Archive for October, 2010


The Father of American Wine

Posted on Oct 28 2010 | By

Obscure Self-made Millionaire Created Nation’s Wine Industry

In 1803, a penniless young man arrived in a frontier town called Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio River, a log village of 800 brawling, whiskey drinking ruffians.  A glass of wine was the furthest thing from their minds.

Forty-eight years later, the gentleman was one of the richest men in America and his winery—the first successful commercial one in the United States—was garnering reviews from around the world, including one from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London that proclaimed, “Cincinnati has become the chief seat of wine manufacture in the United States.”

To prove his gene pool ran long and deep, seventy-two years further into the future his grandson, bearing his name, was elected the 43rd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and was eventually memorialized by having one of the current House office buildings named in his honor.

Nicholas Longworth

This wine patriarch was affectionately known as “Old Nick” at the height of his career but history records him as Nicholas Longworth, an American wine icon.

True enough, grapes were planted and wine produced in states as divergent as California, Virginia and Texas for as long as two hundred years before Ohio tossed its hat into the wine ring.  But none of these early efforts resulted in a viable wine industry.  Often the finished product tasted terrible, or if palatable, was used for religious purposes.  Dropping by a general store and grabbing a bottle of wine for dinner was not an option for our forefathers.  When entrepreneur Longworth appeared on the scene, he permanently changed the domestic wine landscape.

The Longworth family dated to the early days of our nation’s history.  During the Revolutionary War they remained loyal to the British Crown rather than join the fevered cause of independence.  The price they paid was the destruction of their estate in New Jersey.  Following the war, Nicholas headed west to clear the family name of loyalist taint and to rebuild the family fortune.

Standing just five feet tall and blessed with a passion for hard work, framed by modesty and likeability, he quickly began making his mark in the turbulent river town of Cincinnati.  One of his contemporaries wrote that he was, “shrewd, sagacious, quick-witted; with great common-sense and acquisitiveness.”  The man would have been quite comfortable in today’s executive suites.

An Agrarian Dream

Much like Thomas Jefferson, Longworth believed the future of the United States lay in the building of an agrarian society of stable farm families, not industrialists and merchants.  In retrospect, it was a charming vision that would not prevail.  In the early 1800s, the second Industrial Revolution was just emerging and widespread use of steam and locomotive power was still a few decades off.  Farming the land was seen as the path to establishing a strong nation.

Ironically, his first major business success came as a real estate investor.  Shortly after moving west, he turned to the practice of law. One of his early clients could not pay his legal fees and Longworth accepted a deed to fourteen acres of land on the outskirts of town as payment.  The value of the property quickly skyrocketed and our future wine icon began a career in land speculation that eventually made him a multi-millionaire.  He now had the money to pursue his philosophy of expansive land cultivation.  Enter wine grapes.

Exhibiting another Jeffersonian belief, Longworth abhorred the consumption of hard liquor.  Today, we under appreciate the reasoning behind the temperance movement.  But in the mid-1800s, alcohol abuse was rampant, along with its associated ills of destroyed families and careers. Wine was a naturally made alcoholic drink that fostered civility while eliminating the heartbreak of distilled spirits.  Its consumption perfectly matched Longworth’s agrarian vision.

If at First You Don’t Succeed

His first attempts at vine growing met with typical failure.  Disease and weather took a heavy toll on most palatable wine grapes.  To make drinkable wine that did not turn bad after bottling, distilled spirits were often added.  This technique did not comport with Longworth’s desire to produce a naturally fermented, modest alcohol beverage.  Eventually, he settled on growing the red Catawba grape and producing a musky smelling dry wine.  His only problem was nobody wanted to drink it.  Only sweet and fortified wines were marketable to the rustic, frontier population.

He observed that the odd aroma of the Catawba grape came from the skins so he tried fermenting the wine without skin contact, creating a blush libation that the local German population enjoyed.  However, Longworth wanted wider acceptance of his wine and began experimenting with hundreds of varieties, including the classic European grapes.  They all succumbed to the difficult climate and insect life of the Ohio Valley.  Then a fortunate accident of fate occurred.

