Virginia Wine Country Has a Chef Mega-Fan
"People of America!” José Andrés cries. “We are here!”
In this particular instance—Andrés has uttered the same statement five or six times so far on our high-speed tour of Virginia wine country—“here” means the cellar underneath RdV Vineyards. And though Andrés typically flings up both arms in a kind of nationally embracing, I-love-life way when he cries his “people of America” cry, at the moment he’s foiled. It’s hard to throw up your arms when you’re holding a 100-pound bottle of wine.
Technically termed a Melchior, the bottle in question holds 18 liters of wine, the equivalent of 24 regular bottles. It looks more like a jet-black scuba tank than a wine bottle, but it’s filled with RdV’s 2011 Rendezvous, a polished, formidable Merlot blend. The winery specially produced 10 of these bottles for Andrés, who now pours them by the glass at his new America Eats Tavern in Tysons Corner, Virginia. After the winery director takes a couple of photos, Andrés sets down the bottle—not without effort—and puts his arm around RdV owner Rutger de Vink. He says, “You and I, we are going to run the marathon with these on our shoulders.”
The tricky thing about Andrés is separating the mile-a-minute ideas he throws out into what will never happen versus what he actually might do. For instance, it does seem unlikely that the chef will ever run a marathon carrying a 100-pound bottle of wine on his back (though de Vink, a 6'3" former marine who spent time in Mogadishu, probably could). But there seems to be nothing else Andrés can’t do, at least when it comes to food. His ThinkFoodGroup organization now owns 19 restaurants in Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Beverly Hills, Miami and Puerto Rico, with more on the way; he’s importing a line of José Andrés–branded Spanish food products, from canned razor clams to olive oil to potato chips; he’s a star TV chef in the US and Spain. At the same time, he’s a tireless advocate on food issues. In 2010, he created a humanitarian nonprofit called World Central Kitchen to fight hunger and poverty by creating local food jobs and helping people build better kitchens. His inspiration was volunteering in Haiti after the earthquake; the work now extends to other countries in Central and South America and Africa.
On top of all that, Andrés—who became a US citizen in 2013—is also a 100 percent, die-hard, to-the-core fan of Virginia wine. “Virginia!” he yelled as we crossed the state line. “It’s the heart of American history, right? Virginia! Virginia! Virginia!!!” Then he paused and said thoughtfully, “Sometimes I worry maybe people will think I am a crazy Confederate person when I do that.”
Andrés’s interest in Virginia’s wines goes back to his arrival in DC, 23 years ago. It also parallels the recent rise of the Virginia wine industry. The state’s overall history with wine is long—in the late 1800s, wines from Virginia earned top prizes at the Paris and Vienna World’s Fairs, and earlier, Thomas Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to make wines from European grape varieties at Monticello (“The vine is the parent of misery,” he wrote in one letter to a friend).
But the real birth of Virginia wine came in 1976, when Gianni Zonin, the scion of an Italian winemaking family, bought the historic Barbour estate and planted vineyards there. Barboursville, as he christened it, was a success, and it spurred others; by 1995 there were 46 wineries in the state. Today there are almost 250. Plenty make their mortgage payments by selling sweet white plonk to limo-loads of tipsy bachelorettes. But the best are making wines that can compete with those from anywhere else in the United States, California included.
Take the 2012 Linden Vineyards Hardscrabble Chardonnay, from one of the first stops on our pilgrimage. Like many of the best Virginia wines, it hits a midpoint between American opulence and European structure and restraint: honeysuckle-scented, crisp and stony on its finish. The vines were planted by Linden’s owner, Jim Law, back in 1985 on a site near the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He called the place Hardscrabble because the soil was so poor, plus, he said, “Most of the farmers up here lived in log cabins, which was seen as lower-class.”
Law’s a quiet, reserved fellow, and though he has known Andrés for two decades, he seemed bemused by the chef’s offer to have him do a wine event or two at America Eats Tavern.
“If you can get me to Tysons Corner, that’s impressive,” Law said. “I don’t get out too much. I like it right here.”
“He’ll come,” Andrés assured me, checking his phone as our driver took us back down the hill. “He knows—goal! Goal!Gooooooooalllll!” he yelled at top volume. “Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!”
“I guess someone scored?” I said.
“Yes,” Andrés replied, still staring at the phone. “Did I show you the video?”
“Of the goal?”
“No, for the fast food concept. It’s amazing. I forgot to show you? Yes! I am ADD all the time.” He looked up from the phone, out the car window, and sighed with contentment. “To me, this countryside, Virginia wine country, is far more beautiful than Napa Valley.”
