Steve Case knows Early Mountain will be a long climb


Steve and Jean Case, left, share a laugh and a fondness for Virginia wine with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell. (Dave McIntyre for The Washington Post)

When you’re as prominent as the Cases, the governor will come to your party.

“Our hope is that you can do for Virginia wine what you did for the Internet,” Gov. Bob McDonnell told the AOL co-founder before a crowd in the winery’s freshly remodeled tasting room in Madison County, north of Charlottesville.

The governor and first lady, Maureen McDonnell, have been tireless champions of Virginia’s wine industry throughout the commonwealth and on trade missions around the world. McDonnell even walked fearlessly into the lion’s den last year when he hosted a tasting of Virginia wines for the wine trade and media in San Francisco.

But McDonnell has only 16 more months in office and, under Virginia law, can not run for re-election. After he leaves Richmond, the unofficial mantle of ambassador for Virginia wine may fall to Jean Case.

Shortly after the Cases bought the bankrupt Sweely Estate winery last year, Jean Case outlined to me an ambitious plan to boost the state’s wine industry in the eyes of consumers, sommeliers and retailers throughout the region. By promoting not just her own wines but those she considers the best of Virginia, she said she hopes to make the market aware of the potential quality of Virginia vino.

“People ask if I’m on the payroll because I champion Virginia,” Jean Case told a small gathering of wine bloggers before the governor’s arrival on Saturday. “But many years ago when Steve and I went to a wine festival and tried our first Virginia wine — well, it wasn’t good. So we didn’t come back to Virginia wine for many years.”

They changed that impression a few years ago when visiting wineries during a Charlottesville vacation. “We were blown away, and we wondered why doesn’t the world know about this?” she said.

After purchasing the property, the Cases closed Sweely Estate to the public while they remodeled the tasting room. They reopened in June as Early Mountain Vineyards, offering not just their own releases but also wines from “partner” wineries selected by retail veteran Michelle Gueydan, who acts as Early Mountain’s “sommelier.” The tasting room also offers excellent charcuterie, sandwiches and small plates that feature local ingredients.

The initial winery partners are Ankida Ridge, Barboursville, Breaux, Chatham, King Family, Linden and Thibaut-Janisson. Now, Barboursville and Breaux are established wineries that don’t need help marketing their products. Ankida Ridge, however, is a new small-production family winery located on a steep mountain between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, without a tasting room to welcome visitors. Chatham is located on the Eastern Shore, far from the usual winery tourist traffic. For small wineries like these, Early Mountain’s Best of Virginia program offers a chance to reach consumers — and consumers can try some wines that would be hard to find otherwise.

Steve Case acknowledged some in the industry were skeptical that Early Mountain was sincere in wanting to help promote other producers’ wines. He said he had no illusions that the winery’s effort would be easy.

“We know this is a business that requires perseverance, and we are in it for the long run,” he said. “When we started America Online 27 years ago, only about 3 percent of Americans were online, and for an average of about an hour a week. People thought we were crazy.”

(Current Early Mountain releases include the crisp 2011 pinot gris and an excellent 2011 chardonnay, as well as an elegant 2008 merlot. The winemaker is Frantz Ventre, who also made the wines under the previous owners.)

Further reading:

* Wine: The Cases have big plans for Sweely — and Virginia

* Steve and Jean Case’s winery ready for visitors

Dave McIntyre is the wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com.

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