Sprawling across one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Albemarle region is the revitalized Trump Winery. In the short thirteen years since the first vines were planted on the estate, then founded as Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard, a storied history flush with color and headlines has been written. It is perhaps, the Virginia winery most written about in bold due to its ambitious and eccentric founder Patricia Kluge, highly publicized failings and foreclosure, and its unceremonious resale to corporate real estate and entertainment mogul Donald Trump. However, lost in these bylines is the story of the wines and the individuals that have been making them. In 2010, as the presses rolled on about the foreclosure of Patricia Kluge’s winery and the ensuing fire sale of her wines by the bank, there continued to stand over 220 acres of pristine vines and over 1500 barrels of fine wines on the repossessed property. They sat untouched for nearly a year until the winemakers returned in late 2011.
Donald Trump and Patricia Kluge have known each other for over forty years. Patricia, a British native raised in Iraq, rose to fame as a British socialite through in the entertainment industry. On a trip to New York in the late seventies she met John Kluge, founder of the entertainment conglomerate Metromedia. They married in 1981. The couple often spent time in the same social strata as Donald and then wife Ivana. Their youngest son’s John Jr. and Eric Trump, who now runs the winery business, were young acquaintances. In 1990 both couples divorced. Their celebrity statuses resulted in the personal and financial fallout of the separations being exposed in the media. Patricia’s settlement was reportedly $80 million a year and ownership of the 23, 500 sq. ft. Albemarle House estate in southern Albemarle, Virginia. It was with this and investments from her current husband Bill Moses that she began lavishly investing in the vineyard estate.
In the late 1990’s Patricia asked Kirsty Harmon, now general manager and winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, to help establish a winery on her property. The first vines were planted in 1999. To assist in the cultivation of her winery Patricia hired prominent Virginia wine consultants, Michael Shaps and Gabriele Rausse, to assist in the development of the first 190 acres of vineyards. Then in 2001, just before the first vintage, she did something unprecedented in the Virginia wine industry. She hired world famous wine consultant Michel Rolland whose annual fees are often unreleased. Although Patricia was widely criticized for paying for his consultation, it proved she was committed to her notion that Kluge Winery & Vineyards would be the catalyst needed to show the world what the Virginia wine industry was capable of. Through 2006 Patricia invested extraordinarily in the winery’s expansion and the personnel responsible for building Kluge’s wines.
For a wine insider her rotation of winemakers, assistant winemakers, and consultants read like a fantasy lineup with veteran experience and young talent. Along with Rolland, the famed Champagne producer Laurent Champs of the Vilmart house consulted on the sparkling wines. Over the course of eight years her winemakers included Charles Gendrot, the son of a Bordeaux wine consultant who had spent over fifteen years working with wineries in the same cradle of red wine as his father along with stints in California. In 2002 Claude Thibault accepted the offer to come to Virginia to initiate the production of sparkling wines at Kluge. At the time he’d spent over fifteen years bringing bubbles to wineries in Australia and California. In 2009 two young talents were appointed as lead winemakers for Kluge’s reds and sparkling programs. Katel Griaud, a study of Michel Rolland and whose family owns Chateau Kalian on the Monbazillac appellation in France, took over the Bordeaux style production of Kluge’s reds. That same year, long time assistant winemaker Jonathan Wheeler began leading the sparkling program. He is a New York native who had previously worked in Sonoma, Monterey, Marlborough, and the Finger Lakes region before coming to Kluge in 2006. Both Griaud and Wheeler blended their knowledge of old world techniques with modern winemaking expertise. By 2009, the winery had expanded to over 200 acres of vines and 30,000 cases per year. The flagship New World Red and signature sparkling wines were receiving numerous awards and praise due to the talents of the winemakers and consultants Patricia had brought in.
However, the bubbles did not last. At the time of the market crisis and burst of the housing bubble the Kluge’s had invested significant portions of their personal wealth in the winery but had also begun developing a luxurious community of estates across the street and owned a struggling restaurant in Downtown Charlottesville. By 2010 the restaurant had closed, work on the properties had eased, and Patricia was auctioning off personal items to finance the winery. For the eccentric women whose colorful history had been laid bared by the media for most of her life the very public repossession and fire sale of her winery and beloved Albemarle House was a heartbreaking experience. She would not attend the auctions during which cases of her wines fell to $2 per case before the bank imposed a $35 minimum.
In April of 2011 the foreclosed upon winery and vineyards were purchased by Donald Trump for a meager $6.2 million. The auction winnings included a 131-acre tract with the estate’s original vineyard and tasting room, production building, and wine cave. Trump’s organization also won a 647-acre swath of land that included established vineyards, land suitable for future plantings, a former carriage museum, an event pavilion, and a barn converted into the winery’s central office. Given the long relationship between Patricia and Donald, the sale was written off by many in the media as a sale between friends, furthered by Trump’s decision to keep Patricia and Bill Moses on as winery staff. However, upon visiting the Trump Winery it is apparent that it was not a bailout for a friend. Donald immediately passed the operations of the winery to his son Eric who, with the extensive corporate resources of the Trump enterprises, has developed his own notion that Trump will be the first winery to showcase to the world Virginia’s potential. Perhaps, the most surprising but smartest acts of the new ownership was hiring back Katel Griaud and Jonathan Wheeler as lead winemakers.
With these two back at the helm the sparkle seems to have been returned to the winery; aided by a large golden “T”. Currently, Trump is continuing to label under the well-known Kluge line of wines. The latest releases of 2009 reds, 2010 whites, and sparkling wines retain the same style and character as the early vintages but since many of them sat untouched in their bottles, barrels, and tanks for months they have taken on a life of their own. Griaud and Wheeler walked back into a dark cellar but that hadn’t kept the wines from pressing on. Look for the headlines about Trump Winery to read less like tabloids and more like a come back success story in the years to come.
Size of Property: over 900 acres
Acres until Vine: over 220
Annual Production: over 40,000 case per year
BEST KNOWN WINES:
New World Red
Blanc de Blanc Brut