On October 2nd, 2023 Rita Allan, Dori Weitz and our dinner companions (husbands) were invited to the Governor’s Mansion to celebrate the Commencement of the 35th Virginia Wine Month. Governor Glenn Youngkin stated, “Virginia wine month rightfully spurs a celebration of our Commonwealth's rich and diverse winemaking heritage. Virginians are raising our glasses to this exceptional industry, and the hard work of our dedicated winemakers. Together, we can continue to make Virginia a destination for wine enthusiasts, and a source of pride for all of us."
The origins of this celebration was the result of a collaboration between the Virginia Wine Marketing Office and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Virginia was the first state to initiate such a recognized month. The goal, of course, was to promote wine tourism, which also benefits restaurants, retailers, and other partners of the industry.
The seasonal timing of October was chosen for a couple different reason. The weather is just beginning to cool, and there is a slight nip in the air in Virginia that often drives people to grab a bottle of red wine. The cooler temperature outside is pleasant for wine festivals. The changing foliage with its beautiful colors up in the mountains brings many people to skyline drive for the views. Vines love the elevation, so planting a vineyard by the trail seems to be a hand-in-glove thing to do.
Virginia has a long heritage of producing wine, dating back to 1609, when early settlers in Jamestown attempted to cultivate vines. However, the journey to becoming a prominent wine producer spanned four centuries, marked by several failures and setbacks. Captain John Smith noted that native vines were abundant, but their wines were of poor quality, compared to European wines. The settlers then turned to importing French vines, as mandated by Act 12 in 1619. Despite efforts and various laws over 50 years to promote vine cultivation, success remained elusive.
The General Assembly commissioned Frenchman Andrew Estave in 1770 to be the official winemaker and viticulturist for Virginia. After two years of studying the soil, Estave planted 100 acres of European vines, but like the colonists before him, he faced challenges and believed that the vines were too fragile for the local climate. During this period, Virginians were ironically importing more wine than producing it.
Thomas Jefferson, known as America's first wine connoisseur, was determined to make Virginia a great wine-growing state. He co-founded the Virginia Wine Company with other influential leaders, aiming to establish vineyards as a cash crop. However, his own efforts to cultivate European Vitis vinifera vines faced challenges, and his attempts were marred by misfortunes such as the American Revolution and infestations. The vineyards where Jefferson and Filippo Mazzei tried to grow their vines are now known as Jefferson Vineyards.
Jefferson's passion for wine endured, and even during his presidency, he spent a substantial amount on wine, considered a vast sum for the time. While his personal vineyard efforts did not meet with success, his dedication contributed to the recognition and momentum of the Virginia winemaking industry.
Dr. Daniel N. Norton, of Richmond, began developing a grape hybrid by combining Virginia-native Vitis aestivalis with European grape varieties. This hybrid proved resilient against common North American pests, thrived in Virginia's climate, and produced high-quality, dry table wine with intense flavors. In 1873, a Norton red wine from the Monticello Wine Company received international acclaim at the Vienna World's Fair. By 1890, Virginia had become the fifth-largest wine producer in the country, with a production of 461,000 gallons.
However, the progress achieved by winemakers like Norton was halted by pivotal historical events, including the Civil War, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. By the end of the 1930s, all of Norton's vines had been destroyed to comply with Prohibition laws, and the wine industry's development was further stymied by the economic challenges of the Great Depression.
The 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in winemaking in Virginia. In 1976, Italian winemaker Gianni Zonin expanded his wine business internationally by acquiring land near Charlottesville. The Zonin family, renowned in Europe for their winemaking, entrusted Gabriele Rausse, their vineyard manager, with the task of growing European grapes in Virginia. Remarkably, Rausse achieved great success, becoming the first to successfully plant Vitis vinifera in Virginia and establishing what is now known as Barboursville Vineyards.
Unlike the early colonists, 18th-century European winemakers, and even Thomas Jefferson, Rausse's efforts flourished. He shared his knowledge and expertise with other winery start-ups, contributing to the continued growth and success of Virginia's viticulture. By 1980, the number of wineries in Virginia had grown to six, and this number expanded to 26 by 1995, 107 by 2005, and more than 320 today. Gabriele Rausse, often called "The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry," now serves as Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of winemaking in Virginia.
The results speak for itself. Wine tourism in Virginia is a big chunk of the state’s GDP with an estimated $1.73 billion in economic impact, and offers 10,400 jobs for the commonwealth. There are 320+ wineries that craft a wide range of styles and varieties.
First Lady of Virginia, Suzanne Youngkin, in efforts to promote the Virginia wine industry, collaborates with the previous year’s Governor Cup Winner to craft the Cornus Virginicus Edition wine. Cornus Virginicus is Latin for “Flowering tree of Virginia” and pays tribute to the Commonwealth’s official state flower and tree, the Dogwood, and the First Lady of Virginia’s seal. Depicted on the front label, the Dogwood tree is symbolic of tradition, strength and beauty found throughout Virginia.
The First Lady announced she will be working with Melanie Natoli, winemaker of Cana Vineyard and Winery of Middleburg, for Edition II. This year’s blend includes 67 percent Petit Verdot and 33 percent Merlot, from the fruit that comes from Cana’s vineyard in Loudoun County and Silver Creek Orchards in Nelson County. A total of 144 cases of wine will be produced. Melanie’s 2019 Unité Reserve from Cana Vineyard won the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup. Profits from this initiative will be given as a donation to Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom.