All the rich green trees Mother Nature ever created seemed to be growing here, covering low-lying mountains festooned with wispy mist, under a mantle of robin-egg blue. Once again I was back in Virginia, and once again glad of it. Even without a single winery the Commonwealth of Virginia would rank among the world’s most scenically appealing places, but the fact is that this is America’s (and doubtless the world’s) most up-and-coming center of wine production.
As a graduate-school student here 20 years ago, I could count a scant six wineries. A year ago, 49. On the eve of the Fourth of July 2000, when I visited again, Virginia had 65 wineries and many more on the way.
The fact is that Virginia-made wine is predominantly very good and the best ranks with top-level, world-class wine. Medals from tough wine competitions and critical rating boards abound among many of the makers.
Be mindful, though, that awards are not a rarity, nor are all created equal. A wine that wins a gold in one contest may fail to win even a bronze in another. It is in the tasting rooms that truth tells.
This year the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Governor’s Cup, the state’s highest award for wine excellence, went to Valhalla Vineyards, just outside Roanoke, a winery established just last year that was noted in the press for the first time right here in Wine Ways, half a world away from Virginia.
In late June I visited three of many fine wineries near Charlottesville, home of the highly regarded University of Virgina and location of Monticello, the home of statesman and wine lover Thomas Jefferson. Having been to over 150 outstanding wineries throughout the world, from Yamanashi (Chateau Lumiere) to the Black Sea, I submit that I enjoyed no less than any previous winery visits my recent visits to Jefferson Vineyards, White Hall Vineyards and Afton Mountain Vineyards.
Jefferson Vineyards boasts the oldest operating vineyard in the entire Americas, an impressive claim indeed when one considers the number of vineyards now in operation in Latin America, all the way from Mexico to Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Thomas Jefferson himself persuaded the Italian entrepreneur Filippo Mazzei to create a vineyard next to Monticello, and with financial support from Jefferson and some prominent colonists the maverick Mazzei did in fact set up an agricultural company here.
Jefferson Vineyards’ wines, both reds and whites, are very well made and have achieved widespread acclaim and some significant awards. Grapes include chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.
White Hall was founded 10 years ago by the personable native New Jerseyite Tony Champ, a Ph.D. chemist and former CEO who “got to liking wine by drinking it at corporate receptions” — a good example to follow. Tony wanted his own winery, and White Hall, a magnificent place that he designed together with an architect, is the result. Some of Tony’s wines were Governor’s Cup winners in 1997 and 1998 and this year they won four gold medals. Grapes used are chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, Gewurztraminer, pinot gris and soliterre.
Tony’s wines reflect his brilliance and creativity. Although the state appears less than enthusiastic about the Gewurztraminer’s possibilities in Virginia, Tony is all enthusiasm. This is a fellow who has a way of making things happen. Virginia’s wine industry has a lot of them, and, fortunately, they are enthusiastic about helping one another. Everyone pitches in.
Afton Mountain’s talented winemaker, Shinko Corpora, is a native of Kobe, who learned winemaking on the job. She and her husband Tom are continuing to develop the dormant winery they bought in 1988, and its reputation as well.
Shinko should write her life story, or perhaps have it written by Tom, a former NBC bureau chief in Tokyo whose reticent mien masks a tenacious will. After all, how often does a Japanese first acquire a native-born American’s command of English and then move to America and become a respected winemaker — through on-the-job training? That’s quite a feat. Shinko did it, no doubt with considerable support from her husband. For his part, how often does a globe-trotting scribe make the transition to wine-producing squire? This is quite a remarkable couple, and the best part is, they have nicely made wines: chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and pinot noir.
Virginia wine country is full of surprises and no doubt will continue to be. Just ahead is a spate of wine-related events, starting with the Fe^te de la Bastille July 15 at Jefferson Vineyards, featuring “an elegant French five-course dinner.” Hmm, maybe I’ll stick around. On the same day elsewhere in Virginia, you can attend an all-day winemaking seminar for just $15. There’s always something going on in this up-and-coming wine state, a great place to visit (or reside): friendly, folksy, historic and remarkably affordable. Plan a visit.