Some say Thomas Jefferson tried to make a Monticello wine, but his grape plants died. A Monticello Wine Co. thrived at the turn of the 20th century, making a renowned Virginia claret of native American grapes, but Prohibition killed it. Now, 50 years later, the dream of a Monticello wine industry has resurfaced -- again.
Within the last 10 years more than 400 acres of grapes have been planted in what is now officially designated the Monticello viticultural district. Centered in Charlottesville, the district includes 10 wineries, most of them located on the gentle slopes of well-to-do Albemarle County. Central Virginia wineries are producing at least 25 wines under the Monticello appellation, and new plantings, new labels, are soon to come.
Monticello-area brand names aren't household words yet: there's no Almaden or Gallo, either in familiarity, price or, for that matter, availability. The largest selection in the Washington area is at Virginia Vintage in Alexandria. Some Virginia ABC stores carry wine from Oakencroft Vineyards and Winery, while some D.C.-area Safeways carry products from the Barboursville and Rapidan River vineyards.
"I think a lot of people are somewhat unaware that Virginia has a wine industry," says Steve Warner, winemaker at Montdomaine Cellars, 13 miles south of Charlottesville. "To tell you the truth, I think a lot of Virginians are unaware that we have a wine industry."
Warner grew up in California and got his master's degree in enology from Fresno State University. Most of his friends from school stayed in the California wine industry, but by coming to Virginia Warner found he could "be in on the quote-unquote ground floor."
Warner joins a coterie of determined Monticello winemakers. Some come to the area with experience from elsewhere -- two from Germany, two from Italy, for instance -- but others are making wine with a book in one hand and a wine glass in the other.
Most seem determined to make their mark in the mid-price range ($7 to $12 a bottle), growing primarily vinifera grapes and making primarily varietal wines. Since the industry is young and red wines require longer aging, the Monticello wines currently available tend to be white: lots of chardonnays and rieslings, an occasional cabernet sauvignon or merlot. As the industry gains momentum, say Monticello winemakers, more red wines will begin to appear.
"People have planted small and slowly. They were not sure that Virginia was a good place to plant grapes," says Gabriele Rausse, vineyard manager and winemaker at Simeon Vineyards, whose wines are not on the market yet. Rausse has been an important figure in the Monticello-area wine industry. Trained at the University of Milan in grape plant pathology, acquainted with the major Italian wine family, the Zonins, Rausse came from Italy to Virginia as an employe of the Zonins, to help them establish the Barboursville Vineyards in 1976.
Planted by the crumbling ruins of the home designed by Jefferson himself for James Barbour, governor of Virginia from 1812 to 1814, the Barboursville Vineyards are among the oldest and largest of the Monticello-area wineries. The Zonin family purchased the 830-acre sheep farm in 1972, eventually setting in 38 acres of grapes. Rausse worked at Barboursville for five years to set in plants and consolidate a good wine-making process, and in that time he convinced himself (and by all indications the Zonins, too) that central Virginia had the potential as a good wine-making district.
"Virginia has been much better than I thought it would be," Rausse says. "In nine years of experience, we had only for the first time a late frost this last winter. In Italy out of 10 years we have four bad, two so-so, and four good. I have seen in Italy rain in the harvest season so wet that you could not bring in the grapes, but here the harvest has so far been very dry. I feel pretty good about it. I am not going to go back to Italy. It is easier to grow grapes here."
Other factors make the vineyard business easier here than in Europe, says Johannes Hausling, who moved from his family home outside Frankfurt to Culpeper, where he manages Rapidan River Vineyards, which is another of the older vineyards, one of the larger and farthest north among those in the Monticello appellation.
"I grew up in the winery. My parents have a winery close to the Rhine Valley," says Hausling. There "you would be in competition with all your neighbors." Here, on the other hand, "it's more interesting because people don't know about wineries here, even if they live close. We have to tell people everything about wine-making." He laughs because here the State Employment Commission calls in the spring, asking if the vineyards need workers to pick the grapes: "That wouldn't happen in Germany."
A similar naivete' about wines and wine-making shows through in Virginians' taste for wine varieties, but nevertheless Monticello winemakers have chosen to specialize in premium dry table wines. Not all their neighbors share their taste, but they are learning, says Felicia Warburg Rogan, owner of Oakencroft Vineyard & Winery, one of the younger establishments in the area.
"When I came down here nine years ago, I would ask for white wine as an aperitif, and people were surprised," says Rogan. "Here, no one had white wine. In New York, all women drank was white wine." Although Rogan believes that in the long run the Monticello viticultural area will be known for its fine red wines, she finds it appropriate that area winemakers are marketing their white wines first, since they are more easily accepted by the consumer.
