The natural: Winemaker Damien Blanchon cultivates sustainability at Afton Mountain Vineyards

Born into a winemaking family in France, Damien Blanchon received his formal training in the craft there before moving to Virginia in 2006. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Born into a winemaking family in France, Damien Blanchon received his formal training in the craft there before moving to Virginia in 2006. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

One morning last April, Afton Mountain Vineyards winemaker Damien Blanchon stood under a canopy in the rain, his yellow rain slicker a bright spot on the gray day. Smoke streamed out from the firepit he tended. The night’s meal, a freshly butchered pig, dripped fat onto the coals.

Blanchon’s on friendly terms with Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin—the celebrity livestock farmer, author, and speaker—and earlier the winemaker had driven to Swoope, Virginia, to pick out one of his pal’s celebrated pastured pigs. Salatin’s son, Daniel, normally does the butchering but couldn’t get around to it, so Blanchon, equipped with the necessary tools, got busy with the carving. An hour later, he and the pig were on their way back to the winery.

Big on biodiversity, Blanchon recently introduced goats to the property at Afton Mountain. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Rainwater dripped from the edge of the canopy. Blanchon, who has a scruffy beard and intense blue eyes, peered at the smoke. After pressing grapes later this year, he said, he will deliver pomace—the skins left over after the crush—to Salatin to use as feed. It’s a sustainable, natural cycle that Salatin has preached for years, and which Blanchon also believes is the way forward.

“When I look at this little place, we are trying to do things the right way for the environment,” says Blanchon, who’s overseen Afton Mountain’s 25 acres of vines for nearly a decade. “In the long term, I’m trying to have a beneficial impact.”

Blanchon applies no insecticides to the vines, and only sparingly uses fungicides. “The vines are smart,” he says. It’s his shorthand way of expressing his respect for the plants, and the deep knowledge he has gained during more than two decades of tending grapes.

Blanchon’s winemaking education began when he was a child, on his uncle’s vineyard and small winery in Beaujolais. His formal schooling in viticulture and enology began when he was a teenager and led to work at wineries in France. He arrived in the U.S. in 2006, after answering an ad for a winemaker at Old House Vineyards in Culpeper. When he called, Mattieu Finot picked up. Now the winemaker at King Family Vineyards, Finot was consulting at Old House at the time. The rest, as they say, is history.

Blanchon brought with him the organic practices that he uses to this day. He brews huge quantities of herbal teas and sprays them on the vines, which, he says, bolsters their natural immune systems. It takes years for this to happen, but Blanchon believes using the method will keep the vines healthy and productive for 40 to 60 years—instead of the 20 years he says much larger commercial vineyards plan for.

“Looks like it’s working, because last year it was very rainy and we did only 10 [fungicide] sprays compared to an average of 25 to 30 sprays for [many other] wineries,” he says. “All around the vines, I plant some wild flowers that bring in insects that are beneficial for us, like the bees. Last year it was very humid and dewy in the morning, so you could see the spider webs easily, they were everywhere, and thanks to the spiders, we didn’t have a fruit fly problem. I was like, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”

A few hours later, in the glass-walled pavilion overlooking the vineyards, Blanchon prepares platters of sliced pork. He lays them out on a table with whole roasted potatoes and a simple salad of arugula with vinaigrette. He’s serving dinner for a group of journalists and friends of Afton Mountain’s owners Elizabeth and Tony Smith. The meal is the culmination of a long day for Blanchon, who also led a cellar tour and wine tasting.

The Smiths—whose son, Hunter Smith, is the founder and owner of Charlottesville’s Champion Brewing Company—purchased the winery a decade ago. Since then they’ve doubled the vineyard size, in part to protect the sculpted mountain views. Ask the couple what’s next for their vast acreage, and Elizabeth Smith muses over morels, explaining that their plan is not to exceed the 5,000-case capacity of their current wine operation, but instead explore more ways to farm sustainably. The owners and winemaker are in sync.

“With the freedom the Smiths give me, I’m going full tilt,” says Blanchon, enjoying a glass of his own blended red wine with dinner. “We started [the new approach] about three years ago. Now our first spray was only teas and decoction with nettle leaf and horsetail grass to start. I also use chamomile, oak bark tea, and milfoil grass later in the season.” (Decoction is essentially a reduction by boiling of the elixir he describes.) 

“We try to respect the environment, our little environment around here—we are the only vineyard but we have animals, the lake, so we try to really reduce the heavy spray,” he says.

Goats are Blanchon’s latest addition to the farm. They’re like natural lawn mowers that tidy up—and, um, fertilize—the 135 acres that aren’t covered with vines. He’s also talked with the owners of some neighboring cows about taking over the herd when they retire next year. “Why not butcher and sell them here—maybe sell grass-fed beef to the wine-club members?” he asks.

“The thing I hate is having a recipe, dong the exact same thing I did last year,” says Blanchon, pouring more red for himself and a guest. “The weather is always different, the grapes come in different. As a winemaker, I love the adaptations you have to make.

“I have the chance to be in charge of a small area,” he says. “What can I do—even if nobody knows, but for me, what can I do—to have a beneficial impact? When I leave, or when I retire, I’ll know I’ve done whatever I could to make this place environmentally friendly. And I really believe it affects the quality of the wine.”

An Italian immigrant, Gabriele Rausse is one of Central Virginia’s most prominent and influential winemakers. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

Wine without borders

Damien Blanchon, a native of France, is one of many immigrants now working in area wineries, bringing not only diversity to the industry, but also skills, practices, and knowledge that improve the quality of the commonwealth’s wines. We raise a glass to the men and women who give our local wine its multicultural flavor.—N.B.

Gabriele Rausse, Italy, owner, Gabriele Rausse Winery and Director of Gardens and Grounds, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Fernando Franco, El Salvador, viticulturist, Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville

Luca Paschina, Italy, general manager and winemaker, Barboursville Vineyards

Andy Bilenkij, Australia, winemaker, Pollak Vineyards, Greenwood

Francoise Seillier-Moiseiwitsch, Belgium, vineyard manager
and co-owner, and Julian
Moiseiwitsch
, Northern Ireland, co-owner, Revalation Vineyards, Madison

Jorge Raposo, Portugal, owner and winemaker, Brent Manor Vineyards, Faber

Stephen Barnard, South Africa, winemaker, Keswick Vineyards, Keswick

Julien Durantie, France, winemaker, DuCard Vineyards, Etlan

Matthieu Finot, France, winemaker, King Family Vineyards, Crozet

Claude Thibaut, France, winemaker, Thibaut-Janisson, produced and bottled at Veritas Vineyards, Afton