October is Virginia Wine Month, and the time is ripe for visiting Virginia wineries, learning about grape growing and winemaking in the state, and, most importantly, tasting Virginia wines. It’s also a good time to reflect on Thomas Jefferson’s dream of making world class wine in Virginia, and to consider how very close winemakers across the state have come to achieving his vision.
Jefferson is the patron saint of Virginia wine. Ever the connoisseur, he visited the great wine estates of France, Italy and Germany, imported vast amounts of fine wine from Europe, assembled what at the time was the country’s largest private wine collection at Monticello, and established the White House wine cellar. As much as he revered Old World wine, he nevertheless believed that America could become self sufficient and successful in grape cultivation and winemaking. “We could in the United States,” Jefferson wrote, “make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
Intent on laying the groundwork for American winemaking at Monticello, Jefferson partnered with Philip Mazzei, an Italian wine merchant and doctor, to plant a vineyard on the estate. He tirelessly experimented with cultivating classic European grape varieties (Vitis vinifera) – 30 varieties, all told — using vine clippings he had collected during his travels, and tinkered with native American varieties (Vitis labrusca), as well. Sadly, though, he never succeeded in producing his own wine, in part because of the then-uncontrollable pests and diseases that damaged the vines and fruit.
While Jefferson suffered disappointments in the vineyard, his enthusiasm and advocacy for American viticulture left a lasting legacy that has inspired the emergence of a modern and thriving winemaking industry in Virginia. Two hundred years after Jefferson planted his vineyard at Monticello, there are several thousand acres under vine and over 200 wineries scattered across the state producing half a million cases of wine each year. Virginia is home to six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which are federally designated grape growing regions representing unique geographic characteristics. They include the Shenandoah Valley AVA; Monticello AVA; Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA; George Washington Birthplace AVA; North Fork of Roanoke AVA; and Rocky Knob AVA.
Most Virginia wineries are small-scale operations, but their collective economic impact is significant. Thanks to the expanding presence of Virginia wine in stores and restaurants, booming wine tourism, and an assertive state promotional campaign, the Virginia wine industry generates upwards of $1 billion in tax revenues each year.
Virginia wineries produce a wide range of wine types and styles, from dry table wines to elegant sparkling wines to sweet fruit and honey wines. Although Virginia doesn’t really have a “signature” wine, there are several particular varieties that are showing strong potential for quality and character. Standouts include Viognier, a white variety traditional to the France’s Rhone Valley; Merlot and Cabernet Franc, red Bordeaux varieties; and, perhaps the most interesting, a red variety called Norton, which is native to Virginia.
The growth and success of the Virginia wine industry hasn’t come without challenge, however. As in Jefferson’s days, the hot, wet and humid mid-Atlantic climate presents a number of threats to grape crops during the growing season. Abundant moisture is a major culprit, as it attracts pests, causes excessive vine vigor (too much vegetation on the vine), and fosters the growth of powdery mildew, black rot, and other destructive diseases – all of which can result in poor quality fruit. Thanks to advances in vineyard management techniques and the selection of grape varieties that are best suited to the climate and soil of the state’s vineyards, however, Virginia grape growers and winemakers are making progress in mitigating these menaces.
During the month of October, there are ample opportunities to experience first hand just how far Virginia wine has come since Jefferson planted his first grapevine. These include wine and harvest festivals, winery tours, and special Virginia wine tastings. For a full listing of Virginia Wine Month events, visit www.virginia.org/winemonth/.
If you’re interested in reading more about Thomas Jefferson’s passion for wine, I recommend the book Thomas Jefferson on Wine, by John Hailman. And while you’re relaxing with a glass of Virginia wine, I invite you to listen to a podcast I co-hosted with Ted Burns for Grape Radio on Virginia wines and winemaking, including interviews of several Virginia winemakers. You can listen to the show at www.graperadio.com/archives/2009/06/08/the-wines-of-virginia/.