Columnist, Food

Winemaker Jonathan Wheeler, left, and general manager Kerry Woolard taste Trump wines at the winery's tasting room near Charlottesville. Says Woolard: “I think we deserve the credit.” (Dave McIntyre/For The Washington Post)

For the record, Trump Winery in Virginia is not “one of the biggest wineries in the country,” as the president recently claimed. At about 42,000 cases produced each year, it is squarely in the “small” category of wineries producing under 50,000, according to Wines & Vines magazine.

That places Trump Winery in the top 21 percent. There are 65 “large” wineries producing more than 500,000 cases a year, 263 in the “medium” category of 50,000 to 499,999, and about 1,600 in the small category of 5,000 to 49,999 cases. Nearly 7,300 wineries produce less than 5,000 cases.

With 210 acres planted to vines, Trump Winery can say it is Virginia’s largest vineyard. Barboursville is a close second, at 185 acres. But Chateau Morrisette and Williamsburg Winery each produce about 60,000 cases a year, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, making them the largest in the Old Dominion.

Also for the record: The wines are pretty good. Since Donald Trump purchased the former Kluge Estate winery in a bankruptcy auction in 2011 and installed his son Eric as president, the Trump regime has invested in refurbishing the vineyards, purchasing new farm equipment and constructing a new facility for sparkling wine production. It has paid off. Sparkling wines were good under Kluge Estate, but the table wines were uneven. The current releases of Trump wines show improvement.

Quality may be overshadowed by politics, however. I visited the winery Aug. 11 to meet with general manager Kerry Woolard and winemaker Jonathan Wheeler. It was a typical sunny Friday at a Virginia winery, as a small but steady stream of visitors came and went through the modest tasting room. That evening, white supremacists and neo-Nazis held their torchlight parade on the University of Virginia campus, and the next day’s demonstrations over a Confederate statue turned deadly. By Tuesday afternoon, the furor over the president’s response to the violence engulfed the winery after Trump boasted, “I know Charlottesville very well . . . . I own one of the largest wineries in the United States, in Charlottesville.”

There was an immediate flurry of reactions, debunking Trump’s boast of the winery’s size. Even Patricia Kluge, who founded the winery and then lost it in bankruptcy, chimed in to tell Town & Country, “The wine is not good anymore.”


Trump brand wine on display in Las Vegas last year. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite its name, Trump Winery typically tries to distance itself from politics. (Though Woolard, the Virginia wine veteran hired as general manager in 2012, gave a speech at last year’s Republican convention.) There is no political merchandise for sale at the vineyard, no Make America Great Again hats, no photos of the president — just some framed magazine articles featuring Eric Trump and his stewardship of the winery. With the change of ownership in 2011, there was even a disclaimer on the winery website that the company belonged to “Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing” and was unaffiliated with the Trump Organization. The winery has dropped that pretense now, though recent news reports found the disclaimer archived on the website. The winery’s “terms of service” page is clear that you are doing business with the Trump Organization, and there’s a link to Trump Winery on the website for Mar-a-Lago, the Trump resort in Florida. Winery emails are run through Trump Organization servers.

While sales have increased in recent years, Woolard would like to attribute success to the winery’s improvements rather than a Trump political bounce.

“I think we deserve the credit,” she says, noting that the reinvestment in the vineyards was paying off at about the same time Donald Trump declared his candidacy. The wines have done well in contests, where judges don’t know which wines they are tasting. Trump sparkling wines won the Monticello Cup for best Charlottesville-area wine in 2014 and 2015, and the 2016 sauvignon blanc recently won a double gold medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

The sparkling wines were good under Kluge Estate, and the Trumps benefited from purchasing three vintages (2008-2010) that aged on their lees during the bankruptcy. Longer aging makes for richer, more complex sparkling wine. Trump Winery was able to sell those vintages under its own label while its own production benefited from longer aging. The wines I tasted on my recent visit were a 2010 Blanc de Blancs, rich and opulent from an unusually ripe vintage, a 2012 rosé and a 2009 reserve. All were made by Wheeler, who was hired by Patricia Kluge in 2006 to oversee the sparkling wine program.

Wheeler took over the still wine production in 2013. His current releases include a delicious 2016 rosé made from merlot and pinot noir, that medal-winning sauvignon blanc (made richer by blending in some semillon), a modestly oaky chardonnay and a fleshy viognier.

Trump Winery is taking a big risk, however. It still had 30 acres of grapes hanging on the vines in 2015 when heavy rains hit in early October. To make up for lost product, it will be introducing wines labeled as “American,” made from out-of-state grapes. This is a quandary many wineries face when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, but it might foster a reputation for using out-of-state grapes even in better years. Such a well-capitalized winery could have chosen to take the financial hit to protect its reputation.

And when your reputation — like it or not — is filtered through politics and your critics focus on your name rather than your product, even good wine can taste a little sour.