Wine: First-growth Virginia? A fledgling vintner wants to prove it's possible.

By Dave McIntyre
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 11:24 AM

"The JT?wine on your left is Chateau Montrose 2006," said Rutger de Vink. "The middle glass is RdV 2008, and the third is Dominus '07."

I tasted the wines in order, beginning with the classic Bordeaux acidity and elegance of the Montrose, a highly regarded second-growth chateau, and ending with the Dominus, a Napa Valley blend brimming with power and finishing with a slight alcoholic burn. Then I focused again on the RdV as de Vink, its creator, looked on patiently. It bridged the gap between Old World finesse and New World power, with a surprisingly lush core of red fruit and a luxurious texture that caressed my tongue with velvet.

Could this really be from Virginia? I wondered. There was no hole in the middle where the flavor disappears before coming back for the finish, no green vegetal tastes from unripe fruit. A few Virginia winemakers have solved those problems. But that velvet - I had never experienced it in a Virginia wine before. Then I did the math: The Montrose sells for $90 to $110 a bottle and received a 94-point rating from Robert Parker. Dominus sells for $150, and Parker gave the 2007 a near-perfect 98 points. Is Virginia ready to play in this league?

Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, one of the Old Dominion's most respected winegrowers, had described his close friend de Vink to me as "the next generation of Virginia wine." Tasting the 2008, I understood.

Putting my notebook down, I looked up at de Vink and said simply, "It's really good."

"I hate to use the word 'cult' wine, but we are trying to take the wine to the next level," de Vink replied.

Next month's launch of RdV Vineyards is Virginia's most-anticipated winery opening in years, as word has spread of de Vink's project near Delaplane, in Fauquier County. His ambition, expressed quietly but confidently, is to prove once and for all that Virginia can produce wine that ranks among the world's best. Others have made that claim: Barboursville Vineyards is the most credible contender with its Octagon, a Bordeaux-style blend based on merlot. Kluge Estate launched its New World Red at $65 but could sell it at only $30 before going spectacularly bankrupt late last year.

As Virginia's modern wine industry blossomed over the past 35 years, vintners experimented with site selection, vineyard techniques and grape varieties, steadily improving quality as they learned to cope with the region's humid climate. But lessons can be hard to implement when starting over is neither cheap nor easy. Wineries are invested in their initial decisions of where and what to plant. The question remained: What could be accomplished by starting from scratch, incorporating the lessons of the last three decades with the resources and the commitment to do everything necessary to enhance quality?

"I really believe you can make something special here in Virginia," de Vink said as he showed me around his 16-acre vineyard on a hilltop with 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and their rolling foothills. "If you have a better site, with steep slopes and droughty soils that don't retain water, better plant material, and space the vines closer, you can make a great wine."

At 40, de Vink projects flamboyance without arrogance. A former Marine who saw combat duty in Somalia in the mid-1990s, he stands well over 6 feet tall, with flowing locks, the rugged complexion of an outdoorsman and a movie star's propensity to leave an extra shirt button unfastened. He has run marathons and enjoys climbing mountains in Alaska. He attributes his anything-is-possible attitude to his family: His grandfather, a physician in Amsterdam, was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for sheltering downed Allied flyers during World War II. He escaped.

After leaving the Marines, de Vink earned an MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and spent a few years working in information technology, helping expand broadband access during the Internet boom of the late 1990s. But a desk job couldn't suit someone so restless for the outdoors, and with the new millennium he decided to make a new start.

He worked the 2001 harvest at Linden, learning winemaking from Law, and traveled to Bordeaux and California to meet with winemakers and viticulturists. In 2004, he bought a hilly sheep farm off Route 17 in Delaplane, using savings and funding from investors he describes as "mostly family." The vines were planted in 2006 with the help of some of California's leading viticulturists, soil scientists and winemakers, including Daniel Roberts, Alfred Cass and David Ramey. Flouting the conventional wisdom that cabernet sauvignon can't ripen reliably in Virginia, de Vink planted 40 percent of his vines to that variety, plus an equal amount of merlot. The rest are petit verdot and cabernet franc.

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