The Grapes of Jefferson’s Dreams
The Growing Acclaim of Charlottesville’s Wine
When he planted a vineyard at his home in Monticello some 200 years ago, it was Thomas Jefferson’s dream that vineyards and wines from his native state would one day stand with the great wines of the Old World. Jefferson’s vision remained unfulfilled in his lifetime, but in the 21st century his dream has become reality. Virginia wine country, long developing under the radar of connoisseurs and enthusiasts, is now an international libation destination.
The nation’s fifth largest wine producer and seventh largest producer of wine grapes, Virginia wine sales reached a record high last year with nearly half a million cases sold, an increase of more than 11 percent over the previous year. Wine contributes almost $350 million to the state on an annual basis, with around one million annual visitors to the state now including local wineries among their travel destinations. Wine Enthusiast magazine even named Virginia as one of the ten best international wine destinations this year, alongside regions in California, New Zealand, Chile, Spain and France.
And while the success might seem like so much glitz, it is really a testament to the decades of sweat, blood and tears that Virginia winemakers have poured into the land. Flying under the radar of the international wine community, these devoted servants of the grape explored varietals best suited to the area—which they could only do through trial and error during the summer growing season (and grape vines take years to mature)—experimenting with almost every available grape, all while developing farming and harvesting patterns to meet with the rigorous needs of the region’s effusive, inconsistent climate.
Fittingly named, the Monticello Viticultural Area (AVA), surrounding Jefferson’s old home, is recognized as the most prominent of Virginia’s winegrowing regions, with over 20 area wineries producing fine wines of international acclaim. It’s impossible to explore them all in one visit, but here’s the scoop on two top Charlottesville wineries, perfect to grease the skids and wet the palettes of viticultural locavores, as well as to showcase the best wines the region has to offer.
2011 was a tough harvest in the Monticello AVA. It had already been a very hot growing season, which can hurt wines in reaching optimal acidity. Then, just as the first whites were ready to be picked, cloudy weather set in and lingered right into the red wine harvest window, putting the grapes at risk for sour rot, powdery mildew, stunted growth and low sugar levels.
But none of this stopped David and Margo Pollak, owners of Pollak Vineyards, from producing an internationally award-winning vintage. “That’s one of the great things about the Pollaks,” says Nick Dovel, general manager of the vineyard. “They’d rather make a small batch of good quality wine than a lot of mediocre wine. We sorted the grapes last year by individual cluster, de-stemmed them and then sorted each individual berry.”
David and Margo first began making wine in Napa Valley in the 1970s when they founded Bouchaine Vineyards, planting and producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vineyard took off and they sold it in the 80s, but the vintner’s itch soon returned. With their new venture, they wanted to explore a new terrain in the winemaking world. Virginia, they decided, was the Napa of the East Coast.
The couple spent five years combing the state’s farmland, looking for a plot with the right sun exposure and optimal drainage for grape vines. They found their current Charlottesville plot in 2001and started planting fruit in 2003.
“We don’t buy or outsource any fruit for our wine,” says Dovel. “We grow all our own grapes, and even sell to some of our neighbors, which we’re very proud of. It’s rare to find a winery that does all estate grown wines. What you taste in our wines is our true terroir— what Mother Nature has to offer our specific property.”
Today, Pollak is well known for their Viogniers and Petit Verdots. Their red wines are unfined and unfiltered, with a lot of finesse but a still-present power. “If you put France and California together,” says Dovel, “that’s where we sit: big fruit with great structure—and the character of Virginia’s unique climate makes it awesome.” Dovel isn’t just talking big; judging by the vineyard’s accolades, he’s just telling it like it is. In 2011, he submitted a selection of wines to the Riverside International Wine Competition. “At first I wasn’t going to submit any because of this sort of East Coast wine stigma the industry tends to have—they tend to think less of us and rate us low. But when I read that competition was a blind tasting, I suddenly really wanted to do it.” He sent six wines to the competition. All of them medaled.
Their Petit Verdot won unanimous gold medals and received the Chairman’s Choice Award, the highest honor of the competition. “The competition named us the best small winery in the world because of that Petit Verdot,” says Dovel. “They all wanted to know if we bought the fruit from some vineyard in California. They couldn’t believe all the grapes we used were estate grown—everyone was just blown away.”
King Family Vineyards
In the 2010 documentary “Vintage: The Winemaker’s Year,” which explored the rapid growth of Virginia’s wine industry, King Family Vineyards was featured in a segment where a late spring frost was threatening a vineyard full of budded vines. “That was a scary experience,” says Will Rucker, King Family’s tasting room manager. “So what we did last year was light bales of hay on fire surrounding the vineyard, and then had helicopters hover over the vineyard at night to circulate the warm air.”
To Rucker, this annual challenge is the beauty of making wine in Virginia. “With Virginia wine, you’re almost left guessing with each vintage. But that’s why it’s fun—as a producer and as a drinker.
“Honestly, vintage variation is the coolest thing out here,” agrees Dovel over at Pollak. “You can go buy your bottle of California Chardonnay anytime, and it’s the same from year to year. But in Virginia, you make a Cabernet Franc one year and it will be full-bodied like a Bordeaux, and the next year it might be a light, elegant Loire Valley-type.”
“We have to adjust our farming practices on a day-to-day basis,” says Rucker. Heavy rain, for instance, makes lighter vintages because you end up with more water in the fruit. Matthieu Finot, the winemaker at King Family, has to craft the wines into something elegant each year. “It’s an exciting and dynamic process. A real and serious challenge, but in the best possible way.” Finot tends toward making Old World European style wines at King Family. “He has experience in Italy, France, South Africa, many of the greatest winemaking regions in the world. And one of the most exciting things about Virginia for him is how effusive the climate is. With the weather so all over the place, there’s a real humanity—a human element—to the wine he makes, because it forces him to alter his practices so frequently. The wine that comes out has his fingerprints all over it.”
David and Ellen King came to the area from Houston, Texas, in 1996 with the aspiration of becoming a premium fruit grower for the state’s then bourgeoning wine industry. It didn’t take long for them to turn into winemakers themselves. The tasting room and winery was opened in 2002 (a ten-year anniversary is on the horizon), and they have since opened an event space, “To host all those winery weddings that everyone wants to have,” says Rucker with a chuckle.
King Family’s 2010 Meritage, the current vintage of their hallmark wine, is big and chewy and dark, different from previous years, but wildly tasty. Getting into summer, returning customers are looking forward to their seasonal Crosé, a unique rosé made of Merlot grapes. “It’s a big hit when we host polo matches on Sundays,” says Rucker. “A great wine to drink cold, with a Sauvignon Blanc-esque grapefruit nose. I call it the perfect poolside wine—and it’s great when paired with anything off the grill.”
“We’ve got people traveling to this area for the purpose of tasting wine,” Rucker says, “which is enormous headway from this time five years ago. Our vineyards are winning international awards and we’re seeing the attitudes of the international community constantly changing.”
Write it off as a growing pain, but the years of dismissal and neglect are no more for Virginia wines. And as its epicenter, the Monticello AVA is the most significant place for a wine buff to sample and explore the dynamic array that Virginia’s vines has to offer.
For more information on the wines and sites of Pollak Vineyards and King Family Vineyards, visit PollakVineyards.com, or KingFamilyVineyards.com. To read up on the greater Monticello AVA and explore its full family of vineyards, visit MonticelloWineTrail.com. ★