In 1993, when Andrés first started visiting Virginia wineries, it was simply a nice way to spend a weekend. “My father used to take me to Penedès, to cava country,” he told me. “So, many years later, I was coming back on a family trip to wine country, but it was Virginia, not Catalonia.”
Having been to both, I’ll go out on a limb: Virginia is actually the prettier of the two. Rolling green hills, black-fenced equestrian estates, small farms and vineyards, the gentle Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop—it’s quite gorgeous. But all that natural beauty doesn’t mean growing grapes here isn’t a total pain in the neck. Andrés and I tasted superb wines at every winery we visited, but we also heard dire tales of the tiny 2010 vintage, a drought year; 2011, when both Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee blasted through the state right in the middle of harvest; and 2013, which had brutal frosts during the spring—destroying the acorn crop, as one winemaker told me, which caused hordes of ravenous raccoons to descend on the vineyards. Even in good years, the weather is problematic: often wet, with hot, humid summers. Faced with these conditions, and given the relative youth of the industry here, it’s no surprise that Virginia winemakers are still figuring out what grapes are best suited to the place.
Barboursville Vineyards was one of our last stops before the lunch at RdV. Its top wine, a polished, Bordeaux-style blend called Octagon, is universally considered one of the best in the state, but winemaker Luca Paschina makes about 20 others as well. We tasted them out on the winery’s terrace, looking across the red-dirt vineyards toward the low-lying hills. It was an interesting exercise in that it made clear something I’d felt at the other wineries we’d visited, too: It’s still very hard to tell what will eventually become Virginia’s signature grape. Viognier was touted early on (it’s now one of the most widely planted varieties in the state), and the Barboursville peach-citrusy 2013 Viognier Reserve was a charming wine, but I much preferred the stony, elegant 2013 Vermentino Reserve—made with a coastal Italian grape that Paschina only started cultivating recently. Other varieties at other wineries showed promise, too: Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc and Tannat, to name a few.
Out in the vineyards after the tasting, Andrés launched into an impromptu lesson about cooking with grape shoots: “The first time I ate them was in Ribera del Duero, in Spain. We made a salad. Or you make a scramble with eggs and ramps. See, you peel the shoot like this.” As we munched the raw shoots (sort of like very young asparagus, with a lemony tang), Andrés and Paschina agreed to go morel-foraging this coming spring. “In a good year, I find as many as six or seven thousand morels in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Paschina said.
“Boomba!” Andrés said. “That many?”
“Yes. But you can’t bring anyone with you. I need to keep my sources secret.”
There weren’t any secretly sourced morels at hand when we got to RdV, but there were plenty of fresh chanterelles. And they looked great, simmering in olive oil over an open fire, next to a vineyard, under a beautiful blue sky. They were part of the lunch’s centerpiece dish, a massive arroz con pollo spiced with sweet smoked paprika, fresh thyme and saffron. The guests included Andrés; de Vink and his girlfriend, Jenny Marie; the winery’s estate director, Jarad Slipp; and several others. Some of Andrés’s kitchen staff were there, too, and subject to ribbing from the chef.
“It’s the best cooking wine in history,” Andrés was saying, for instance, as one cook added some of the recently blended RdV red to a dish. “We don’t cook with just any wine—what? You put in that much?! You are breaking my bones!”
RdV is a high-budget project that wouldn’t look out of place in Napa Valley. But it’s still, like all vineyards, a farm, despite the fact that the rocky land is officially classified as “inappropriate for agriculture.” (When de Vink announced his intention to plant a vineyard, the former owner looked at him like he was out of his mind and said, “Boy, nothin’ is gonna grow on that pile of rocks.”) But many of Virginia’s best vineyards are on farmland that would be useless for other crops. At another stop on the official José Andrés “Sleep? When we are under the dirt, then we can sleep!” wine tour, Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards explained, “You can’t plant wheat or corn on a mountainside.”
White added that when he was first planting his vineyard, back in 1995, he’d visited his grandfather in the hospital and asked, “You think it’s a good idea, planting this vineyard?”
His grandfather said, “Yes, I do.”
“Think it’s going to make any money?”
His grandfather, White said, just looked at him and shook his head no.
That conversation was on my mind as the time came to add rice to the arroz con pollo. Andrés gathered everyone into a circle around the pan and had us cup our hands. He poured out handfuls of Spanish Bomba rice, saying, “Now we give thanks to the farmer! Everyone throw the rice. Every grain has to go in—ready? One, two, three!” We all hurled our handfuls of rice into the vast, bubbling pan, giving thanks to farmers and grape growers, in Virginia and everywhere.