Catawba Grapes

In 1842, a cuvée of his Catawba—a grape resistant to the cultivation problems of most grapes—underwent an accidental secondary fermentation producing a champagne-like wine.  It tasted far better than his previous efforts.  He committed to produce more but needed the expertise of French winemakers.  Now a wealthy man, he hired professional winemakers from the Champagne region of France to create a sparkling wine using the traditional méthode champenoise.


Soon he was bottling a substantial amount of his Ohio sparkler but the process came with some serious drawbacks.  One major hiccup was the unfortunate side effect of exploding bottles.  Since a second fermentation occurred in the bottle—creating all those zesty bubbles—it produced significant pressure inside the vessel. In one of his first years in producing the wine, forty-two thousand bottles exploded in his wine cellar.  Can you imagine how much fun it must have been to work at his winery?  “Duck!” was likely shouted numerous times a day as bottle after bottle sprayed wine and glass all over the cellar.

Success and Then…

Undaunted and rich enough to indulge his passion, Longworth started buying thicker bottles, employing even more experienced winemakers and dramatically increasing the volume of his sparkling Catawba. Soon not only the locals but wine lovers from around the country began to purchase the unique wine.  He never claimed it was champagne out of respect for the original French product but more that one critic claimed it was a superior product.

By the mid-1850s, he was producing nearly 100,000 bottles annually and running advertisements nationwide.  As expected, the wine caught the attention of the Europeans. One British writer with the Illustrated London News wrote that the wine “transcends the Champagne of France.”

Ohio Wine Country

Longworth’s success triggered a growth in vineyards throughout Ohio and by 1859 the region was producing nearly 600,000 gallons of wine, or three million bottles. There were over 2,000 acres under vine in not only Ohio but also portions of Kentucky and Indiana.  The American wine industry had been born.

But as is the case with many success stories, it did not endure.  Over time, the Catawba grape, which was a hybrid of an American native and classic European grape, began to succumb to the pressures of black rot, downy mildew and insect depredations.  During dry years the problem was held in check but humid, rainy summers took their toll.  During the 1850s, only three vintages were dry enough to produce quality wine.  The industry began to fade back into obscurity.

In 1863, Longworth passed on to the Valhalla vineyard in the sky leaving behind the legacy as the first successful commercial winemaker in the United States.  His estate was valued at ten million dollars, an enormous sum of money in the 1860s, and valued today at more than a quarter of a billion dollars.  By any measure, the man was a success, and especially as the Father of American wine.

Among his last words was his lifelong dream of discovering, “a new vine,” one that “would neither mildew nor rot.”  His son-in-law later wrote that, “He never found it in this world.” Today, in all fifty states a vibrant industry free of diseased vineyards is thriving.

Notwithstanding his failure of achieving permanently healthy vineyards, Nicholas Longworth demonstrated that quality wine could be produced and marketed in the United States.  Shortly after his death, winemakers around the country slowly began to build upon his success.  Today, his single winery has grown into an industry of over 6,500 wineries producing 711 million gallons of wine a year and is the third largest wine producing nation in the world.

The man embodied the American Dream and the dream prevailed.


Published in the 2011 winter edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.



Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Virginia Wine Staycations

Posted on Oct 20 2010 | By

Wineries, B&Bs and Fine Hotels Offer Nearby Fulfilled Getaways

With over 170 wineries, more than 200 bed and breakfasts and numerous charming hotels, the opportunity for planning an overnight or extended vacation in the Old Dominion, without forcing the house into foreclosure, is almost limitless.

Beyond a doubt, a trip to Napa Valley or France to tour vineyards and dine at famous restaurants is an attractive adventure.  It also comes with a multiple-thousand dollar price tag.  How can you enjoy a similar holiday at a fraction of the cost?  Simply think Virginia.

This past August, my wife Jean and I challenged our good friends Fred and Betsy to join us for a day of winery hopping followed by an evening stay at the historic Mimslyn Inn in Luray.  Not surprisingly, they accepted.

Our companions had not visited many of our area vineyards so I crafted an itinerary that included six unique wineries.  As the designated driver, I sipped lightly at each stop since I had been to all of them on more than one occasion.

The fascinating part of the tour for me was chatting with the proprietors.  One of the delightful aspects of Virginia wine country is the opportunity to meet and talk with the owners, winemakers or vineyard managers.  Up close and personal comes to life in the world of Virginia wine.  This is not GalloWorld.

