by Eric J. Wallace
The year 2000 was approaching and 30-year-old Rutger de Vink was in crisis. Friends and family claimed he was living the dream, and it seemed to be true. Following a six-year stint in the Marine Corps – of which he’d loved every minute – de Vink earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He followed that by surfing the 1990s telecom boom to a six-figure position in Northern Virginia with venture-capital firm Columbia Capital.
“But I hated my job with a passion,” says de Vink, now 49. “I went to work counting minutes and seconds to the next weekend or holiday. That New Year’s Eve, I had an epiphany: I had to get out of the city, out from behind a desk, away from the expensive suits and computers and phones – and it couldn’t happen fast enough.”
The problem was, de Vink wasn’t sure what he should do. But after a lot of sleepless nights, a theme emerged: Agriculture. “I realized what I wanted was a way of life,” de Vink says. “I was drawn to the idea of a profession that was by necessity connected to the land and the dirt and the seasons.”
By fortune or fate, he read an article about Virginia winemaker Jim Law’s work to establish Linden Vineyards in the early 1980s. The discovery was profound. “After so much worrying,” he says, “it felt kind of preordained, like, ‘Ah, so this is the answer!’”
De Vink sent what he calls “an embarrassingly lengthy letter” begging for an internship. Law’s response was cordial, though not quite encouraging: No such position existed. However, if de Vink was serious, he could find employment helping with the 2001 harvest. De Vink accepted and that summer headed to the Shenandoah Valley. “I showed up in a new Saab convertible wearing preppy clothes,” de Vink says.
“I think Jim thought I was crazy. Definitely nobody believed I’d make it more than a few days.”
But de Vink found purpose in waking before dawn; in the hard, physical work and sweaty, sun-baked afternoons. He fell in love with the smell and feel of the dirt and the labor of tending vines. The high-stakes alchemy of transforming grapes into nationally celebrated wine was exhilarating. By the fall, de Vink was reborn. “I knew I was going to devote my life to making beautiful wine,” he says.
De Vink followed the Linden harvest with similar positions in Bordeaux and Napa Valley. By 2004, he’d founded RdV Vineyards on 96 acres of land in Delaplane (about 15 miles north of Linden in Fauquier County). The year 2008 brought his first harvest.
Priced at nearly $90 a bottle, RdV’s flagship cabernet sauvignon, Lost Mountain, shocked the wine world. Robert Parker Jr., an acclaimed U.S. critic, awarded it 94 points and wrote: “A remarkable cabernet blend – complex, velvety and world-class. A revelation.”
The recognition made de Vink the most celebrated new winemaker in the U.S. Vintages have sold out each year, with Lost Mountain prices climbing to about $150 a bottle. De Vink’s efforts have led to recognitions as a semifinalist for James Beard Foundation Best Wine, Spirits and Beverage Professional awards in 2016 and 2019.
“It used to be that, when you talked about ‘Virginia wine,’ there were two names: Linden and Barboursville,” says sommelier Stephen Elhafdi, whose Goodstone Inn wine program has won multiple Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence since 2015. “Not only has RdV joined that list, they’re now ‘Best on the East Coast’ and competing for ‘Best in the Country.’”
RdV’s quick success, according to de Vink, was the result of two important decisions: hiring world-renown consultants and choosing the perfect location.
“The vast majority of U.S. wineries come as afterthoughts,” de Vink says. “A family has an estate or a rural farm and, for whatever reason, they decide to try their hand at winemaking.”
Barboursville and Linden were the exceptions. In fact, it was Law who stressed the importance of site above all else. “You can have the best team, the best varieties, the best equipment and production techniques in the world,” says de Vink. “But if your land produces shitty grapes, none of that’s going to matter.”
De Vink worked harvests and apprenticed at Bordeaux’s Chateau Cheval Blanc in 2002, 2005 and 2007. There, Law’s point was continuously affirmed.
The region’s 6,000-plus wineries and vineyards are all profoundly high-end, with prices ranging from $175 a bottle to more than $1,000. All of the wineries used comparable methods and many of the same consultants. Yet the subtle differences in location is what separated world-class wine from one that was simply great.
Looking to start his own winery, de Vink spent about two years looking for a location with characteristics similar to Bordeaux’s top properties. He found it abutting the Blue Ridge Mountains, some 60 miles west of Washington, D.C. The barren sheep farm featured steep hills and 18 inches of rock-addled topsoil. De Vink used his savings and investors – mostly family – to buy it.
“The kind old farmer, bless his soul, warned me time and again nothing would grow here,” says de Vink with a laugh. “He said the soil was ‘too poor and had too many rocks for anything but thistles and some of the most stubborn and ornery grasses known to man!’”
But de Vink thought differently. In conjunction with Virginia’s humid climate, rich soils cause grapevines to stay vegetative too long. In turn, high moisture retention causes grapes to take up excess water, thereby destroying the delicate balance of sugar and acid requisite to making great wine. Though labeled “unsuitable for agriculture” by the county, the farm was perfect for growing wine grapes.
“It sounds counterintuitive to pretty much anyone but a winemaker,” says Joshua Granier, RdV’s winemaker. But the basic starting point of making wine is to stress vines by restricting water, thereby causing them to focus on reproduction and funnel energy into grapes. With Virginia getting more rain than Bordeaux, “the way you accomplish this is soil with a low water-holding capacity and a steep, rocky hillside, where the rain just washes away.”
To ensure perfection, de Vink enlisted acclaimed California viticulturists and soil scientists like Daniel Roberts, Alfred Cass and David Ramey to help with planning and planting. From Bordeaux came terroir specialist Jean-Philippe Roby and legendary enologist Eric Boissenot, who blends wine for four of the region’s five First Growth Wines.
By 2006, de Vink and company had planted 30,000 vines on 16 acres. Eighty percent were merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the rest were petit verdot and cabernet franc. RdV released its first two Bordeaux-style blends – about 600 cases of the 2008 vintage – in 2011. Though some may have balked at the $88 price tag, critical response to Lost Mountain was overwhelmingly positive.
“Is this cult-wine quality? No doubt about it,” said Jay Youmans, master of wine and director of the Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C., to The Washington Post following a blind tasting pitting Lost Mountain against world-class wines from Bordeaux and California. In her review for the Financial Times, celebrated British wine critic Jancis Robinson crowned RdV “Virginia’s new star,” adding, “I sincerely believe [de Vink’s] considerable efforts stand a good chance of putting the state on the world wine map.”
Law says de Vink is the future of Virginia winemaking. “He’s doing more than anyone else right now to bring Virginia wine to the world stage and prove we’re in the game.”
For his part, de Vink is grateful for the success. But the reward of acclaim comes second to the satisfaction of having found a suitable way of life.
“Of course, it’s amazing to know some of the world’s best sommeliers are serving our wine alongside the best of California and France,” says de Vink. “But at the end of the day, what brings me joy is knowing I get to wake up in the morning and go to work doing something I’m totally passionate about. To me, looking back at the miserable sot I was in 2000 – sometimes I just close my eyes and thank the stars things turned out the way they did.”