Virginia celebrates its wine history

Early explorers wrote about the masses of grapes weighing down vines along the Virginia shores. Captain John Smith wrote that early colonists in Jamestown made 20 gallons of wine from the grapes. In the early 1600s, winemaking was a requirement for the men of Williamsburg because the British were so intent on fostering a wine industry in the colonies.

“For 200 — heck, for almost 400 — years people did attempt to plant European wine grapes” in Virginia, said John Boyer, a professor at Virginia Tech, “and just failed miserably.”

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Now, hundreds of years later, having bested bugs, cold, heat, mildew and a slew of other challenges, some winemakers are celebrating the history of Virginia wines this weekend. The events, ending at Philip Carter Winery in Hume on Saturday, come at a time when the industry has grown dramatically in the commonwealth, and so rapidly that the wineries have become divisive in some communities, with neighbors concerned about the crowds that fill narrow country roads to taste wine at the vineyards.

In Fauquier County, where a proposal to restrict wineries got shelved at the last minute before a vote last year, the issue continues to simmer, with a community group recently suggesting a new way to look at the problem and county leaders expected to issue a proposal very soon.

It’s extremely contentious, several people in the county said, and no less so after several years of debate.

Julie Broaddus, who is on the farm winery task force of Citizens for Fauquier County, said her group recommended that the county define wineries’ special events by the impact they have on the community, rather than listing a variety of things, such as weddings and fundraisers, that could be considered events, in hopes that that would be easier for everyone.

But there are no proposals that have satisfied everyone. Some neighbors would like strong restrictions on noise levels, frequency and size of special events; some winery owners say state law protects farm wineries from onerous local rules and that they need to be able to attract people to their vineyards to market their wines.

For this weekend, at least, people will celebrate Virginia wine and its rocky but determined history.

European grape varietals just didn’t fare well in Virginia’s soil and climate — and couldn’t withstand a nasty little louse that destroyed the vines’ root first, according to Gordon Murchie, president emeritus of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association.

And the native grapes, for the most part, made lousy wine early on. So over the centuries, farmers (and investors) created hybrids, learned more about the soil and the varieties that flourished here, and finessed their winemaking. “Today we have some world-renowned grapes in Virginia,” Murchie said.

Events began Thursday night, with a talk at a historic church in the Northern Neck that traces the history of the Carter family, which has had a vineyard in Lancaster County since the 1700s. Wines sent overseas to the Royal Society of Arts received commendations and an award for the “first successful attempt towards wine in America,” according to a descendant, Philip Carter Strother, who read from letters requesting wine or describing Virginia bottles. His forefathers, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other leaders, encouraged the colonies to produce wine to avoid dependence on Europe.

“I am now making some wine from a Winter Grape which is so nauseous till a Frost that Fowls . . . will not touch it,” Charles Carter wrote overseas in 1761, and “. . . some light pleasant wine I wish it may prove fit in the Spring to send you a Taste.”

On Saturday, Philip Carter Winery will host a public celebration with music, food, fencing, book readings, historical reenactments and, of course, wine. Hundreds of years after Charles Carter planted 1,800 vines in Virginia, Strother reestablished the family tradition with 1,800 vines in the ground.

 
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