Upon visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, replete with orchards, gardens and even vineyards, it’s apparent he saw great potential for agricultural in Virginia. A well-known Francophile, Jefferson planted the first European grape varieties there, striving to replicate the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Yet throughout his 56 years of experimentation, he never produced a bottle of wine because of the vine louse phylloxera. Today, his legacy is carried on much more successfully by a new set of revolutionaries who are pushing the boundaries of wine, cider, beer and spirits.
Jim Law | Linden Vineyards
“How many people get an opportunity to discover what the terroir is in a new region?” says Law. “Europeans have been [making wine] forever, so they can’t. But we can!”
It was this pioneering spirit that led Law to northern Virginia in the early 1980s, where he established Linden Vineyards and set out to define the region’s terroir.
When he planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Seyval and Vidal on the original six-acre Hardscrabble Vineyard plot back in 1985, Law wasn’t sure how it would all pan out.
“Most of our influence was coming from California, not Europe, at that time, and we really didn’t understand soil-vine relationships at all,” he says. “It wasn’t until about 15 years ago. All of a sudden the light bulb went off when I started traveling to Bordeaux.”
In Virginia, the annual rainfall hovers around 40 inches, making it a wet, maritime-influenced growing region, much like Bordeaux. Using the model of Right Bank chateaus that plant Merlot on water-retentive clay soils and Left Bank chateaus that cultivate Cabernet Sauvignon on well-drained gravel, Law tore up most of his original vines, expanded the vineyard and began to plant grapes.
“All of a sudden the light bulb went off when I started traveling to Bordeaux.”
Now, with 18 acres planted in his self-managed Hardscrabble Vineyard, as well as partner-growers who manage the Avenius and Boisseau vineyards, Law is finally starting to see the potential of each site.
“The vineyards are established now, and we don’t really do much to express the different aspects of each site,” Law says. “The winemaking is pretty much the same, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Law’s Hardscrabble bottlings of Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend have created great demand. Only released under the vineyard name in good vintages, these wines strike a balance between Old World restraint and New World fruit expression. They’ve become the benchmark for what many Virginia winemakers strive to attain—wines that express time and place.
Wines To Try:
Linden 2013 Hardscrabble Chardonnay, $40
Linden 2012 Boisseau Red, $45
Linden 2012 Hardscrabble Red, $50
Riaan Rossouw | Lovingston Winery
A self-proclaimed hermit in the Virginia wine scene, Rossouw, of Lovingston Winery, has marched to his own beat. From Wellington, South Africa, his formative years were spent among the vineyards of co-op wineries that neighbored his home.
Rossouw worked his way up the winemaking ranks, first as a vineyard worker and cellar rat for wineries in South Africa. He became a winemaker in 2000 for (then) Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Beginning with the first vintage at Lovingston in 2005, Rossouw has guided the 8.5-acre estate to express a personality as unique and intense as his own.
“All the little nuances that come in a wine, I believe that comes from a vineyard’s territory,” says Rossouw. “As a winemaker, you have to try to elevate the purity, transparency and clarity of those qualities.”
Rossouw shies away from the heavily structured style of red wines often found in Petit Verdot, Tannat and Bordeaux-style blends from Virginia. His wines are delicate and restrained, often sticking out as the lighter-hued wines in a lineup of reds. The Merlot is plush and soft, the Cabernet Franc nuanced and earthy and the pet-project Pinotage is light-bodied and gamy.
“Some people will reject what you’re doing in the bottle, but you still have to do it, Otherwise, you’ll just be stuck as some little winery making square wines.”
“The more I can break the stereotypical concept of wine and explore new territories within Merlot, Cab Franc and Pinotage, the more it’s triggered my mind to ask the question, ‘How far can I really go?’ ” says Rossouw.
Rossouw strives to push boundaries with every vintage. Minimal sulfur use (except at bottling) makes his winemaking style risky. Also, his experimentation with carbonic maceration, skin-contact white wines and stem inclusion for red wines are a bit unorthodox. To him, it’s like creating a controversial work of art.
“Some people will reject what you’re doing in the bottle, but you still have to do it,” says Rossouw. “Otherwise, you’ll just be stuck as some little winery making square wines. I’m here to give dynamic interest and flare to our industry.”
