By Frank Morgan
Though the commonwealth has a 400-year history with viticulture, the Virginia wine industry began in earnest in the 1970s with the arrival of sixth generation Italian winegrower and scion of the Zonin wine family, Gianni Zonin.
Today, Virginia is home to 285 wineries, about 3,200 acres of wine grape vines, ranks sixth in the U.S. for wine grape production and contributes nearly $1.4 billion to the state’s economy.
These pioneering winemakers embraced the challenges of establishing a new wine region while talented young winemakers have contributed to Virginia’s emergence as a world-class wine region in just three decades.
In early 1976, Zonin purchased an 870-acre antebellum property in Orange County that would become home to Barboursville Vineyards. That same year, Gabriele Rausse arrived in Virginia from his native Valdagno, Italy, to plant the initial vineyards at Barboursville.
Known as the father of modern Virginia wine, Rausse then helped establish Simeon Vineyards, now Jefferson Vineyards, in 1981, and planted the initial vineyard at Kluge Estate Winery, now Trump Winery, among others.
When not working as the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, maintaining a 1-acre vineyard in the south orchard where Thomas Jefferson attempted to grow grapes more than 200 years ago, Rausse makes elegant Old World-style wines for his own label, Gabriele Rausse Winery.
In 1990, winemaker Luca Paschina came to Virginia from his native Alba, Italy, to take over winemaking at Barboursville Vineyards. In his 27th vintage, Paschina is one of the most noted winemakers in the eastern U.S., known for producing a range of world-class wines that routinely garner national and international recognition.
In 1981, a young farmer named Jim Law, fresh off a two-year stint in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching agriculture in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was hired to help establish a new winery in the Shenandoah Valley. Two years later, Law purchased a 76-acre farm in the town of Linden and planted his first vines (a 6-acre block). Today, Law farms about 20 acres at his Linden Vineyards and produces some of the highest regarded wines in the region.
One of Law’s most important contributions to the Virginia wine industry is time spent mentoring other winemakers, who continue his commitment to quality viticulture: Jeff White of Glen Manor, Jim Dolphin of Delaplane Cellars, and Joshua Grainer and Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards.
In the Tidewater area, Matthew Meyer, who earned an enology and viticulture degree at the University of California, Davis, is helping raise the stature of the region at The Williamsburg Winery with its Wessex Hundred wines made exclusively from estate-grown fruit.
The challenges and opportunities of writing the next chapter of the Virginia narrative have attracted skilled young winemakers from around the world who are fiercely dedicated to making world-class wines.
Born in the Netherlands, Kirsty Harmon grew up in Charlottesville and attended the University of Virginia and then the University of California, Davis where she earned a master’s degree in viticulture and enology. Harmon returned to Charlottesville in 2008 to make wine at Blenheim Vineyards (owned by musician Dave Matthews) where she is known for producing fresh, approachable, drink-now wines.
Emily Pelton farms 55 acres at Veritas Vineyards, the winery started by her parents in 1999. Pelton, who completed her master’s in enology at Virginia Tech, has been the winemaker at Veritas for over a dozen vintages and is known for crafting some of the most elegant and aromatically generous wines in Virginia.
On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Jon Wehner and his wife Mills planted their first vines at Chatham Vineyards in 1999. Wehner, who grew up working in his parent’s vineyard in Northern Virginia, produces a range of fine wines, including Church Creek Steel Chardonnay, one of the most site-expressive wines in Virginia.
Andy Reagan, a native of Norfolk, was introduced to winemaking while spending the summer of 1993 with his sister, who was a winemaker in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Reagan has worked at several of Virginia’s most recognized wineries, including seven years as winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards. He was recently named head winemaker at Horton Vineyards.
Jordan Harris, who earned a viticulture degree from Niagara College in Ontario, Canada, moved to Virginia in 2007 to take over winemaking responsibilities at Leesburg-based Tarara Winery. In his 10 vintages in Virginia, Harris has established himself as one of the next generation leaders, focusing on single-vineyard wines.
Thomas Jefferson’s dream of “making as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe,” is being realized throughout his beloved Virginia thanks to these and other local winemakers.