine, Tesauro has contributed articles to such publications as Decanter, Esquire, and Travel+Leisure, and has served as the national brand director and chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards since 2002.
We asked Tesauro to highlight a handful of local wineries that tell the story of Virginia wine’s past, present, and future. His answers give insight into an industry that has come a long way, that is proud of what’s been accomplished, and is full of dreams and aspirations for the future.
C-VILLE Weekly: Are there wineries that you consider pioneers in the industry, that have done something notable in terms of Virginia wine being where it is today?
JT: Barboursville Vineyards is where vitis vinifera [the main species of grapevine used to make fine wine] was first cultivated on a commercial scale and where low-cropped, early-picked, high-acid, no-and-low oak, finesse-driven, Old World-style wine growing established itself as Virginia’s modus operandi.
Thibaut-Janisson Winery pioneered what’s possible with traditional-method sparkling wine in Virginia, and has defined the premium sparkling wine category in Virginia. I’ve showcased their Blanc de Chardonnay in blind tastings against champagne and blown people’s minds.
Ankida Ridge Vineyards is absolutely the pinot pioneer of Virginia. Embracing high-elevation viticulture, they’re leading the way toward cooler climate varieties and raising expectations of what can happen up in the mountains both there and in other places, such as the Shenandoah Valley.
What wineries do you consider at the forefront right now in terms of representing or promoting
Veritas Vineyard and Winery stands out to me as a complete wine estate. The combination of family-run farm and destination for hospitality is a compelling model. Dining and overnighting in The Farmhouse adds a sumptuous layer of leisure and wine country. Wine is supposed to transport us with “somewhereness.” When a winery combines that concept with physical acts of feeding us, pampering us, and nourishing us, something else happens. More and more wineries are adding this kind of hospitality element, and I bet that many of them started with an aspirational visit to Veritas.
King Family Vineyards is on every “Best of” list for good reason. Mathieu Finot is a brilliant winemaker who leads with his French instincts, but is never limited by them. He makes serious wines for cellaring and fun wines for carousing. He consults, collaborates, and experiments. That kind of balance remains a benchmark for every new winemaker in the state.
What do you see as the future of Virginia wine? How does the present inform what’s coming?
One thing we’ve learned through the pandemic, wineries built on events rather than wine are vulnerable. The future belongs to those that can deal with the mercurial weather with smart viticultural practices and deal with the mercurial economy with smartly scaled production and distribution. It will be challenging for those who depend overwhelmingly upon concert traffic and tasting-room sales to survive.
White wine blends are a promising trend. Wineries are experimenting with blends to craft consistent complexity and balance. We already know red blends afford winemakers the opportunity to adjust to vintage variation by playing with percentages. If late rains leave cabernet sauvignon less than richly ripe, then the winemaker can turn up the volume on cabernet franc and petit verdot. It’s a newer idea here to do something similar with white blends.
Higher-elevation grape growing is becoming more than a curiosity. Watch how small vineyard blocks located in the benchland (sides of mountains) and hilltops start coming to play in a serious way.
Esquire magazine recently reported that only one in 1,000 winemakers is black. Virginia wine, in partnership with Virginia Tech and community colleges, has an opportunity and, dare I say, a responsibility to create and bolster viticulture and enology programs at the regional and local level. It’s been said that 40 percent of Virginia winemakers have foreign accents such as French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, or South African. I expect to see a much more diverse slate of talent as we create a better farm system to draw BIPOC students into the fascinating world of agriculture.
Any other suggestions for people celebrating Virginia wine this month?
Visit more wineries, pick a couple of favorites, and build a small collection. Use a decanter and don’t drink white wines so cold.