I’d heard promising things about the state of winemaking in the state of Virginia, and so I was excited to see for myself what’s happening down there.
Dan Dunn is taking an extensive road trip across America to research his forthcoming book, American Wino: A Story of Reds, Whites and One Writer’s Blues on the Winey Road to Redemption (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). This is the eighth in a series of weekly dispatches chronicling his journey.
Day 61 or So: Middleburg, VA
I’d heard promising things about the state of winemaking in the state of Virginia, and so I was excited to see for myself what’s happening down there. I spent four days moving north to south, and I must say, the Old Dominion did not disappoint. As Food & Wine’s own Ray Isle recently observed, Virginia is among a handful of up-and-coming American viticultural regions “producing some remarkable, can-compete-with-anybody wines.”
For the first time since pulling out of Washington—oh, six weeks or so ago—I’m happy to report that virtually every wine I tried across a state was at least pretty good, and in many cases excellent.
There are seven AVAs in Virginia, and Middleburg—located 50 miles west of Washington, DC—is the newest. My first stop there was Boxwood Winery, a marvel of modernist design that the Washington Post described as “a pristine temple of winemaking.” It was designed by the acclaimed architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, and belongs to the Kent Cooke family, who used to own the Washington Redskins before Daniel Snyder came along and ruined everything.
Rachel Martin, Boxwood’s executive vice president, tasted me through a delightful array of Bordeaux-style reds. My favorite among them was Topiary, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that was as elegant and smooth as Art Monk running a fly pattern. It would hold its own against almost any of the standout wines I’d had in Northern California and Oregon.
Over dinner in the Gold Cup Wine Bar at the posh Salamander Resort and Spa, I had the pleasure of getting a lively and comprehensive lesson on the history of Virginia wine from the inimitable Jenny McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards, the leading purveyor of wine made from Virginia’s native grape, Norton.
Once a staple, before virtually disappearing during Prohibition, the hardy Norton—most likely the oldest native grape now being widely cultivated in America—is once again gaining popularity in challenging growing regions where it thrives, such as Virginia and Missouri. It’s an acquired taste. Frankly, I find the nose off-puttingly funky, and the juice itself tends to be overly raisiny. But large swaths of winos have taken a serious liking to it, and Norton clearly is having its day once again.
The next day: Delaplane and Linden, VA
Of all the winemakers I’ve met along the way on this oenophilic odyssey, Rutger de Vink is the one most likely to inspire a character in a romance novel. Tall, rugged, handsome. Dutch. Came to the US in high school, then joined the Marines. Served in a recon unit in Somalia, where it’s entirely possible he took down hordes of terrorists with his bare hands (de Vink, of course, had no comment). After the military he earned an MBA from Northwestern, and started making gobs of money working in finance. Then one day he decided he’d had enough of the rat race. Quit his job and devoted his life to working the land. He fell in love with winemaking.
Did I mention that Rutger de Vink runs marathons backwards and goes mountain climbing naked in Alaska every year? Ya, he does. While carrying kids from the Make-a-Wish Foundation on his back. Are you taking notes, Deborah Bladon?
In the early 2000s, de Vink studied under the Godfather of Virginia winemaking, Jim Law of Linden Vineyards (more on him in a moment), bought a perfect plot of vine land overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains (where he lives to this day in an Airstream) and recruited two of the world’s top consultants, Eric Boissenot and fellow Dutchman Kees Van Leeuwen, to help him realize his dream of producing world-class Bordeaux varieties in Virginia.
Did I mention that Rutger de Vink’s dog has been on the cover of GQ? It’s true. And he wrestles bears for charity. Then finds permanent homes for the vanquished bears.
RdV Vineyards first release was 2008. And six years later it is, in my humble opinion, making the best wine in Virginia. I would drink these wines every day of the week and twice on Sunday. In fact, I drank two bottles of Rendezvous last Sunday. What I will never do, though, is let anyone I’m dating anywhere near Rutger de Vink. The dude’s a Monster of Charm.
I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked with Jim Law at Linden. As anyone who knows anything will tell you, Law has played a major role in bringing Virginia wine to the national stage. After a few years volunteering in the Peace Corps in Zaire, Law moved to Virginia in 1983 and purchased an abandoned farm off of Route 638. He transformed that hardscrabble plot of land into one of the East Coast’s finest vineyards. Simply put, the man knows how to make wine as well as anyone who’s ever done it down there, and is responsible for tutoring some of the most promising winemakers of Virginia’s next generation.
Some Days Later: Barboursville Vineyards, Barboursville, VA; Jefferson Vineyard, Trump Winery, Blenheim Vineyard, Charlottesville, VA
I wish I could devote a lot more space to extolling the virtues of Virginia wines. Alas, I exceeded my word count back at Zaire. So let’s wrap it up...
—Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards is a hell of a winemaker and an even finer human being. If you visit, and you should, bring along a bottle of Powers Irish Whiskey to share. Luca can’t get enough of the stuff. As for the wine, I recommend the 2010 Octagon, 2010 Petit Verdot Reserve and any of the Viognier.
—When Kluge Estate, situated in the heart of the Monticello Wine Trail, went belly-up a few years ago, The Donald swooped in and bought the place before anyone who actually knows anything about wine could blink. First thing he told the staff was “You’re fired...fired up about creating a warm and welcoming environment for people to come enjoy good wine.” And that’s just what winemaker Jonathan Wheeler and his team have done. Try the sparkling rosé and the cru-fortified Chardonnay.
—Dave Matthews owns Blenheim, and apparently visits frequently. Reportedly, so does the angry ghost of a slave who was killed on the property during the Civil War. I recommend the Viognier, the Painted Red blend, and not going anywhere near the place at night.
—Google Gabriele Rausse...quite possible the most interesting man I met in Virginia. I’ll expand upon this in the book. And finally...
According to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, Virginia is tied with Texas as the nation’s fifth largest wine grape–producing state. For no particular reason I tried to foment unrest by contacting the governor’s office—twice —to pitch a plan for overtaking their Lonestar State rivals. It involved getting them drunk, stealing their guns and, in the dead of night, annexing everything but Lubbock.
The governor has yet to return my calls.
Next week... The Red States: Let’s Go Fishing With Dynamite!
For more on Dan’s journey, follow him on Twitter @TheImbiber