Monticello American Viticultural Area
Charlottesville Wine Tour Region
Foreword by Richard Leahy
Welcome to the Monticello American Viticultural Area! This wine region of the upper Virginia Piedmont includes Albemarle and Nelson counties and parts of Greene and Orange counties, in the heart of the Central Virginia countryside. Two thirds of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of Charlottesville. In fact, this small university city renowned for its culture, arts, and leisurely lifestyle is less than a three hour drive from, and serves as a scenic complement to the federal and military seats of power in the Washington Metropolitan and Tidewater areas respectively. The Monticello AVA is also the only wine region in the country host to three homes of former U.S. Presidents (two of whom were Founding Fathers), and each of the three is also host to its own wine festival.
A wide range of people, from consumers who tried Virginia wine 20 years ago (and were not impressed), to leading world wine authorities agree that the Virginia wines of today are world-class. In 2010 the influential London-based Circle of Wine Writers made Virginia their official wine region destination and came away highly impressed with both the wines and the state itself as a travel destination. In 2011 the annual Wine Bloggers Conference was held in Charlottesville, introducing many of the attendees to Virginia wine for the first time. In 2012 Wine Enthusiast listed Virginia among its “Top Ten” wine tour destinations in the world. In October of that year, at the first Virginia Wine Summit, Steven Spurrier (a member of the Circle of Wine Writers), whose landmark blind tasting of French vs. California wines in 1976 was featured in the movie Bottle Shock, remarked in his keynote address that today he prefers Virginia wines to those of California categorically.
Supporting regional wine is viewed as progressive and “green” by consumers concerned about the carbon footprint of buying goods from thousands of miles away. As a natural part of the “locavore” movement, it’s appropriate to seek out and drink local wines to support local agriculture, but the rising excellence of Virginia wine means that buying local doesn’t mean sacrificing quality.
Since its delineation in 1987, the Monticello AVA has won more top awards for Virginia wines than any other Virginia viticultural areas. Here in the rolling hills of Central Virginia, which bear a strong resemblance to the Italian Piedmont; vines have a long growing season, lots of sunshine and rain, and good air and water drainage, and produce a diverse range of fine wines. These range from the esoteric white Rhone grape viognier to the well-known cabernet franc and merlot Bordeaux grapes, to the lesser-known petit verdot, tannat and even more esoteric white French grape, petit manseng. Looking around at many handsome views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and other hills, we can easily understand why Thomas Jefferson enthused in a letter to John Dortie in 1781, “Wine, being among the earliest luxuries in which we indulge ourselves, it is desirable that it should be made here and we have every soil, climate and aspect of the best wine countries…”
Most fans of Virginia wine, either in-state or in nearby states, like to experience Virginia wine in person by visiting the wineries. With the rise of “stay-cations” in recent years and also the phenomenon of “wiking” (hiking on trails near wineries, then ending at one or more wineries), as well as thanks to the buzz about Virginia wine, winery visitation in Virginia keeps rising. The regional wine industry is at least as much about destination tourism as a product in a bottle. As many tourists now visit Virginia for its wineries as for birding and golfing (2% or 55 from a total of 2,775 based on a sample survey by the VA Tourism Corp. in 2011). A source at the VTC explains “The Virginia Wine experience has really grown the past three years in terms of visitor comments, spreading the word and wanting to experience it firsthand." Statewide there has been an increase of 700,000 winery visitors over the last five years, according to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.
As a long-time Charlottesville resident and the author of a recent, comprehensive book on Virginia wine (Beyond Jefferson’s Vines), I can wholeheartedly say that the best and most memorable way to appreciate the wines of the Monticello AVA and its two wine trails is to make plans to visit them personally. Wineries in Virginia have learned that despite the rapid rise of wine quality in the last decade, what’s in the bottle is only part of what they offer. What you get when you taste the wines at the source is a fun, educational and esthetic experience in a beautiful, memorable and relaxed environment.
Between the wineries of the Monticello and Appellation Wine Trails, you’ll discover the impressive diversity of wineries, from some of the largest (Prince Michel, Early Mountain, Barboursville and Horton) to some of the smallest in the state (Mountfair, Stinson, Glass House and Moss); some of the oldest (Barboursville) to some of the newest (Stinson and Moss); those that are noted for large public events and weddings (Veritas and Pippin Hill) and those that are small and intimate. You’ll also enjoy the diversity in design, architecture and scenic views from the spare utilitarian production focus of Virginia Wineworks to the calm green design of Blenheim to the North Coast modernity of Pollak, to the amazing views from King Family, Stinson, Moss, and Veritas.
Another part of the fun diversity is the product line. Some producers specialize; Cardinal Point has many manifestations of cabernet franc but also makes a vinho verde-style wine called simply “green.” Glass House makes a chocolate (cocoa powder) infused port-style norton called “Melio de Sesso” (I’ll let them translate for you) as well as a “passito-style” barbera made from dried grapes. Mountfair specializes in red Bordeaux blends, while Veritas is passionate about varietal petit verdot and two fine but very different styles of sauvignon blanc. Keswick Vineyards makes the state’s only verdejo (a white aromatic Spanish grape), and three labels of viognier.
Best of all, you can talk to the friendly winery tasting room staff (which can sometimes include owners themselves) and discover their passion that led them to take the plunge and make wine in Virginia. What did they do before, and aside from a love of wine, what was it that made them become producers, and why here of all places? The stories are many and diverse but have all resulted in the owners investing much of themselves, their vision and passion into their operations, all for your benefit.
For heading out on the wine trails in the Monticello AVA, this book is a handy and valuable resource, giving you a brief but detailed summary of all the local wineries including profiles of the owners, what they grow and produce, and the personal differences they have in style, size and products. You can quickly get to the heart of what makes each winery tick, and the six different writers give the book a nice variety of voices. It’s also very helpful for those who want to learn a bit more that handy resources are included in the back, from books and websites to wine-related terms and a list of grapes grown in Virginia and their characteristics.
Blue Ridge Wine Excursions is an experienced, locally owned and operated tour business specializing in introducing small, private groups to the wineries of the Monticello AVA, and the seven writers of the winery profiles also double as Wine Trail Guides for these excursions. You can see the attention to detail and love of the subject they have in reading the profiles in this book, which makes a great reason to experience both the guides and their subjects in person on one of their tours.
Many graduates of the University of Virginia, returning to Charlottesville to re-visit the area after years of living elsewhere, have been charmed to find the rise of the vibrant local wine business, and use the services of Blue Ridge Wine Excursions to re-discover the region in a new light. In 2012 Patrick, an alumnus of U.Va, and his wife, Mary Ann Drinan, visited the area. Patrick contacted me through my blog (www.richardleahy.com) and asked if I could help him find some resources on Jefferson and wine, as he wanted to write a book on the many interests of Jefferson. I suggested a personal tour with Blue Ridge Wine Excursions and they not only learned much about Jefferson’s vision for American viticulture, but enjoyed experiencing how Jefferson’s own countryside had finally realized his vision of producing world-class wine, and described the tour as “truly unique and wonderful.” A quick check of TripAdvisor.com for ratings of Blue Ridge Wine Excursions will yield results with impressive and consistently high ratings.
I hope you enjoy learning more about the Monticello American Viticultural Area, its wineries and trails, and make plans to tour it personally soon.