The season of winemaking is upon us. In far off France and Italy, in distant California is begins once again: the ritual of wresting grapes from the vines that have nutured them and beginning the process of turning their juice into the most romantic of all alcoholic beverages.
Just think of it. The wine of Burgundy, of Chianti, of Middleburg, Va.
Of Middleburg, Virginia?
Yes, they have been picking grapes there at Meredyth Vineyards for [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] red, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] will be sold to the public in wine shops and restaurants as well as at the vineyard. In nearby Maryland, out New Hampshire Avenue not far beyond the last shopping center, new vine is aborning in vats at Provenza Vineyards. Futher north, at Westminster, grapes are coming into the Montbray Wine Cellars. At Riderwood, outside Baltimore, Philip and Jocelyn Wagner are supervising the harvest at their Boordy Vineyard.
To this quartet of commercial vineyards add Farfelu of Flint Hill, Va., whose first wines appeared last year. Then consider the huge 800-acre vineyard that Italian interests are developing near Barboursville, Va., the infant Piedmont Vineyard of Mrs. Thomas Furness near Middleburg, another four small wine operations in Maryland and a list of an additional 50 Virginians who have more than 100 vines planted.
Winemaking may still be exotic, but no longer is it far off. A lot of people are betting you can successfully grow grapes and make wine in this area.
The trend is a national one. The federal government is aware of 615 winer- [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 30 states, nearly twice as many as there were in 1970. The Wine Institute of California has calculated that 600 collectors offer wine appreciation and/or winemaking courses with an annual enrolment of more than 150,000.
According to some who have tasted [WORD ILLEGIBLE] wines, however, distance lends [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. They prefer wines from [WORD ILLEGIBLE] or from California.
Most experts continue to argue that this area is not hospitable to the best-known wine grapes. European [WORD ILLEGIBLE] such as pinst chardonnay and calbernet [WORD ILLEGIBLE]. Another camp contends that the most popular alternatives, French [WORD ILLEGIBLE] make inferior wines. Native American grapes [WORD ILLEGIBLE] such as the Concord or Catawba, have a distinctive taste - usually termed foxy - and have not been planted in great numbers.
G. Hamilton Mowbray, whose Montbray wines have gained more critical success so far than the others (his 1975 [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Blane, a hybrid, has gained a place on the wine list at Le Lion d'Or [WORD ILLEGIBLE] is an optimist about the area and has chosen the middle course. He grows both hybrids and vinifera.
"I think eventually we will make better wines here than in California," he told a recent tasting at the National Geographic Society. "The climate is more suitable. All we need is time to experiment ant to gain more experience."
Montbray considers the Seyval Blanc and his Montbray red, a blend of mostly hybrid grapes, the "bread and butter" of a winery that has to support itself. (A majority of the nation's wineries do not make a profit.) The red counterpoint to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Seyval Blanc is made from the hybrid Foch with a splash of vinifera Gamay. Both retail for $2.99. He also makes vinifera Chardonnary, Riesling and Cabernet were only 60 cases of his 1975 Chardonnay, for example.If you can find it outside the winery, it will cost $4.49.
Dr. Thomas Provenza is a relative newcomer to the Maryland wine scene. He [WORD ILLEGIBLE] 250 vines in 1969, built his winery in 1974 and now has 15 acres planted with hybrids purchased from the Wagners at Boordy. Experts feel the wines, a white, a red and a rose marketed under the name BOTOJALO, have improved with each vintage. He expects to make about 4,000 gallons this fall and has high hopes. While spring frost caused a loss of grapes - a severe loss at Montbray - the summer dryness has not been a handicap.
"I know the '77 is going to be way better than the others," he said. "The grapes look so good."
ProvenZa's interest in wine began "when I was kid in Catonsville, watching my father make his quota of wine at home." (It is legal to make up to 200 gallons of wine for personal use with only the payment of a small federat tax.) "Gradually I got the feeling I'd like to have a winery. It's not as easy as I thought, but you get to a certain point and there's no turning back. You either make it or you flop. You can't be too small or you can't survive. If you get too big, too fast, the market won't accept the product. So I'm going step by step trying to educate the public about our wines."
That is done, most frequently, by inviting tours to visit the vineyard and the handsome tasting room Provenza and his wife, Barbara, have built. The twice-a-month weekend visits have been halted during the harvest, but will begin again in October. They are arranged by telephoning Mrs. Provenza at (301) 277-2447.
Provenza is committed to hybrids for economic reasons. (Vinifera cost more to purchase and are said to have lower yields per acre.) "Who's to say at this point," he said, "but I think some of our best hybrid blends will exceed in quality vinifera that's not so well made and I know we can make wine that's better than the pasteurized, ionized jug wines out of California.
"I fell we are a D.C. winery," he concluded. (The vineyard is near Ashton, about 10 miles beyond the Beltway.) "I would be very happy if I could make wine good enough that people in D.C. would show it to visitors as their local wine. I think we're going to make it."
In Middleburg, Archie Smith Jr. wants people to be proud of his wine, too. As he conducts a tour of his winery being constructed at his Stirling Farm, he points out that everything they have made and released so far (in 1975 and 1976) has been sold. For that reason, he shrugs off criticism that Meredyth wines, at $4 or higher retail, are too expensive. Visitors can buy a miximum of two bottles each.
He also has avoided the sometimes heated controversy over the merits and demerits of vinifera and hybrids. "I think the prejudice against hybrids is very narrowly held," he said. "Our wine is indigenous. It's local and it's produced here. If the public likes it, I think they will drink it no matter what grapes are used."
Smith was growing corn and grazing cattle on his 215 acres before turning to wine in 1972. The corn is still there, though the fields have receded as grape planting have grown. There are now 30 acres under vine, 20 of them bearing. Last year's production was 4,500 gallons. It should clear 6,000 this year.
From the first, Smith intended to operate a commercial production of 36,000 gallons of red (mostly Foch), white and rose. A concrete winery was being rushed toward completion last month just ahead of the harvest and Smith said expansion to date has taken place according to schedule. He has employed a consultant, Richard Vine, among the best known New York State winemakers, and this year has been joined by his son Archie III, who holds a doctorate in philosphy from Oxford University.
"It's a real education taking care of this many vines," he said. "It's a full-time job. You can't take care of 20 acres on the weekend."
"The layers of complexity in this are extraordinary," Smith said. "Growing the grapes is only the beginning. Then you go to problems of making wine and on to the challenge of making good wine. This business requires some intelligence and a lot of technology."
Last weekend in Middleburg they held a wine festival and vineyard tour. The sponsor was the Vinifera Winer Growers Association, an organization to which Smith does not belong. Therefore Meredyth was not on the tour.
The guiding spirit of the Vinifera Association is R. de Treville Lawrence Sr., a retired Foreign Service officer. The Association now counts more than 700 members across the United States and in nine foreign countries. Lawrence publishes a quarterly journal and grows grapes himself at his home near The Plains. (His vinifera, obedient to its master, does better than the hybrids he has planted.)
He also spends a lot of time fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking for "a few little experiments" to prove his contention that vinifera can, and should, be recommended to grape growers and winemakers in Virginia and other Eastern states.
" . . . There is insufficient evidence that Eastern production areas can match the quality or the production of Western grown wine grapes," a USDA official wrote Lawrence last month. "We believe that until such evidence is developed . . . it would be a disservice to growers to encourage indiscriminate planting of vinifera grapes in Eastern areas."
Lawrence is named for an ancestor, a general of the Confederate States of America. Between sips of wine, the grape war in Virginia will be carried on.