He knelt and clipped away some extraneous growth around the foot of the vine. Then he gazed fondly at the gnarled wood and uttered the type of statement that has made him the oracle of Virginia’s wine industry: “They don’t look real pretty, but they’ve got good wisdom, if you will.”
A cold wind blew down the slope that late February day as Law took a break from his winter pruning. The vines had not yet begun the growth that would be their 30th season — and an anniversary for one of the state’s most influential winegrowers. During that generation, thanks in no small part to Law, Virginia has gone from having a handful of wineries to boasting nearly 300, while its reputation has grown from that of a mere curiosity to one drawing national and even international attention for top quality.
Only a few rows remain of these oldest vines, the first that Law, 59, planted half a lifetime ago in April 1985 on what he calls Hardscrabble, on the grounds of his Linden Vineyards, southeast of Front Royal. Law has made it his life’s calling to nurture those vines and their wisdom. The earth speaks through the vine, and Law’s goal is to interpret that message in wine.
Each vineyard speaks in a different dialect. Law planted eight acres that first year, with chardonnay, vidal, seyval blanc, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Only the chardonnay and vidal remain. Today, Hardscrabble has 20 acres planted to vines, with the red-grape varieties higher up the hill, on steeper slopes with well-drained soils, and whites on land with more clay.
Law has done more than nurture vines: He has nurtured other winemakers, some of whom now rank among Virginia’s most celebrated. Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards, Rutger de Vink and Joshua Grainer of RdV Vineyards and Jim Dolphin of Delaplane Cellars worked at Linden in various capacities while developing their own wineries.
A few dozen yards away, Law showed me a plot of younger vines. They were much closer together than the older rows, planted at 2,000 vines per acre instead of 800. They were also trained much lower to the ground, to allow more leaf canopy to grow above the grapes, he explained. He snipped the dead wood of 2013 from one of the vines, leaving just a spur and a cane for this year’s growth.
“Young vines are a lot easier to prune, because they’re well behaved,” he said. “They haven’t got their personality yet.”
Law is soft-spoken and doesn’t waste words. His ruddy farmer’s face is perpetually crinkled with a smile, and he keeps his light-red hair in a short ponytail. If time travel were possible, an evening listening to Jim Law discuss viticulture with Thomas Jefferson would be a Virginia oenophile’s dream.
Old and new coexist at Hardscrabble. This is more than a vineyard; it’s Law’s laboratory, where he has experimented with grape varieties, ripping vines out and planting new rows in different directions with the vines closer together. He has switched trellising methods from the lyre system to Geneva double curtain to vertical shoot positioning, always searching for ways to help the grapes ripen and the vines stay healthy. He has fought disease: Many of those original chardonnay vines fell victim to “grapevine yellows,” an insect-borne ailment that withers the vine from the inside.
Law also was an early advocate of vineyard-designated wines, an increasingly popular trend in Virginia. In addition to his chardonnay and a red blend from Hardscrabble, he makes wines with grapes from two other vineyards: Boisseau, owned by Richard Boisseau, in Front Royal, and Avenius, owned by Shari Avenius, who is Linden’s winery manager and Law’s significant other.
“The constant experimentation is something that sets Jim apart from many less-hands-on winegrowers,” says Tony Wolf, viticulturist at Virginia Tech’s agricultural extension in Winchester. Wolf credits Law with helping Tech’s research on pest management.
Law is as much a teacher as a farmer. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in the 1970s teaching agriculture in what is now Congo before returning to his native Ohio and working in a winery. The wines he helped make there were sweet. He came to Virginia looking for a place where he could sell drier wine to an urban clientele. “We still joke about country wines versus city wines,” he says. “I wanted to make city wines.”
In the early years, he grew heirloom apples and other fruits to cover the cost of his farming. Today, Linden is devoted solely to wine production. For several years he taught viticulture classes at Linden for aspiring winery owners, and he writes regularly for trade publications.
There has been controversy. Law is outspoken in his belief that wineries should strive to produce top-quality wine and not be venues for weddings or concerts, a view that has angered other winery owners. While he is often in the tasting room greeting customers, he discourages casual winery hoppers looking to get a buzz on by refusing large groups and reserving the winery porch for regular customers who buy at least a case of wine per year.
Nonetheless, his influence is widespread.
“To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton ads, when Jim Law speaks, other winemakers listen,” says Dolphin, who regularly consults Law about problems vexing him in the vineyard. “They know he knows more than anyone else in the room. I think he will have more influence on the Virginia wine industry as people who work with him go out on their own. That will be his legacy.”
“Jim always put little notes on the wall above his desk with a phrase,” recalls White, who worked at Linden from 1993 to 2005 while planting his own vineyard on his family farm south of Front Royal. “One year it was an envelope on which he wrote ‘push,’ as in ‘push the envelope.’ This year, I see he has on his Web site, ‘never content.’ I guess that’s his phrase for this year.”
For a decade, White sold his grapes to Linden, where Law made a Glen Manor-designated red blend, a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay. (White’s chardonnay vines also fell prey to grapevine yellows, and he ripped them out in 2001 and planted other varieties.) Since launching Glen Manor Vineyards in 2007, White has won acclaim — including the 2012 Virginia Governor’s Cup — for his sauvignon blanc, petit manseng and red blends. Like Law, he favors vineyards on steep slopes for better water drainage.
“While I worked there, I not only learned how to grow grapes and make wine, but I learned what great wine tastes like,” White says, recalling the regular tastings where Law and his team would open several wines from around the world to compare.
De Vink, of RdV Vineyards, ranks Law with Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, as the “two key people” in Virginia wine. “They are always experimenting with their sites, looking for the best place for each variety,” de Vink says. He has traveled with Law to France and Spain to visit winemakers and learn techniques.
“If you taste several vintages of his wines, you’ll say they age well,” de Vink says. “But you’ll also realize that his wines have been getting better in recent years.”
As he approaches 60, Law has begun thinking about the next generation. “There’s a plan, but the people aren’t in place,” he says. His daughter, Samantha, 25, followed him into the Peace Corps and will soon finish her tour in Africa. “But I’m not encouraging her to come back, yet.”
For now, Law is intent on translating that message from his vineyard. Never content, he’s still replanting vines and refining his operation, including constructing a new building to house his farm equipment and making improvements to the tasting room.
“I’m in a hurry, because, you know, I’m getting up there in age, so I don’t have that many years left. I know where I can do better, but that means replanting and starting over in the vineyard, so we have this pretty intense plan of pulling up vines and replanting. If something’s not working out, I’m just not going to do it.”
Despite the urgency, he remains patient. “I’ve learned that when you plant a vineyard, you plant it for when the vines are 20 years old, not when they are six years old,” he says. Allowing youthful vines to express their vigor led to wood disease after “their teenage years.” His former students and others “who are paying attention” have benefited from that knowledge when planting their vineyards.
“They understand from a generation of experience,” Law says. “It’s not that I’m better than anybody else. I have just made the mistakes.”