One hazy day a few years ago, Jacques and Liliane Recht motored their home-built sailboat up the Potomac River. The wind had died and the air was thick, and river flies buzzed their ears in great swarms. A wretched day on the muddy green water, they dropped anchor near Kinsale, about 30 miles from here.
A year earlier, the Belgian wine maker and his wife had retired to sail around the world. Now it was July of 1980. Spain, the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, the Inland Waterway were behind them. They needed a rest.
Next thing they knew, they were invited ashore, were wined and dined and befriended as is the way in the small, dusty riverside towns of Virginia's Northern Neck.
Then they met Carl Flemer Jr. of Oak Grove. Flemer had visions of a winery among the corn and wheat fields here, a nouveau Napa Valley three hours down the road from the nation's capital. In fact, his son Doug, at that very time, was off in France looking for a wine maker to help them.
Flemer offered Recht a furnished house, a car, a salary and a free hand. Recht decided to stay.
"I was really tickled by the idea of making wine in Virginia," says Recht, a former professor of enology (wine making) at the University of Brussels who was lured here by James Michener's book, "Chesapeake." "We were tired of sailing anyway. I thought it would be exciting, the idea of creating a tradition in wine."
The chance partnership helped propel Ingleside Plantation Winery into commercial production. Today it is a small but growing operation that produces 30 different varieties of European and hybrid grapes planted on 25 acres.
Ingleside last year bottled 12,500 gallons of 12 different wines, distributed to such Washington shops as Colonial Liquors and the Original Wine and Cheese Shop of Georgetown.
Although Ingleside is the only winery on the Northern Neck, it is one of 15 commercial wineries in the Virginia, from the Shenandoah Valley to Leesburg.
At an annual production of about 100,000 gallons a year, Virginia wineries are hardly ready to challenge California, the U.S. industry giant, with about 330 million gallons a year. But people like Doug Flemer argue that "there is no reason why Virginia can't be number three, behind California and New York. It takes time and a lot of money, but Virginia has money. It's a matter of expertise and experience."
Recht also says the Northern Neck is ideal for winemaking. Like the Bordeaux region of France, Ingleside is located on a ridge between two rivers, the Potomac and the Rappahannock. The climate is right, he says, to produce a quality wine.
Recht may be right. In the first year of production, Ingleside's 1980 Virginia Champagne won a bronze medal at the Wineries Unlimited '81 Eastern Wine Competition, the largest wine competition in North America.
And not too long ago, Doug Flemer says, Andre Simon, author of the famed "Wines of the World," mistook a bottle of Ingleside Beaujolais for one produced in France.
Bus tours have begun stopping at Ingleside, a winery housed in a converted dairy barn on a lush ridge known as Quality. Part of a 2,000-acre farm that has been in the Flemer family since before the turn of the century, the barn contains the fermenting and bottling operation, and the old milking room is the storage area. The hayloft has been fashioned into a wine-tasting room, decorated with burlap wall covering and posters from the Alsace and Napa Valley. Ingleside T-shirts and corkscrews are offered for sale, and there is a sign-in book for guests.
"Right now what we are working on is our image," says Doug Flemer, 33, a North Carolina State-educated horticulture major who runs the winery.
"We have to make people realize that our wine is of a good quality. Like, who ever heard of Northern Neck wine? They figure that we must be some kind of mom and pop operation, some old man picking grapes from behind his house and his old woman stomping on them with her bare feet. There's a lot of prejudice to overcome."
Another problem Ingleside will have to combat is America's recent return to French wines. As the value of the French franc has slipped against that of the dollar, French wines have become cheaper. Many wine drinkers apparently prefer a French wine to an unknown American label.
Ingleside's top-of-the-line red, Cabernet Sauvignon, retails for $10. Chateau Du Rocher, a well-known French Cabernet Sauvignon, retails for $6.95.
"The problem," says Milton Klein, owner of A&B Liquors in Northwest Washington, "is that wineries like Ingleside are up against well-known French vineyards who put out wines that are superior in value and also less expensive."
Washington's Dominique Restaurant stocked Ingleside until about two months ago, says owner Dominique D'Ermo.
"I thought it was a good drinking wine . . . We tried to push it, but unfortunately, the customers didn't pick it up. The French wines being inexpensive these days, customers would rather drink them."
Recht, however, is optimistic. "We don't want to copy the French or California wines, or even the wines made in the Shenandoah Valley," he says. "We want to make our own style wines, to be know for their own tastes."