Making Great Wine in a Grand Setting
By: Justin Stone
When Al and Cindy Schornberg moved from the Detroit area to the historic four hundred-acre Edgewood Estate near Keswick Virginia, they took a step back into history. Considered to be the “western frontier” during the Colonial period, the rolling hills and rich lands of the Keswick area were sought after for their rich soil, temperate climate and accessible location. The area was a primary route between the growing city of Charlottesville and the capitals in the East – first Williamsburg and later Richmond. The Schornbergs had not just settled on land rich in history, they had also stepped back into their family’s heritage. Two generations earlier, the family had owned Messena Cellars in France. Al still recalls his grandfather’s stories of working in the family’s vineyards. In 1999 Al and Cindy left the high tech corporate world for the pastoral lifestyle where Al had always dreamed of indulging his love of viticulture. “I just wanted to be able to enjoy a really good wine that I made. There’s something very natural and satisfying about that.” Keswick Vineyards was born from this desire.
After six years of intense searching, the Schornbergs decided on the Keswick estate because of its place in the burgeoning Virginia wine region, its nutrient rich and variant soil, and the grand residence on the property. The present Edgewood Estate was originally part of an 18,000-acre royal grant to Nicholas Meriwether in 1727, which became the Castle Hill estate. Today, much of that tract has been parceled into smaller estates like Edgewood with the largest tract still home to the current Castle Hill. In 1911, George Barclay Rives constructed the elegant home at Edgewood that the Schornbergs purchased in 2010. Rives was a direct descendent of Meriwether, and to pay homage to their estate’s history, Keswick produces a Rives Red each year under a signature label.
Since they first planted vines in 2000 the Schornbergs have carefully stewarded the rich soil and sloping terrain to produce wines characteristic of the area. Neighboring Horton Vineyards had shown what produced well in this region, so the Schornbergs introduced a diverse array of three-year old vines that included viognier, chardonnay, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, chambourcin, petite verdot and norton. While they have maintained many of these varietals, others have been added subsequently. Their first vintage, the 2002 Viognier Reserve, received national recognition, as it does today. In contrast, since planting, their Malbec has produced only a single vintage. As a result, during the 2011 winter they pulled every vine of malbec in favor of varietals that are better suited to Virginia. Natural order is still respected by skilled viticulturists and vintners.
The distinguished winemaker behind Keswick Vineyard’s wines is Stephen Barnard, who has been making award-winning wine in Virginia for over a decade. A native of South Africa, Stephen’s introduction to wine came from Groot Constantia Winery, the oldest winery in South Africa. It was there that Stephen began pouring and leading tours before transitioning into the cellar and earning his appointment as assistant winemaker. After earning his enology degree he moved on to the well-known Flagstone winery where he trained exclusively in reds. An Ohio State internship program led to opportunities to work for American wineries. He had his choice of placement, among the great viticultural regions on the West Coast, and while Stephen had not placed Virginia among his top choices, his advisors urged him to consider the nascent region. In 2000, just as Al and Cindy were beginning Keswick, they were introduced to the young winemaker and invited him to join them on their estate. With this unique opportunity and challenge, he thought he could learn more in a year here than in California. After more than a decade of vintages he is still intrigued.
“Virginia is a vintage state,” he says. Consistency in wine is a desirable characteristic: winemakers and customers alike look for it as it is synonymous with proven, identifiable qualities. But here, the wines are governed by the variant range and uncertain conditions that come with each growing season. According to Stephen, “The only consistency [in Virginia] is that every year is different.” This challenges winemakers every year to adapt their processes in order to produce wines that retain their signature character. As a testament to Stephen’s skills as a winemaker, Keswick continues to win awards each year for their Viognier and reserve reds. Today, Al and Cindy’s faith in him is unwavering, but this was not always the case.
When Stephen first arrived at Keswick he accepted room and board in an efficiency apartment the Schornbergs had created above the winery and tasting room. Katherine, one of the Schornbergs’ six children, began keeping the apartment stocked with the comforts of home. A friendship formed between the young winemaker and the proprietors’ daughter, a friendship that led to a courtship and then to what Stephen jovially refers to as, “job security.” However, prior to marrying Katherine and officially joining the Schornberg family, Stephen was released as Keswick’s winemaker. He went to work at Rappahannock Winery for two vintages. While at Rappahannock, his 2005 Viognier won Virginia’s Governor’s Cup for Best White Wine. That year Rappahannock’s grapes had been purchased from Keswick. Al was convinced Stephen belonged at Keswick and asked him to resume making their wines, to the delight of Cindy and Katherine.
Stephen says he began making wines as a means to travel the world, and despite settling in Virginia for the past decade he hasn’t lost his intrepid spirit. He continues to push forward and enjoy the lessons learned at Keswick.
Keswick Vineyards has proven they can consistently make excellent wines that reflect the area by pushing themselves to anticipate and respond to each variant season. This has allowed them to remain at the forefront of the evolving landscape of the Virginia wine industry and given credence to their belief that they stand among the top wineries in the state.