Thomas Jefferson, renowned horticulturalist and noted wine collector, tried for more than 50 years to grow grapes for fine wine in Virginia. Each attempt ended in disaster.
Two centuries later, Virginia winemakers are succeeding where Jefferson failed. Last month, a 1991 Cabernet Sauvignon from Autumn Hill Vineyards in Standardsville, Va. won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Fair wine competition against wines from around the world, including the Napa Valley.
A boom is occurring in winemaking around the United States. Today the phrase "wine country," which a few years ago meant Napa Valley and Sonoma County, now also means Charlottesville, Va.; Lubbock, Texas; Hermann, Mo.; Grand Junction, Colo., and Elephant Butte, N.M.
Scientific advances make this possible, giving man control over the elements as they relate to grape growing. The result is finer wine than could have been imagined even 20 years ago. In 1973, when Leon Adams wrote his book "The Wines of America" (McGraw-Hill), there were 254 bonded wineries in 18 states. Today, the Wines and Vines Magazine Annual Directory lists more than 1,200 bonded wineries in the United States; some 200 more exist as glorified home winemaking operations.
Only six states, says Wines and Vines publisher Sandy Hiaring, have no bonded wineries--South and North Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming, Nebraska and Delaware.
Of course, it isn't easy being an American wine pioneer. Extreme cold causes winterkill; pestilence ravages vines and drops crop sizes below profitability. Humidity causes mold and mildew that can trash the crop before harvest.
In some areas--Long Island, N.Y., for instance--hurricanes tear at vines. In West Texas, high winds, tornadoes and hail storms threaten plantings and rain can cause mold. Sudden temperature drops in Missouri and Wisconsin cause winterkill that destroys European vines and forces the use of hybrid grapes (which make wines that might taste unusual to those whose palates were trained on vinifera, or European-grape wines).
In these harsh climes, grape-growing has survived only through the development of better trellising systems, other methods to protect vines from harsh winters, the use of newer and safer fungicides and a host of other scientific advances.
The harsher the weather, the more expensive it is to make wine--yet winemakers all seem to love the challenge. They may know they'll never get rich; most say they do it for the love of the craft.
Virginia had no wineries 20 years ago, but in 1976, Robert de Treville Lawrence, aware of Jefferson's failed grape-growing efforts, planted vines in Fauquier County in northern Virginia and formed the Vinifera Winegrowers Society.
"By 1981, some fine wines were being made here, but they were exceptions rather than the rule," says Shep Rouse, winemaker for two small wineries as well as his own new Rockbridge Vineyards, founded months ago as Virginia's 44th bonded winery.
Six years ago, Bruce Geocklein was hired as state enologist and Tony Wolf as state viticulturist, working under the aegis of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Almost immediately, Rouse says, there was a marked improvement in Virginia wines. "In 1989, before the Governor's Cup Wine Competition, we did a pre-screening of the 110 wines that had been submitted, and we rejected only six. So we eliminated the pre-screening after 1989. The wines were pretty good."
Rouse says Virginia's main problem is a lack of control of water through the growing season. "Too much water," he says, "makes for a greater canopy of leaves, which means more humidity under the canopy, which can create fungus."
Modern trellis systems were needed, and they didn't come in until, as Rouse puts it, "the first wave of dilettantes left. The problem was that some of the early wines poisoned the well. The wines had a stigma because there was some pretty lousy stuff here."
Now, however, Virginia wine festivals attract huge crowds. In 1987, the two-day Vintage Virginia wine festival (started in 1982) had 4,000 visitors. This year's event in June attracted 30,000 who paid $15 each. Thirty-six wineries participated.
The first wineries in Virginia--Piedmont Vineyards and Meredyth Vineyards--remain successful, the latter under former philosophy teacher Archie Smith III. The most aggressive is Prince Michel Vineyards in Leon, which recently hired winemaker Gale Sysock away from Santa Barbara's Zaca Mesa Winery.
One of the earliest success stories in the non-West Coast wine game came on the East Coast, in New York's Finger Lakes district northwest of New York City. Forty years ago, cold winters and humidity in summer made growing French grapes difficult, so hybrids--crosses of native American and French grape varieties--were developed. These hardier vines survived harsh weather, though the wines can have an aroma that is odd to those unfamiliar with them. They take getting used to.