It all started in a suburban Philadelphia basement, where one of Tom Iezzi’s godfathers—Pop Calvarese, a fresh transplant from Italy—made wine each year. The habit was nothing unusual or particularly fancy; many East Coast Italian immigrants made wine from grapes shipped in from California to South Philadelphia markets. Calvarese ingeniously used the wine as a way to keep tabs on his progeny: The family’s wine stash stayed in his basement, meaning the children had to check in from time to time. They’d come by with jugs and get rations of Iezzi’s family wine to take home. Thus, house wine has been a part of Iezzi’s entire life, and the tradition goes back generations to Italy.
Family winemaking seemed so quotidian that when Iezzi moved south to Virginia, he took a barrel with him and planned to continue making wine for personal consumption. But on arrival, it was quickly apparent that unlike in Philly, there were no grapes available. “I couldn’t buy grapes,” he says. “So I thought, let’s put some in.”
Iezzi and his wife, Beverly, who has been his partner-in-grapes since the beginning, established Camillo Vineyards in King George, Virginia, naming it after St. Camillo, the patron saint of Iezzi’s father’s hometown in Abruzzo. Camillo’s proximity to one of Virginia’s first wineries, Ingleside Vineyards, allowed Iezzi to keep some of his grapes for personal winemaking and sell the rest to Ingleside.
Both the Iezzis had careers in the Navy, and growing grapes became “a hobby that grew out of control,” says Beverly. Because they never depended on grapes for their living, they had a bit of freedom to experiment with different varieties and techniques. For fun they’d travel to learn about grape growing. Through their deep involvement in the Virginia Wine Board and other grape-related communities they were able to communicate what they had learned in their own vineyards, as well as ideas they picked up at conferences and visits abroad.
For Camillo Vineyards, they obtained some hybrid cuttings (vine offspring with two different species as parents, such as French and American vines), including chambourcin, from local viticulturalist, Lucie Morton. Then, in the early 1980s, serious talk about French varieties (of the Vitis vinifera species) accompanied a pushback against hybrids. Curious about vinifera possibilities, Iezzi picked up cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, chardonnay, pinot noir and a few other types of vinifera vines while on a trip to California. (Take heed all makers of Virginia meritage wines: He believes he most likely brought the first cabernet sauvignon to Virginia.)
In their vineyards, and with their many years of experiments, the Iezzis had particular success with sauvignon blanc on a gravel-soil plot within 100 yards of the Potomac river in the back of their property. Zinfandel and pinot noir were not successful.
Centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson’s trials with own-rooted experiments failed on phylloxera-ridden soil, and the Iezzis weren’t going to make the same mistake. One of today’s local wine heroes, Gabriele Rausse, was one of the only experienced grafters in the early 1980s, and he later helped the Iezzis graft some Italian varieties like sangiovese, nebbiolo, and pinot grigio.
When the Iezzis retired, the vineyards at their former home were sold off or ripped up. “Nobody wanted them,” Iezzi says. If his statement stings a little, it certainly is mournful to all the Virginia winemakers who now find themselves in the midst of a grape shortage.
Today, the demand for Virginia wine has outgrown the supply, meaning winemakers are searching for growers in the state who will sell fruit to them.
Though he no longer grows and crushes grapes, Iezzi continues his association with Virginia wines as a volunteer at Monticello gardens and vineyards, and the Iezzi’s daughter, Christine, carries the wine torch on the distribution side. Just as Iezzi’s grandfather made wine a central part of his family’s life, the Iezzis helped make wine a vital part of Virginia’s continuing agricultural saga.
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog thinking-drinking.com .