The history of wine in Virginia dates back to 1607 with the successful establishment of a colony at Jamestown by the Virginia Company. Early accounts of the abundance of native grape varietals sent back by Captain John Smith created a fervent desire to make wine in the New World. In 1619 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed Act 12, requiring each head of a household to plant ten vines and, “attain to the arte and experience of dressing a Vineyard.” By most historical accounts, however, such attempts to make palatable wines failed. By 1768 the American colonies were exporting less than 13 tons of wine that, by most standards, on either side of the Atlantic, was undrinkable, due to the persistent foxiness, or musty aroma and taste associated with American grape varietals. Thomas Jefferson is famous for meticulously documenting his life-long failures of producing wine on his Monticello estate. Even Philip Mazzei, the Florentine noble and vintner who Jefferson called a close friend and neighbor, was so frustrated by the ground (and the Revolutionary War,) that he eventually gave up all hope of seeing a successful vintage. Jefferson’s vision of an American wine industry on par with that of Europe’s would have to wait.
The 1800s proved to be a more fruitful era for Virginia wine. It was a controversial and misunderstood grape varietal known as a norton, widely considered a hybrid of V. vinifera (European species) and V. aestivalis or V. labrusca (American species) that brought Virginia wine its first taste of prominence. The true genealogical origin and individual who discovered the grape remains shrouded by history but no one can dispute the role it played in introducing Virginian and American wine to the world market. By the mid 1850s the norton was the premier grape of Virginia, Missouri, and the Ohio River Valley, the three largest producers of wine prior to Prohibition. It surpassed other popular native grapes such as the Concord, Catawba, and Scuppernong in heartiness, complexity, and age-worthiness. At the extravagant 1873 Universal Exhibition in Vienna a bottle of norton from a vineyard in Hermann, Missouri claimed a gold medal among a field of twenty thousand bottles. Five years later at the Universal Exhibition in Paris a bottle of norton carried by the Monticello Wine Company, founded in 1873, earned a silver medal. Further successes of the company through the turn of the 20th century bolstered the city of Charlottesville, Virginia to declare itself the “the Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia.” However, these long awaited successes were rendered almost historically obsolete with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 that began Prohibition.
Over the course of a decade and a half the memory of the wines and winemaking that had been so laboriously sought after for three hundred years was forgotten, the American palate for great wines thoroughly cleansed, and the established varietals nearly uprooted to extinction. After the production and sale of wine was made legal again in 1933 it would take over twenty years for vintners to create a market for themselves. By the 1950s California had established itself as the premier wine-growing region in America. It would be another decade and a half before the potential of the Monticello region was tapped again.
When Gionni Zonin, head of an Italian wine enterprise dating back to 1820, decided that Virginia would be home to his New World vineyard there were less than a dozen vineyards in the state. Most were private low yield operation but few were having success growing vinifera vines. Gionni along with Gabriele Rausse, a talented young viticulturist, spent the early 1970s searching the Virginia countryside for the ideal setting for the winery before settling in 1976 on a nine hundred acre tract of land in Barboursville, Virginia. There, in the center of the Commonwealth’s piedmont region, these two men set to work planting and cultivating a wine enterprise that today produces wines of exceptional character. As a result of their innovation and pioneering, Barboursville is considered the birthplace of the modern wine industry in Virginia.
Over the course of the next twenty years other passionate and talented individuals joined in the cultivation of the bourgeoning industry with their erudite innovation, keen dedication, and willing acceptance of risk. These early pioneers of viticulture were faced with a geographical location known for its variant seasonal climate and little experience of successful grape growing. Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards became a leading figure in varietal selection for the state after the mid-1980s when he became the first to commercially plant viognier. The varietal is now grown by over seventy vineyards and considered a signature wine of Virginia. Today his tasting menu reads like a world’s wine atlas, distinct for the presence of the ancient rkatsiteli and the reclusive norton. Jennifer McCloud, the resolute visionary behind Chrysalis Vineyards, has been spurring on her own revival of norton since 1997 along with producing a stellar lineage of white wines. There is also Jim Law of Linden Vineyards whose tireless study and focus on the land matches that of the staunchest terroir-ist of Europe. He first began toiling in the Virginia soil in the early 1980s and now is among the top winemakers in the state.
The wines and recognition produced from the patient and dedicated efforts of these individuals became the catalyst for the eruption of Virginia wine. By 2000 over seventy wineries had planted grapes, pulled in a harvest, and released a first vintage. This number almost tripled in the decade that followed. According to the Virginia Wine Board well over two hundred wineries will be releasing a 2014 vintage. With over four decades of experience and experimentation, there is a tangible excitement in the industry that Virginia wine is prepared to rise to an even higher level of quality.
International attention has already been garnered. Virginia wine is more readily available in the wine shops of London than New York. Young winemakers from around the world see Virginia as a premier training ground, full of potential and challenges. In 2011 an earthquake shook the region mid-summer and a hurricane assaulted the area during harvest. Add these uncertainties to the enduring threats of high humidity, frost and pests and Virginia becomes as tough a vintage driven region as any. However, its diversity of soils of limestone, clay, loam, and sand, along with its temperate climate with mountain and maritime influences proves irresistible to those willing to accept the risks. As winemakers and wine enthusiasts have recognized these nuances of Virginia’s terroir, momentum has built towards a “tipping point” moment when Virginia wine would grow out from under California’s shadow and proclaim its independence from Europe. That moment is near if not already here.
In 1808 Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter, “We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” Since its rebirth in the 1970s the Virginia wine industry has sought an identity unique from its Old and New World forebears. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are present but have not been championed as they were in the West. The other Bordeaux red grapes-cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and malbec- have been singled out as possible state signatures but climate and common sense has brought them back together into uniquely Virginia style blends of growing acclaim. viognier matured into the state’s premier white but petite manseng is gaining prominence as a grape grown nowhere else in the U.S. It took 204 years but Virginia vintners have found the variety and quality on which Jefferson so prophetically founded his passing dream. It is time for the dreams and dedication of others to carry Virginia wine forward.