Charlottesville’s claim to be “The Wine Capital of Virginia” is no idle boast. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a thriving native wine industry‚ beginning on his Monticello estate. The vision survived his largely unsuccessful plantings and the vicissitudes of history‚ and it has aged well. Today‚ the federally designated Monticello Viticultural Area has the highest concentration of wineries in Virginia: about 20 of them within a 25-mile radius of Charlottesville‚ all entitled to the Monticello appellation for their vintages.
“No other wine region has the heritage of the ‘Father of American Wine‚’ Thomas Jefferson. That’s a huge pull‚” says Neil Williamson‚ managing partner of The Trellis Group‚ a wine-marketing consulting firm. Over the past five to 10 years‚ local wineries have proliferated and now make up one-fourth of the 80 licensed wineries statewide. Already the nation’s fifth-largest wine-producing state‚ Virginia is projected to have 100 wineries by mid-2005. T
he Monticello wine boom is not hard to understand. The bucolic‚ rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the temperate climate create nearly ideal conditions for European-style grape growing. The region’s hunt-country terrain‚ its historical significance and the increasing critical acclaim for its wines lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to wine festivals and to local tasting rooms each year. Of the 19 wineries belonging to the Jeffersonian Grape Growers Society‚ 15 are regularly open to the public and included in a well-mapped Monticello Wine Trail for wine lovers to follow.
Some of the new winery owners were successful growers first. Tim Gorman‚ winemaker of the Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery and past president of the Virginia Vineyards Association‚ says his parents entered the vineyard business in 1985 and opened the winery in 2002‚ winning awards for Cardinal Point’s debut wines. Other founders bring a touch of glamour to the enterprise. Wealthy socialite and philanthropist Patricia Kluge‚ former wife of billionaire Metromedia founder John Kluge‚ has spared no expense on the Kluge Estate Winery‚ established in 1999. Albemarle County’s oldest winery‚ and the one closest to Charlottesville (3.5 miles west)‚ is Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery. The founder‚ Felicia Warburg Rogan‚ says she began growing grapes for wine 21 years ago after visiting a nascent winery in Northern Virginia.
“It took a number of years of heartache and trial and error” before finding the varieties of grapes that would be able to withstand early-spring frosts‚ Rogan says. Oakencroft now has 14 acres of grapes under cultivation and leases other vineyards. It produces 6‚000 cases of wine annually and has won numerous medals. The industry benefits from the avid backing of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner‚ who owns a 15-acre vineyard and played a leadership role in the enactment of a new state law designed to broaden the markets for Virginia wines. Wine Spectator magazine recently called Warner “the Virginia wine industry’s most prominent advocate since Thomas Jefferson.” Area vintners are excited about both the economic prospects and the rising acclaim for their premium wines. “As we do better in competitions out of state and then get favorable critical response‚ that increases our stature and‚ bottom line‚ our sales‚” Gorman says. “If that continues‚ there’s no telling where we’re going.”