Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

Virginia is for Wine Lovers Story


Local wine festivals are the latest chapter in the long history of Virginia winemaking

by Rob Lauer

For centuries, when people discussed fine wines, the conversation turned to Europe. Italy and France were home to the most acclaimed vineyards, cultivating the most flavorful grapes and producing the world's best-loved wines. During the twentieth century, the vineyards of California brought to the national and international markets wines with a uniquely American taste. In recent decades several other states have followed suit, but few have enjoyed the success and acclaim of Virginia wines.

In the early 1980s, Virginia was home to a half-dozen wineries.  By 2005, there were more than 100.  Today, more than 300 wineries are spread across the Old Dominion, from the Appalachian Mountains to Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. In fact, over the last 40 years, only four states have been home to more wineries than Virginia: California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. When connoisseurs worldwide look for the finest American wines, they increasingly turn their sights to Virginia.

This has prompted cities and counties statewide to sponsor annual wine festivals. In recent years, these festivals have become a part of autumn in Hampton Roads. Chesapeake, Norfolk and Smithfield are among the local municipalities that have discovered tourists will travel from far and wide to enjoy the bounty of Virginia's vineyards.

None of this would have surprised one famous Virginian- Thomas Jefferson. "We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe," he declared; "not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good." A connoisseur of fine wines, Jefferson believed them to be much healthier than the strong liquors that his fellow countrymen commonly consumed, going so far as to proclaim, "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap."

Though Jefferson may have been the most enthusiastic supporter of American wine, Virginia's grape-growing interest dates to 1609, when the earliest settlers of Jamestown planted vines to produce a cash crop utilizing the vital soils of the New World. Captain John Smith wrote about native vines in Virginia, saying that the plants were "in great abundance in many parts and climb to the tops of the highest trees." Unfortunately, the wine made from Virginia's native grapes tasted so bad it was more fit for a spittoon rather than a bottle. Early colonists quickly stopped cultivating the vines.

Government officials, however, were not so quick to throw in the towel. In 1619, during the meeting of the first legislative assembly of the New World, the House of Burgesses passed "Acte 12" which required every male household in Virginia to plant and cultivate ten vines of the imported vinifera grapes for the purpose of making wine. One of the first settlers to follow, and even surpass, the requirements of the law was John Johnson, who planted 85 acres on the land that is currently occupied by Williamsburg Winery. Over the following 50 years, several laws attempted to coerce settlers into cultivating vineyards, but, in the long run, none were successful.

A century and a half later, Thomas Jefferson took up the gauntlet. For nearly 30 years, he planted French, German, and Italian vines at his home, Monticello. With the support of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and others, Jefferson brought an Italian viticulturist -Filippo Mazzei - from Tuscany to Virginia in 1773, along with a variety of European grapevines to be cultivated. Jefferson gave him 193 acres south of Monticello, where Mazzei built a house, which he called Colle, and put his men to work clearing the land and planting the vines.

Although a severe frost ruined many of the vines in 1774, years later, Mazzei produced two barrels of wine from six varieties of wild grapes. In a letter to George Washington, Mazzei wrote that he found Virginia soil and climate to be superior to that of Italy. "In my opinion, when the country is populated in proportion to its extent, the best wine in the world will be made here," he wrote. "I do not believe that nature is so favorable to growing vines in any country as this."

Despite Mazzei's optimism, it seemed all but impossible to cultivate European wine grapes along America's East Coast. In 1817, Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond came up with a solution. He began developing his own grape - a hybrid of the native Virginia vine and various European wine grapes. Norton's hybrid grape was resilient against common North American pests, survived Virginia's climate zone, and produced high-quality, dry table wine with intense flavors. In fact, a Norton red wine bottled by the Monticello Wine Company received an international award at the 1873 Vienna World's Fair.

By 1890, Virginia was producing 461,000 gallons of wine, making it the fifth-largest wine producer of the period. But the forces of politics and history - Prohibition and the Great Depression - put a halt to the progress that had been made. It wasn't until the 1960s that Virginia saw a renewed interest in winemaking.

In 1976, Italian winemaker Gianni Zonin decided to expand his family's acclaimed wine business internationally, purchasing land near Charlottesville. The family's vineyard manager, Gabriele Rausse, was sent to Virginia to grow European grapes. Unlike those before him, Rausse's efforts paid off: he became the first person to successfully cultivate European and Mediterranean vines in Virginia, creating what is now known as Barboursville Vineyards.

Today, more than 300 wineries
are spread across the Old Dominion,
from the Appalachian Mountains
to Hampton Roads and
the Eastern Shore

Rausse did not keep his knowledge and expertise to himself but advised many other winery start-ups, resulting in the stupendous growth of Virginia winemaking. Today, Rausse is known as "The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry."

Today, more acres in Virginia are under vine than at any point in its rich history, with wineries from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like the wine estates of Europe, many of these are family-owned and run. Nestled amongst Virginia's historic landscapes, these vineyards invite tourists and connoisseurs from around the world to taste an impressive variety of local vintage while enjoying the Commonwealth's history, natural beauty, and people.

The Shopper

133 Kempsville Road
Chesapeake, VA 23320