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Yes, Virginia

Thomas Jefferson thought the Old Dominion was prime wine country. Now we know he was right.

Virginia winemakers are producing Bordeaux blends in steep-shouldered bottles and they're aging their Char-donnays in trendy French oak, but I don't think of those things when I think of Virginia wines. Instead, I think of little rivers flowing off smoky mountains and the soft, green contours of the Old Dominion piedmont, trussed by vines.

This vision first came to me with a glass of Linden Vineyards Cabernet Franc, made less than 10 miles from my home. Though I have lived a few years in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, the winery was unfamiliar to me. But in that initial mouthful of wine, ripe and dense with flavor, I found all the assurance I needed that my neighborhood was blessed. Indeed, the vinous future of the entire state of Virginia seemed to be exceptionally bright.

I made plans to visit Linden and a few other wineries I'd heard good things about. But before I hit the road, I brushed up on Virginia's wine history, which turned out to be, more or less, a study of Thomas Jefferson. Though Jefferson may have written the Declaration of Independence, he did something really important when he introduced European Vitis vinifera to the slopes around Monticello. Unfortunately, Jefferson's grapes were done in by cold winters and fungal problems brought on by steamy mid-Atlantic summers. And while his effort was a failure of epic proportions, Jefferson never lost faith in Virginia as a place where noble grapes could be grown.

Now, nearly two centuries later, the state's wines finally seem to be making their mark. Many of them are not merely good, but very good, as I discovered on a day's ramble that began near Monticello and ended about 60 miles north, close to the headwaters of the Rappahannock River. Much of the time I traveled in the afternoon shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, passing through the mythic country defended by American patriots, southern and otherwise, and tilled by the same kinds of pioneers who turned northern California into a winemaking mecca.

My first stop was Horton vineyards, which lies northeast of Charlottesville and within view of the mountains, the visual touchstone of my tour. Horton makes several impressive wines with Cabernet Franc, a grape that does well during Virginia's often rainy harvests. However, the winery does even more laudable work with Viognier, the temperamental white grape from the Rhône Valley. At Horton, it emerges as a dry, full-bodied wine with peachy overtones equal to any food, including Asian. (Think, when tasting it, of the Chinese Chippendale railings gracing Monticello.)

The winery's owner, Dennis Horton, a sturdy entrepreneur who resides in an ersatz Tudor castle, is determined to master the terrain with old-world methods. Ironically, Horton was the first to bring an American hybrid, Norton, back to its native Virginia and make it into a generous red wine that after a half-dozen years of aging is a dead ringer for Cabernet Sauvignon. Norton, according to Horton, is bulletproof, an indestructible American component in the mostly European blends of Virginia's best wines.

Just down the road from Horton is Barboursville Vineyards, named for James Barbour, governor of Virginia from 1812 to 1814 and a friend of Jefferson's. The absentee Italian owners, the Zonin family, have left their mark in the Barbera and Pinot Grigio planted amid Barboursville's mostly French varieties. Among their best bottlings is Octagon, a flavorful blend of Bordeaux grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jefferson designed Barboursville's estate house, which now lies largely in ruins. Visitors to the winery may stroll around the remains of the house, which is overgrown with ivy and towering boxwood hedges. The four Doric columns and exposed brick are deeply suggestive of early-19th-century rural life in America, the impermanence of things made by man and the endur-ance of the land and what grows on it.

The road north from Barboursville skirts Montpelier, James Madison's home. I headed toward the mountains, across the tired red dirt fields of the yeoman farms that Jefferson considered the backbone of the country. These fields alternate with broader ones that are bordered by split-rail fences and stone walls. This is classic Virginia hunt country, as shown by road signs depicting a horse and rider.

Farther north, in Rappahannock County, I stopped by Gray Ghost Vineyards, a smallish operation where business is conducted in what looks like a former farm shed. Set amid vines, this winery seemed to me just the sort of family operation Jefferson would have liked, a certified agrarian ideal. Amy Kellert, a daughter of one of Gray Ghost's founders, offered me a tasting of several wines that included two Cabernets, a Chardonnay, a Merlot and some French hybrids, all well-made, all reasonably priced. "This is a hobby that sort of got out of control," she happily informed me.

I finally arrived at Linden Vineyards, just south of Interstate 66, via a steep driveway hard up against the Blue Ridge Mountains. I started in the tasting room with a glass of the Linden Cabernet Franc that had inspired my journey. But the proprietor, Jim Law, a soft-spoken man with a red beard, had other ideas for me.

A former economics student and Peace Corps volunteer, Law had also spent time in the vineyards of California in the mid-Eighties. But, he said, "prospects in the East seemed more exciting." He considered the diversity of climate and soils in these mountain vineyards, the thriving market in Washington, D.C., and the "good neighbors" nearby, then he moved to Virginia and bottled his first Linden vintage in 1987.

Law offered me several wines, in-cluding a Cabernet Sauvignon that particularly impressed me, a Chardonnay and a blend of Riesling and the white hybrid grape Vidal.

"A portion of the public decided a long time ago that Virginia wine was no good," Law said, looking out over his sloping vineyards on this northern extremity of Jeffersonia. "Our goal was to win those people over."

Certainly one obstacle to winning them over to Virginia wines may be price. Jefferson once wrote, "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap." Although Jefferson might not consider the Virginia wines of today exactly inexpensive, it's likely he wouldn't consider the top wines from California or France to be much better bargains. But the crucial factor above all else is, of course, quality. And increasingly the difference between Virginia wines and the best of the sainted elsewheres is rapidly disappearing, washed away by the dedication and tastes of this new, old land.

James Conaway is a freelance writer and the author of the best-selling book Napa.

Published May 1999
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