Virginia's History of Winemaking

Have you heard the one about how many Virginians it takes to open a bottle of wine?

Three—one to open it and the other two to lament about how good the old bottle was.

It’s true that many Virginians strongly honor the past—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes you have to know where you came from in order to know where you are going.

The road to success has been rocky, to say the least; early winemakers found difficulty in growing winemaking grapes. The Civil War decimated vineyards growing a viable fruit. Not long after vintages in the late 19th century garnered worldwide acclaim, Prohibition hit. During the 20th century, with a focus on French, then California, wines, Virginia struggled to find a place at the table.

But things have changed. There is little doubt in knowing where the commonwealth’s wine industry is growing. Travel + Leisure magazine named Virginia one of the top five new wine travel destinations in the world a few years back. And, more than a million folks visit one of the state’s 200-plus wineries each year.

A Brave—And Thirsty—New World

Colonists first tried to make wine in 1609 with gathered, uncultivated grapes, producing nearly 20 gallons. They took a drink and promptly regretted it. 

The would-be imbibers described the taste as foxy and the fragrance as that of a wet dog and proclaimed the first vintage undrinkable. The grapes were probably native scuppernong, and not a variety of vitis vinifera that produces the quality wines associated with European vintages.

They tried, and tried again, but by 1618, the settlers abandoned the idea of making wine with native grapes altogether, and the Virginia Company brought more than eight French vines and winemakers, or vignerons. 

Those efforts failed too—a combination of the European vines not being suited to the hotter, more humid climate in Virginia, as well as introduction to a new host of disease and pests, killed them off. 

Other initiatives were futile. After a while, the momentum for producing commercial wine was lost, but was not abandoned.

Among those who sought answers was Thomas Jefferson, who many consider America’s first wine connoisseur. Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was a true oenophile with a dream of turning Virginia into a major wine producing state.

Intoxicated with all things French, while Jefferson served in that country as ambassador, he spent much of this time learning the skills of winemaking. He wanted to successfully grow the vitis vinifera in Virginia and produce quality, European-styles wines in America.

He wasn’t successful, either.

The Norton Grape and Hybrids

norton grapesWhile many were looking for a way to successfully grow vitis vinifera on Virginia soil, Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton was developing his own grape from the native American vitis aestivalis to be a viable wine-making fruit. 

It is believed Norton grapes are a hybrid of the vitis aestivalis and either a type of vitis vinifera or, as some of Norton’s notes indicate, with a long-forgotten grape.

Norton first grew the hybrid in Richmond in 1830. The flavor is intense, similar to the Concord but slightly less sweet. Winemakers realized the value in using the Norton grape to produce high-quality, dry table wine, unusual for a native American grape.

With the use of Norton, advancements were being made in winemaking just as the Civil War hit. By the time the war was over, the majority of Virginia vineyards had been neglected or destroyed. 

But in the late 1800s, grape production increased, and Virginia was becoming noted for wine production, largely through Charlottesville’s Monticello Wine Company and Norfolk’s Virginia Dare Wine label from Paul Garrett & Co.

Prohibition and a Slow Recovery

Long before the 18th Amendment established a nationwide ban on alcohol, towns and counties, particularly in the South, became dry.

With the Temperance movement, wine production slowed down significantly in the early 1900s. On January 16, 1920, Prohibition was established.

It was repealed in 1933, but the damage to wine producers was already done. Many wineries, not just in Virginia but nationwide, had gone out of business, and their vines plowed under. 

Farmers turned to other crops besides cultivating grapes. Another contributing factor was the Great Depression; available farmland was often used on known cash crops, like tobacco. 

The state lost their standing in quality wines, and for the next 40-plus years, only fruit wines, fortified wines and wines with little notoriety were corked.

A decade later, however, a renewed national interest in wine in the 1960s gave momentum to Virginia farmers who began to again experiment with hybrids. There were several industry pioneers at this time, many working in tandem to find the secrets for successful grape growth. 

Pioneers emerged: Charles “Chuck” Raney’s Farfelu Vineyards and Archie Smith’s Meredyth Vineyards.

Virginia entered the modern-era of winemaking when Italian Gianni Zonin, part of winemaking family since1821, purchased land near Charlottesville in 1976 that is today Barboursville Vineyards. (Get acquainted with their Octagon here.)

The family sent their vineyard manager, Gabriele Rausse, to grow European grapes, which flourished. The Zonin operation became the first in the state to plant and successfully establish vitis vinifera.

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