"It is taking a lot of work on the part of Virginia wineries to make it known that we do make good wines, and red wine takes a little more comprehension. Red wine requires more education," Rogan says.
She is growing 4 1/2 acres of chardonnay grapes, 2 1/2 acres of merlot and four acres of cabernet sauvignon in her vineyard. She also, unlike many of her fellow Monticello area winemakers, has planted six acres of seyval blanc, a French-American hybrid grape that produces a light, dry white wine. Given the weather conditions that Albemarle vineyards had to struggle through this last winter, Rogan is glad she did.
"I have always loved the French white burgundies, but I wasn't sure how the grapes would do in this area," says Rogan. "When the time came to plant, my husband influenced me to plant some French-American hybrids as well. I am awfully glad that I followed my husband's suggestion. It was a terrible winter, and then we had a killing frost in April. We lost 80 percent of the chardonnay buds." The hybrid plants, bred for winter hardiness, suffered very little damage.
But other vineyards, where the decision was made to grow only European vinifera grapes, expect a drastically reduced crop this coming year. Barboursville Vineyards expected to make 20,000 gallons of wine in 1985; instead it projects 13,000, the reduction coming primarily because of the loss of chardonnay buds hit by the frost.
"The Virginia climate is the toughest climate in the world to grow grapes in, but we also believe it could be the best," says Paul Frankel, general manager of Montdomaine Cellars. He cites the wide temperature swings over any given year as one of the hardships Virginia vineyardists must learn to weather. "Last year our lowest low was 15 below zero. We got up to 108 in the summer in the vineyards."
Like all his fellow Monticello-area grape growers, Frankel can recite the weather flukes that befell them already this year. First he remembers Super Bowl Sunday -- Jan. 20, 1985. "We call it Bloody Sunday around here. It went down to 15 below" that night, says Frankel, "and we lost about 30 to 40 percent of our buds," which means 30 to 40 percent reduction in fruit production already.
"We had bud break on April 2" -- the remaining fruit-bearing buds opened up in the spring warmth -- "and then on April 9 we had a full freeze. Our overnight low was 14 degrees. That killed about 60 percent of the remaining buds, which was the devastating news."
Frankel tries to console himself with talk of great vintages resulting from bad weather years in the French wine industry, but for any young business, such a drastic cut in producton capabilities over a given year could mean disaster.
For although the problems that plagued Thomas Jefferson and his European grape growers have been solved -- the most common pests and diseases can now be either treated with fungicides or avoided by grafting sensitive twigs onto hardy rootstock -- growing grapes and making wine is a marginal business at best. "Of course, I would like to make a profit," says Rogan. "The fact is, I'll be lucky if I break even."
Owned by the largest family wine business in Italy, Barboursville represents a somewhat different scenario from most of its Monticello neighbors. Adriano Rossi, recently returning to manage Barboursville after spending six months at Rapidan River, hypothesizes that his employers bought Barboursville for reasons other than the future of Central Virginia wine. When the Zonins -- three brothers who run the Milan-based business -- visit the United States to meet with importers and distributors, they stay at Barboursville.
Nevertheless, Rossi feels it is imperative to make a profit with the winery. Rossi grew up in Gallarate, a small town outside Milan, and both his mother and father are from wine-making families. He remembers the exact date on which he met Gianni Zonin and one comment explains why: "To say Zonin in Italy is to say Gallo here."
While Rossi works to see that Barboursville Vineyards thrives, he notes, "We are not to the break-even, but this is the goal of my life. Zonin is a business man; he makes the money or he closes the winery."
Barboursville Vineyards is one of the older wineries in the area, but even it has not reached full maturity. In fact, all of the Monticello-area vineyards are still in their growing stages: almost all the plants in the area are less than 10 years old, and at many of the vineyards, full plantings have not yet been accomplished. If the industry can survive its slim first dozen years, counting on local patronage for steady sales, it may well live up to its 200-year-old promise of vinicultural success.
"Since we are a very new wine-growing region, our learning curve will be shorter," says Montdomaine's Paul Frankel. "We have had a chance to learn from all the mistakes made in California and Europe. It took them in California 40 years to achieve world prominence. My guess is that it will take Virginia five or 10 more years -- 20 total. Every year our wines get better by leaps and bounds."
Rossi is not so optimistic that Monticello wines can compete in the world market. Not only does a winery need customers knowledgeable in wines to keep it going, it also needs workers raised in the vineyard tradition. While his father in Italy can call up a worker at 5 a.m., tell him what to do and come home in the evening and find it done, Rossi says, "I spend one hour, an hour and a half, to teach people how to work in the vineyard."
