Keeping Traditions While Planning for an Exciting Future
By: Chris Campanelli
Driving down an old gravel road overhung with trees, past homes hidden behind well kept grapevines and past country dogs who greet each passerby with a friendly wag of the tail or a suspicious sneer, you are met with a beautiful rolling clearing filled with grapes. In the distance and off to the right there is a small semi-tudor style building which houses a large simple tasting room, event space, wine making and storage facilities that encompass First Colony.
First Colony draws its name and personality from the original owner, Randolph McElroy Jr., whose family lineage can be traced all the way back to the formation of the United States, when Edmund Randolph served as George Washington’s Attorney General. Randy spent the first part of his career developing and establishing a successful construction business based out of Richmond. Once the construction business stabilized, Randy’s imagination returned to some of the more foundational elements of his youth, and he began to look for a way to intertwine a love of agriculture with his unique family history. As he contemplated his options in the late 1990s, the wine industry in Virginia was experiencing unprecedented growth, and the opportunity seemed like a ready-made fit for his burgeoning dream. In late 2000, Randy and his wife acquired the old Totier Creek Winery property, and First Colony Winery was established.
As a man who honors tradition, Randy began by hiring winemakers, viticulturalists, and management staff who would approach the venture in Old World French style. After the initial planting of new vines and selling the remaining Totier Creek wines, Randy hired a series of expert French winemakers who brought a European palate to bear on the development of First Colony’s first vintages. This approach was quickly affirmed, as their first vintage in 2001 won over 20 awards.
First Colony uses almost exclusively French varietals grown either on their property or from within the Monticello region. They make wines from French varietals commonly successful here such as viognier, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot; they have also chosen to make blends based on less common varietals to Virginia such as petit manseng, vidal blanc, chambourcin, and. As a whole, First Colony caters toward a sweeter palate, but has options available to those who prefer a variety of complex European wines.
While First Colony is in one way a bastion of tradition, in other ways it is breaking new ground in the wine community, with some of the youngest staff in the industry. Having the Richmond construction business to tend to, Randy McElroy needed to find people who could be passionately engaged and personally invested in his new endeavor. The situation proved just right for a recently graduated Virginia couple eager to find work at the intersection of hospitality and agriculture.
Beginning in 2007, Martha Hayman took over management of the tasting room, and later the general day-to-day management for First Colony Winery. In the interest of remaining near his girlfriend, Jason Hayman used his lifelong interest in plants and agriculture to secure a position as the vineyard manager the following year. Jason was intent on learning to grow the highest quality grapes, and so used Benoit Pineau as a resource to learn everything that lies between grapes on the vine and wine in the glass. This curiosity naturally led Jason to learn the finer points of winemaking as well. When Benoit revealed that he was ready to move on to other things in 2009, Jason found himself in the unique position of being the resident expert—and with the trust of Randy McElroy and Benoit Pineau, was dubbed winemaker. It only took Jason one vintage to prove his merit, winning a gold medal for his 2009 white blend, Zephyr.
Spring forward to today and one finds Martha still managing the operations, and Jason is still managing the vineyard and making the award-winning wines. The couple married in April of 2012, so the management and operation of the winery is now literally a family affair. In the VA wine culture, Martha and Jason are a case of youthful enthusiasm and excitement finding fertile ground to take root. This is something that has happened in many parts of the food industry but is only beginning to make inroads in the wine culture. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come for Virginia wine country. It is an exciting example of how the Virginia wine industry is open to any and all who are interested in making a contribution.
While First Colony still bears Randy McElroy’s mark of established tradition together with young leadership, the owners have recently changed. Heather and Bruce Spiess, along with Jeffrey Miller, purchased the winery in December of 2012. By all accounts, the new owners plan to carry on the traditions that folks who frequent First Colony have come to expect. Martha is still managing the tasting room and Jason is still making the wine, while Heather’s son, Austin Hamilton, has taken over management of the vineyard. The new ownership and established management team is optimistic about the future and is poised to implement some new and innovative ideas to keep First Colony a first rate Virginia winery.