Doing Well By Doing Good
By: Boo Barnett
History, beauty, and terroir meet here in Madison, Virginia, a short drive north of Charlottesville. Named for local Revolutionary War veteran Lt. Joseph Early, whose home served as a makeshift bed and breakfast for Revolutionary notables, this bucolic farm was made into a vineyard by the Sweely family in 2004. In 2011, Steve and Jean Case took over, planning to shake up not only a specific winery but an entire industry with their grand experiment. Their international wine tasting trips exposed them to the finest vineyards and winemakers the world over, and when they decided to create their own, they chose Virginia as a place with great potential.
Mr. Case, a co-founder and former CEO and Chairman of AOL, and Mrs. Case, the company’s former Vice President for Corporate Communications, started the Case Foundation in 1997 to “encourage collaboration, support successful leaders and foster entrepreneurship,” especially in underserved communities. Knowing that success can be measured in many ways other than amassing dollars, the Cases signed the Giving Pledge, the Buffet/Gates movement through which the super wealthy donate the majority of their wealth to social causes. The Cases practice their doing well by doing good philosophy in an area they love, and their push to create real stewardship for the land made for a natural interest in the former Sweely Estate Vineyard. An emphasis on good works with a superior product rather than on the owners’ celebrity status keep the staff focused on creating a stellar experience for visitors.
“Early Mountain is a social enterprise—as such, all profits will go toward strengthening Virginia communities and encouraging growth, innovation…[and] learning in the Virginia wine industry. Our goal is not to make money but instead to make a difference,” states Jean Case, enthusiastically.
Part of that social enterprise includes providing a showcase for all promising Virginia wines, not just their own. To that end, a visitor can sample flights that highlight themed offerings (Berries! Bright Lights and Bubbles! Red, White and You!) from Breaux, Barboursville, Linden, King Family, Thibaut-Janisson and others. Wine (again, their own and others) is offered also by the glass or bottle, though anyone wanting a case from a “partner winery” will need to visit that vineyard’s website. Right now, their Pinot Gris and 2008 Merlot are the Early Mountain signature offerings. Selections and flight themes will change as new items are introduced. The current list, in addition to the two Early Mountain wines above, has these superior offerings: Thibaut Jannison’s Blanc de Chardonnays “Monticello” and “Cuvee d’Etat,” Linden’s Rose, Barboursville’s Nebbiolo and “Malvaxia” and King’s and Breaux’ Meritages.
Of the more than 300 acres on the farm, about 38 have the slope and terroir most suitable for fine production. As the Cases plan to concentrate on the Bordeaux style reds, they have retained Sweely’s Frantz Ventre (the noted vintner from Bordeaux’s Saint-Emilion) and also engaged Michael Shaps (Virginia Wineworks) and Lucie Morton (noted ampelographer and viticulturist). Sweely Vineyard, despite their careful plantings and conscientious winemaking, had flirted with foreclosure for several years before the Cases bought them out. Now, several acres of vines have been replaced and a plan to upgrade quality by a more limited cluster harvest is in force. The 2004 vines, unusually densely planted, are in their prime.
The tasting room (referred to as the Celebration Hall) is airy, open and on a grand scale, with cool, chic décor. Taupe, greys and Virginia clay are the predominant colors, with heavy ceiling beams spanning the cavernous hall. Polished concrete tasting bars continue the cool feel; the entire visual experience is elegantly designed and finely coordinated. Several oversized fireplaces (indoor and out), numerous comfortable seating areas, and a variety of fire pits adorn the grounds…make sure your party knows where you are, as it would be easy to be in the same winery and never see one another! The baronial downstairs hall was made for weddings and has a patio so your party can spill out into the night.
The Market, a small food boutique in the main hall, features local cheeses, cured meats, fruits in season and assorted prepared items, heavily playing up the eat-local, drink-local theme. Picnic blankets are available for borrowing, and spending the afternoon is highly encouraged (mobile charging stations make it easy). Exceptionally family friendly, Early Mountain and its enthusiastic staff stock crayons, bubbles, board games and s’mores kits for roasting over one of their fire pits. Leashed pets are welcomed as well, with water bowls and doggie treats available. Staff members are remarkably friendly, voluble, knowledgeable and cheerful. Although this might be considered a requirement in a fledgling industry, the Early Mountain enthusiasm is a cut above. And Michelle Gueydan, with a very impressive CV despite her young age, is a marvel of charm, efficiency and effectiveness: turn her loose on your event and consider it done.
A stand-alone cottage serves as a dressing suite for brides, and at least one other outbuilding is scheduled for upgrading to the current Early Mountain standards. Though just a few minutes drive off Route 29, the views and vibe are that of a country valley.
All in all, Early Mountain is a great place to spend an afternoon with family or friends. It does not produce, by itself, a full gamut of Virginia wine, but by cleverly linking with others, it presents an upscale, relaxed and approachable introduction to Virginia’s finest. With their many holiday or theme specials, Early Mountain is a great way to travel the state while seated in a most comfortable chair, enjoying a breathtaking view.
And, yes: George Washington did sleep here.