That difference holds true not only in comparing Virginia with Europe, but with California as well, Rossi says. "If one Virginia man or women ties 10 vines in one hour, in one hour a Mexican ties 25 vines. His father did this, his mother did this, because the winery is 100 years old."
Marketing will be the key to survival for many of these growing young wineries: marketing efforts that help to bring the names of Monticello wines to people's attention and to bring the flavor of Monticello wines to their dinner tables. Area winemakers are banking on their historical connections, and some have concocted private labeling arrangements designed to raise their visibility.
Blenheim Wine Cellars, for example, grows 10 1/2 acres of grapes, eight of chardonnay and 2 1/2 of johannesburg riesling, on a historic farm built in 1745, fewer than 10 miles from Monticello itself.
The vineyard and winery are a family operation, established in 1982 by John J. Marquis Sr. and Jr., a father and son who left their corn and soybean farm in Ohio to move to Virginia and grow grapes. Their production totals only 2,000 gallons annually, and they sell all that they make, in part thanks to a private label they put on their chardonnay for the Michie Tavern. Visitors to the Michie Tavern or the Virginia Wine Museum next door -- people who might not otherwise be thinking of buying a bottle of wine -- can purchase a bottle of Blenheim's chardonnay with a gold-foil label, printed in red, saying "Selected for Historic Michie Tavern."
Similar arrangements are under way between Michie Tavern and both Oakencroft and Montdomaine, and up the hill at Monticello, such an arrangement has been struck between the Monticello Gift Shop and the Barboursville Vineyards -- an arrangement that has raised a few eyebrows in the Monticello grape-growing area. Barboursville has agreed to set aside and hand-label two of its wines -- the cabernet sauvignon and the chardonnay -- for sale exclusively in the Monticello Gift Shop. The labels read "Monticello Cabernet Sauvignon" and "Monticello Chardonnay" and, as gift shop manager Sue Anne Elmore, who conceived of the marketing arrangement, puts it, the label is "a play on words."
"You have to have the district listed on your label," says Elmore, "and by a wonderful coincidence, this is the Monticello District. Over time, the name Monticello will be as distinct as is Napa Valley in California. It will indicate a particular kind of soil and a particular kind of taste in the wines grown here."
Other Monticello area winemakers question why only Barboursville wines should be granted the privilege of appearing with a special label in the Monticello Gift Shop, but Elmore has her reasons for deciding on an exclusive arrangement.
"We are not a food shop, nor are we a wine shop. We have been working over the last two years to change this gift shop, selling products that all tell a story about Jefferson," she says. "Jefferson was a connoisseur, our first American gourmet, for lack of a better word. He and Gov. Barbour exchanged flowers, seeds, shrubs and fruit tree cuttings, and we believe they may have even exchanged grape cultivars. So we are able to take a product, made in Virginia, that represents the proper time period, that tells a good story and create for ourselves a very special product. It's our responsibility as a museum to educate. In our gift shop, it may be subliminal, but people are going to go home and read the label."
"From a historical point of view, the marriage between Barboursville and Monticello is a good one," says Montdomaine's Paul Frankel. "But from a marketing point of view and considering the kind of wines that they produce, I think it was a bad decision. Other wineries deserve the laurels of a private label."
Gabriele Rausse, who planted the original Barboursville Vineyards but who left that position six years later, agrees with Frankel that the arrangement might benefit Barboursville and Monticello, but that it might not benefit the Monticello district wine industry as a whole.
"From the business point of view it was a very good idea" for Barboursville. "Of course, they are selling a lot of wine that way. The other wineries don't like it. They don't like to see people smarter than they are. People discovered the arrangement when it was already done, and it didn't make them happy," says Rausse.
But, despite rumblings about the business connection between Monticello and Barboursville, the spirit among Monticello-area winemakers remains fraternal. Thanks to the drive of Rogan, most area winemakers, vineyardists and interested wine lovers belong to the Jeffersonian Grape Growers Society, which sponsors private seminars, holds an annual Albemarle Harvest Wine Festival and Bacchanalian Feast and supports the Wine Museum near Michie Tavern.
Pouring a cool glass of her prize-winning chardonnay, in the midst of her newly opened tasting room where other wines are for sale alongside hers, Rogan expresses a personal vision of the wine business that may well be (and have been) shared by every other Monticello winemaker, on back to Jefferson's own time:
"This business gives me the satisfaction of being able to produce something that combines sophistication with life on the farm."