Adapted from my keynote address Thursday at the Monticello Cup awards ceremony in Charlottesville, part of the 2015 Monticello Wine Trail Festival.
My friend Roger Morris, who lives in Pennsylvania and writes about wine for the Daily Meal, Palate Press and other publications, recently ranted on Facebook: “I am a little tired of writers making gee-whiz declarations that Virginia wines have finally realized Thomas Jefferson’s dream. Wake up! Several winemakers have been making very good Virginia wines for two decades now. This isn’t new stuff.”
I agree. In fact, I’ve been making this point for years. For a writer penning his or her initial “Virginia discovery” article, Jefferson’s failure to produce a single bottle of wine in his seven attempts to grow European grapes at Monticello is an easy hook for an article. I confess I used it in my first articles on Virginia wine, back in the 1990s.
But that convenient lead-in to a story creates an expectation of failure. After all, Jefferson excelled at nearly everything: politics, architecture, inventions. He was America’s first Renaissance man. If he couldn’t make wine in Virginia, who could?
Well — you, that’s who. And I love how the Virginia wine industry has embraced Jefferson’s legacy. From Gabriele Rausse growing grapes at Monticello, to Jefferson Vineyards at Colle, to Barboursville’s very thorough embrace of the Jefferson legend, to your use of Monticello as the name of your American Viticultural Area and your wine trail association, Jefferson is very much a part of your story. And, yes, he would be proud.
Not everybody has heard the news of your success. A few months ago, I attended a wine dinner in Washington and ran into a friend I’d met many years ago on the wine tasting circuit. A young winemaker from a Northern Virginia winery was also at our table. As he and I discussed Virginia wine (this was a California Rhone Rangers dinner, by the way), my friend seemed uncomfortable. Finally she pursed her lips and said, “I tried a Virginia wine when I first moved to D.C. back in the ’70s, and I didn’t like it.” I blinked at her a few times until she flinched and said, “Maybe I should try them again.”
Yes, there are still people with that attitude. The good news is, the actuarial tables are not on their side. Younger consumers, millennials and others with more adventurous, less prejudiced palates are flocking to Virginia wineries and enjoying the wine country in their ’hood. They even blog about their experiences as part of the Virginia Wine Mafia. There’s a page for that on Facebook; I look at it often and find clues to new wineries I need to explore.
But here’s the rub: These younger consumers — as well as those of us who’ve been paying attention all these years — are no longer surprised that you make good wines. We expect you to make good wines.
You’re no longer a novelty. Consider these milestones: Ten years ago, Jake Busching bottled his first vintage at Pollak. Twenty years ago, Jefferson Vineyards hired a young Burgundy-trained winemaker named Michael Shaps. And this year will be Luca Paschina’s 25th harvest at Barboursville.
You’re off the learning curve. There’s no more “Gee whiz, this is pretty good for Virginia.” Now there’s “This is damn good wine.” You’ve raised our expectations, and you need to live up to them.
That’s why I’m excited that so many of you are planting new vineyards this year. Barboursville has put in new nebbiolo and three acres of Ribolla Gialla. Hold on to your vermentino! Veritas is planting nine acres of new vines, with another nine planned for next year. Early Mountain has started planting 14 new acres. If others here are planting, you need to be on Facebook, or at least tell me about it: I want to know. This is exciting news, because it means that you, the winemakers of the Monticello Wine Trail, are determined to help Virginia reach its full potential as a world-class wine region.
Jefferson would applaud. I applaud, and I can’t wait to taste the results.