The day after the Fourth of July, I had the pleasure of visiting two outstanding wineries in Virginia: Rockbridge Vineyard, founded in 1992 in Raphine, near Roanoke; and Valhalla Vineyards, started in 1993 on a mountain within the Roanoke city limits, and the city’s first winery.
Both wineries are owned and operated by winemakers that have qualifications that are every bit as world-class as their wines. Those made by Rockbridge Vineyard’s P. Shepherd Reuse, a homespun former Fulbright scholar in Germany, have won important awards in national and state competitions. Valhalla’s wines, newly marketed last month, are the joint product of Jim Vascik, a neurosurgeon, and his wife Debra, a physiotherapist.
Before launching their promising new winery, the Vasciks delved deeply into enology and viticulture at Virginia Polytechnic University, fast emerging as an important center for wine-related studies. He grows the fruit, she makes the wine. They had already had wine-worthy chardonnay grapes by 1997, the third year after planting and a year earlier than the norm.
Reuse began his wine career in 1982, graduating from the world-renowned enology department of the University of California at Davis with an M.S., and earning his spurs at such well-regarded California wineries as Shramsberg, Carneros Creek, Mark West and Chateau St. Jean’s. He set up his fledgling winery in an 1800s dairy built so sturdily that renovations were minimal. By dint of elbow grease and business acumen, Reuse was already making Rockbridge, the top award-winning winery in the Commonwealth of Virginia, by 1997.
Rockbridge Vineyard’s awards include several earned in the 1999 Governor’s Cup, including a gold medal for Shep’s 1998 white Riesling, silver medals for his 1996 merlot and 1997 Val d’Or vidal ice wine and bronze medals for his 1996 cabernet sauvignon, 1997 chardonnay and 1998 vidal. Rockbridge wines are also made from pinot noir, chambourcin and, occasionally, seyval and Concord grapes.
These are lovely wines that convincingly confirm Reuse’s stature as a winemaker to be reckoned with. In Virginia’s assertive July heat, I was buoyed by the 1998 Tuscaora white, nicely spicy, dry and crisp. The vidal ice wine is a rich melange of mandarin orange and honey. The vidal grape does well in this southwestern Virginia region, tucked up against the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. This is important wine country — scenic, unsullied and worthy of this distinguished but underrated state.
Reuse invites visitors to come to the winery to not only enjoy the wine, but to relax while picnicking on the sunny green grounds of the Rockbridge Vineyard. When your picnic is over, you can explore all the sightseeing pleasures Virginia has to offer. Among other things, it has more Civil War battlefields than any other state.
Make sure your itinerary includes Valhalla Vineyards, about an hour from Roanoke.
“We bought Mountain Top Peach Orchard in 1992 after making firsthand studies of wineries in Virginia, Napa Valley, France and Italy,” said Valhalla’s Jim Vascik. “We learned that often the best grapes are grown, as ours are, in the mountains.”
Their property, rising 600 meters above the lovely Roanoke Valley and extending to nearly 700 meters, is one of the area’s highest points. The high elevation ensures a long growing season. In 1998 the Vasciks had a 60-meter-long cave blasted into their mountain beneath their vineyard — as deep as 180 meters in some places — where they can produce and age their wines under ideal conditions: 11 C and 85 percent humidity. Most Valhalla Vineyards wines are aged in oak barrels.
Valhalla’s grape varieties are French, with the exception of the Italian (Tuscan) sangiovese, the traditional grape for making Chianti. Bottle and barrel tastings of Valhalla’s chardonnay, sangiovese, merlot and cabernet franc (used in an impressive rose) confirm that the Vasciks are wine producers capable of world-class quality. In fact, five of Virginia’s 51 wineries produce enough wine for the export market.
Rockbridge Vineyard and Valhalla Vineyards reflect the extremely high standards of wines made in Virginia, now America’s fifth-ranked wine state and capable of coming on even stronger. Until we enjoy some here, enjoy some there, in that endlessly appealing state.