Virginia Wineries, Blue Ridge Foothills
By Candyce H. Stapen
The region around Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, is rich in history and also vineyards. Enjoy a day of driving the back roads, tastings wines and savoring the sweet views.
The Monticello Wine Trail, named for Jefferson’s estate, features more than 20 wineries. Monticello claims to be the “birthplace of American wine” because of Thomas Jefferson’s early, but unsuccessful, attempts to grow European wine-producing grapes. “We could, in the United States,” noted Jefferson, “make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
Plant diseases and the region’s humid summers and cold winter defeated Jefferson’s attempts, but 19th century growers reaped success by planting American and European hybrids. However, the Civil War, the growth of California vineyards, then prohibition, the Great Depression and two World Wars vanquished Virginia’s wine industry. In the 1970s six Virginia wineries took root. Now, more than 180 wineries lace Virginia’s countryside.
“It’s all about learning the climate and the soil,” says Luca Paschina, the winemaker at noted Barboursville Vineyards. “You cannot control the weather, but you have to learn how to adapt to it.” Barboursville, set on a 900-acre historic estate, keeps about 150-acres planted in vines.
We produced about 380,000 bottles in 2009, that makes us the fourth or fifth in volume, but the second largest in acres planted,” says Paschina.
The winery started when the Zonin family, owner of one of Italy’s largest wine companies, purchased the Barboursville estate in 1976. Now Barboursville, winners of many medals, ranks as one of Virginia’s top wineries. Signature wines include the Cabernet Franc, the Pinot Grigio as well as the estate’s Octagon. The 2006 vintage won Virginia’s Monticello Cup in 2009. Octagon, as the winery notes “proves the vitality of the Bordeaux style in the New World. ”
Allow time to see the ruins of Governor Barbour’s mansion, an impressive brick structure designed by Thomas Jefferson that burned during Christmas 1884. You can still see the outlines of the octagonal parlor, a signature design element of Jefferson’s. You can dine at the vineyards restaurant, Palladio and stay at the onsite 1804 Inn.
Although Barboursville is our favorite, there are several other wineries that are fun to visit. Nearby Jefferson Vineyards takes its name from the fact that its vines grow on the site of Thomas Jefferson’s original plants. The vineyard produces 4000-8000 cases each year.King Family Vineyards, a boutique winery founded in 1998, went from producing 500 cases a year to 5,000 cases annually.In Leon, about 35 north of Charlottesville, Prince Michel Vineyards and Winery is home to both its namesake winery as well as Rapidan River Wines.
Along the way, raise a glass to Thomas Jefferson and his vineyard vision. Our founding father would certainly approve.