Tuscany, Napa Valley, Burgundy, and Charlottesville?
“Wine being among the earliest luxuries in which we indulge ourselves, it is desirable that it should be made here and we have every soil, aspect, and climate of the best wine countries, and I myself drank wines made in this state and in Maryland, of the quality of the best Burgundy.” Thomas Jefferson
Each year my wife and I take a wine trip. No, not to taste the big reds in the Napa Valley or to visit the picturesque countryside of Tuscany or to enjoy the elegant wines of Burgundy. Our trip is actually much closer to home, much more economical, and also offers—we believe (and many others believe as well)—equally magnificent views of vineyards and wines. I’m talking about Charlottesville.
Some of us may have heard of the emerging wines and wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail, such as Barboursville’s famous Bordeaux style blend “Octagon,” which is my father-in-law’s favorite and which was also served at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, at their reception celebrating the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Some may be familiar with wineries like Blenheim and Trump because of their famous owners. (Blenheim is owned by the musician Dave Mathews, and Trump winery is owned by Donald Trump’s son, Eric.) But Charlottesville is being noted by many others as a viable option for quality wine and a potential wine trip destination. U.S. News and World Report recently listed Charlottesville as one of the ten best wine vacations. Yes, the town stands alongside the wine juggernauts of Napa Valley and Tuscany, and it’s not just because of Central Virginia’s scenic views. It’s also because of the quality of wine. In a blind tasting that pitted eight Virginia wines against eight European and California ones, leading wine expert Steven Spurrier preferred six of the eight Virginia wines over the European wines. (Spurrier is also known as the organizer of the “Judgement of Paris” or the “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976” where California wines defeated French wines in a blind taste test. This event was portrayed in the 2008 wine cult movie Bottle Shock) Learn more about the blind tasting.
“Compared to the other American states, Virginia is a national contender,” he declared, explaining that the cooler climate than the West Coast produces wines of brighter, fresher character that are more food-friendly “and most importantly, call for a second glass.” — Steven Spurrier
Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t be surprised at the U.S. News and World Reports wine vacation list and at what wine experts are saying about Virginia’s wines today. He believed that Virginia had potential. According to Jefferson, “we could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1808) He first planted grapes near Monticello in 1770, and a couple years later, he gave 2,000 acres to Italian Phiip Mazzei, who brought over several different European vine cuttings and attempted to plant them near Monticello. Mazzei’s and Jefferson’s efforts in America soon switched from wine to helping the American cause in the Revolution, and by 1780 the vineyards had faded away. Despite their belief in Virginia’s wine capabilities, they were never able to successfully produce quality wine. Bad weather, plant disease, and insects kept them from fulfilling their dreams of producing wine that would rival those in Europe.
In the early nineteenth century, Dr. D. N. Norton of Richmond began to experiment with an American hybrid grape called the Norton Virginia. He was able to successfully domestic a grape that was both hearty and disease resistant. More importantly however was that the Norton grape produced flavorful wine and became the foundation for Virginia Table Red, the Virginia Claret. (The Virginia Historical Society hosted a banner lecture on the Norton Grape a couple years ago. Listen to the audio of the lecture.)
One of the wineries that capitalized on Dr. Norton’s work was the Monticello Wine Company (MWC), established in 1873. In a four-story brick building located in Charlottesville on Perry Drive, the company sourced it’s grapes from local vineyards and had the capacity to produce 200,000 gallons of wine. Their Virginia Claret won several awards, including a gold medal in Vienna in 1873 and a silver medal in Paris in 1878. Their Virginia Claret is what put Virginia on the wine map and made Charlottesville the “capital of the Virginia wine belt.” Their other wines were also successful. Virginia Champagne, a sparkling rose, was even used by Governor Montague’s daughter, Gay, to christen the battleship U.S.S. Virginia in Newport News in 1904. By 1914 the MWC and other Virginia wineries began to fade away as a result of crop disease, competition with California wines, and the emergence of prohibition. The Virginia wine industry would not reemerge again until the 1970’s, when Barboursville and a few other Virginia wineries began to establish vineyards.
Today, Virginia vineyards are well established. They have become vacation destinations, and the wines they produce are being discussed alongside those made in Tuscany, Burgundy, and the Napa Valley. It’s been a struggle to produce quality wine in Virginia, but they say that vines that struggle make better grapes. So the next time you visit a Virginia winery and taste a flavorful Cabernet Franc, smell a fragrant Viognier, or enjoy a historic Norton, hopefully you’ll agree with Mr. Jefferson that yes, Virginia does “make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
Other wine-related information
- Purchase wine-related items from our museum shop
- Listen to “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine”
- Learn about Virginia wineries
- Learn more about the Monticello Wine Company
- Thomas Jefferson and wine
Greg Hansard is the Manager of Web and Digital Services at the Virginia Historical Society.