Wines To Try:
Lovingston 2014 Gilbert’s Vineyard Pinotage, $25
Lovingston 2014 Josie’s Knoll Cabernet Franc, $25
Lovingston 2014 Josie’s Knoll Merlot,$22
Luca Paschina | Barboursville Vineyards
Coming into his 26th vintage with Zonin-owned Barboursville Vineyards, Paschina, a native of Piedmont, Italy, is one of the frontrunners in the Virginia wine industry. Since starting as a consultant at Barboursville in the early 1990s, Paschina has taken the reins of this great estate, once owned by early 19th-century Virginia governor James Barbour. He’s experimented with numerous grape varieties and developed high-quality wines.
His first vintage in Virginia (1990) was a cold and wet year, but Paschina still saw promise in the region.
“Despite the conditions, I perceived that the wines had potentially good aromatic precursors,” he says. “This perception was confirmed with the following warm and dry vintage.”
These swings from year to year make achieving consistency difficult.
“Cabernet Franc was definitely a winner since the 1976 planting. It is still today, along with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Nebbiolo.”
When Gianni Zonin purchased the plantation in the late 1970s, his team planted several different varieties. Alicante Bouschet, Malvasia Bianca, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer were among the mix, yet these did not produce consistent quality wine.
“Cabernet Franc was definitely a winner since the 1976 planting,” says Paschina. “It is still today, along with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Nebbiolo.”
In the mid-1990s, Paschina and his team began blending trials to develop an iconic wine that paid homage to the estate’s history. This began the legacy of Octagon, which harkens back to Thomas Jefferson, who designed the central octagon drawing room in Barbour’s mansion.
Octagon is “the grand vin that best represents the terroir of our Davidson red clay, coming from the blending of up to nine parcels, including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Paschina.
Beyond this top-echelon bottling, Paschina has been the driving force behind experimentation with other grape varieties like Nebbiolo, Vermentino and Ribolla Gialla. As Barboursville celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Paschina’s pioneering spirit and drive for quality is likely to lead the winery to a lasting future.
Wines To Try:
Barboursville 2014 Reserve Vermentino, $23
Barboursville 2013 Octagon, $55
Barboursville 2013 Reserve Nebbiolo, $35
Diane Flynt | Foggy Ridge Cider
Tenacious and headstrong in advocating for quality cider, Flynt, of Foggy Ridge Cider, will admit she gets on a soap box from time to time. But when you’re a two-time James Beard Award nominee who makes world-class ciders, a little preaching is allowed.
After leaving the banking industry in the late 1990s, Flynt began cultivating long-forgotten apple varieties—Hewe’s Crab, Harrison, Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett and more. These high-acid, high-tannin varieties were essential in reviving a beverage that was an integral part of colonial America.
“When my husband and I planted the orchard, our goal, really, was to grow ingredients and to start with ingredients,” says Flynt.
While cider can be made with readily available varieties like McIntosh, Gala and Red Delicious, they lack the astringent tannins and sharp acids that contribute to a well-structured, complex cider. Through advice from Steve Wood, American orchardist of Farnum Hill Ciders, and Peter Mitchell, the foremost cider and perry authority in the United Kingdom, Flynt learned she had to grow the heirloom varieties in order to make high-quality cider.
“We have a style of a production year that’s very much like wine. We harvest in the fall, begin fermenting slowly as possible up through the winter, blend, bottle, briefly rest and start again.”
Since the sale of the first bottle in 2005, Foggy Ridge has ranked among the top cider producers in America, with Flynt crafting well-loved high-acid, fruit-forward ciders that range from dry to off dry in style.
“We have a style of a production year that’s very much like wine,” she says. “We harvest in the fall, begin fermenting slowly as possible up through the winter, blend, bottle, briefly rest and start again.”
With cider often considered a beer alternative, Flynt counters that cider and wine belong hand-in-hand.
This sentiment was only strengthened in 2015 when Flynt rejoined the Virginia Wine Board, a group of growers and winery representatives that educate and market Virginia wine and cider, as well as promote research for further advancement. With this and many other regional organizations, Flynt is truly one of the leaders in the American cider industry.
Ciders To Try:
First Fruit, $16
Serious Cider, $18
Stayman Winesap, $16
Patrick Murtaugh | Hardywood Park Craft Brewery
Murtaugh has brewing in his blood. His great-great-grandfather made the lauded Gold Medal Tivoli Lager for Springfield Breweries Co. near the turn of the 19th century, awarded a gold medal at the International Exposition in Baden-Baden, Germany.
His great-grandfather and great-uncle share his alma mater, the World Brewing Academy at the Siebel Institute. It’s not shocking that he’s become a brew master and cofounder of a craft brewery.
In the early 2000s, Murtaugh and business partner Eric McKay were slinging bottles and drafts in New York City for Union Beer Distributors. They worked with some of the top beer brands at the time like Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, Allagash, Ommegang and Chimay.
Murtaugh felt a new brand would get lost in such a large market like New York City. So after honing their marketing skills, in 2011 they opened a brewery in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond possessed a captive audience of consumers already engaged in the growing wine-and-food scene. With its proximity to wine country, along with a bounty of available local produce, the two saw beer as an untapped need in the market.
“It just makes sense to work with the community, whether it’s in a charitable way or supporting the farmers.”
When the community welcomed Murtaugh and his team with open arms, giving back only seemed natural. In the Reserve Series of beers, Murtaugh works with local farmers or artisans to source ingredients, like ginger and honey in the Gingerbread Stout or hops gathered from the surrounding area in the RVA IPA.
Murtaugh also developed brews that directly impact the local community. The brewery gives $5 of every barrel sold of Give Bock to regional hunger-relief organization Feed More. $10 from each barrel of The Great Return supports the James River Association, which seeks to restore the river’s aquatic life.
“It just makes sense to work with the community, whether it’s in a charitable way or supporting the farmers,” says Murtaugh. “There are so many great local ingredients around. Why not support the community that supports us?”
Beers To Try:
Gingerbread Stout, $10/ 750 ml
Give Bock, $12/ 12oz 6 pack
RVA IPA, $10/ 750 ml
Jonathan Staples | James River Distillery
From D.C. political fundraiser and restaurateur to farm manager and distillery co-owner, Staples is truly a Renaissance man. Along with partners Matt Brophy (also CEO and brew master of Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland) and Kristi Croxton, as well as Head Distiller Dwight Chew, Staples is pushing the envelope with regionally focused spirits.
Opening in 2014, James River Distillery exploded on the market with its flagship product, Commonwealth Gin. Made in a “New Western Style,” this aromatic distillate is focused less on juniper and more on ginger, cantaloupe, coriander, cardamom and black pepper. It also incorporates a unique botanical: hops. Using the Amarillo variety, which emphasizes fruity, citrusy flavors, the hops are not meant to be in the foreground.
“We use hops as a botanical and didn’t treat them with any more prominence than the other ones,” says Staples. “We wanted it to be a good gin with hops, as opposed to a gin with hops that makes a big deal about it.”
The distillery uses close to 100 percent Virginia-grown ingredients for its line of three gins and one aquavit, but there are certain products that are not available locally. However, Staples is experimenting with growing wild juniper and a variety of hops on his northern Virginia farm in the hopes of making an entirely local gin.
“Using wild or cultivated Virginia products in a way that isn’t common or hasn’t been done is a big part of the project. It’s taking farm-to-table out of the kitchen and into the bar.”
The aquavit incorporates a piece of Virginia rarely seen in spirits. Aptly named Øster Vit, oyster shells from the Rappahannock Oyster Company are rested in the spirit post-distillation, imparting a bit of brininess to the caraway-forward spirit.
While using hops in gin and oyster shells in aquavit may be uncommon, Staples says integrating the region’s bounty adds a unique calling card to his spirits.
“Using wild or cultivated Virginia products in a way that isn’t common or hasn’t been done is a big part of the project,” he says. “It’s taking farm-to-table out of the kitchen and into the bar.”
Spirits To Try:
Commonwealth Gin, $34
Continental Gin, $34
Øster Vit, $36