Barrel Oak Winery

Our first destination was Barrel Oak Winery—or BOW–in Delaplane.  We arrived around noon, well before the busy mid-afternoon guest traffic.  The winery’s growing reputation centers on dogs and kids.  It is an eclectic atmosphere where “fun” is the password to a good time.  As anticipated, upon our arrival owner Brian Roeder was surveying the tasting room and greeting visitors with smiles and pooches with patted heads.  He smiled at us.

BOW is one of the fastest growing wineries in VA and challenges the concept that a quiet tasting room is de rigueur.  Here the atmosphere is more akin to a family reunion with parents, grandparents, kids, young adults and several of man’s best friends tail wagging away, all enjoying the spacious tasting room, patio or picnic-tabled grounds.  Before we departed, Fred purchased a bottle of Norton, a wine he’s not normally a fan of. The BOW creation, however, changed his mind.

Next we motored up Route 17 to Delaplane Vineyards.  Owner Jim Dolphin was in the cellar when we arrived, but within minutes he was standing behind the tasting bar discussing the upcoming harvest and sharing some insights on the wines we were sipping.  Dolphin chose a beautiful piece of property upon which to build his sleek looking winery.  The tasting room features a long series of picture windows providing vistas of nearby rolling ridges and points further west.  Typical of most wineries in our state, the views matched the quality of the wines.  I purchased a bottle of the Maggie’s Vineyard Viognier, a grape performing very well in Virginia.

Next on the agenda was Linden Vineyards.  Established in the early 1980s and situated on 76 high and rolling acres, the winery has acquired an almost cult-like following due to the passion for winegrowing of its owner, Jim Law. Law is one of the most respected winemakers in the mid-Atlantic region and writes extensively on the subject of grape cultivation and winemaking.  Shortly after our arrival, Jim emerged from the cellar and we discussed the exceptionally hot summer Virginia was experiencing. Temperatures hovered in the high nineties for the better part of the growing season and Law had harvested his Seyval Blanc a few days before on August 12, one of his earliest harvest dates in memory.  After our tasting the fine line up of wines, Betsy purchased a bottle of the Avenius Sauvignon Blanc and we departed, briefly stopping to snap some photos of the vineyard’s succulent Cabernet Franc vines heavy with fruit.

Descending back down the steep, winding and picturesque entrance to Linden, we drove a few miles north to Fox Meadow Vineyards.  Again, this establishment sits on highly elevated land with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  In fact, all six of the wineries that we were to visit on our tour possessed scenes worthy of an artist’s attention.  Sipping quality wines in such pastoral settings has been known to reduce blood pressure readings by as much as 25-points.  A winery a day keeps the doctor away.

Preparing for Harvest

Fox Meadows owners, Bob and Cheryl Mortland were behind the tasting bar when we arrived, pouring their lineup of exceptionally clean and tasty wines.  Jean and I were particularly struck by the whites and purchased a bottle of the Le Renard Gris, a creative blend of Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.  Bob and I chatted about our attending a tasting for a group of ten British wine writers to be held the following day at the Ashby Inn in Paris, VA.  Even the Brits are getting the message about the rising quality of our state’s wines.

Chester Gap Cellars was our next destination.  If it’s possible for the scenery to improve, the property that Bernd and Kristi Jung’s establishment resides on proves the point.  Nestled at the top of Chester Gap at 1,700 feet elevation, views from the winery deck gaze down on scenic Rappahannock County, home to the internationally known Inn at Little Washington and another six wineries. Our schedule precluded the temptation to visit some of those wineries so we took a virtual tour by soaking up the views.

At the tasting bar, the Jungs performed a tag team minuet as they poured and described their wines.  I’ve always enjoyed the style of wine produced by Bernd and again on this visit found the aromatic, full bodied offerings equal to the best in the state.  As we prepared to depart, a bottle of his Viognier goes into the wine box in the back of our 4Runner.  Will there be a fight at the end of our tour as to who gets whose wine?  Fred eyes me suspiciously as I place my bottle next to his Norton.  Memo to file:  Don’t mess with Fred’s wines.

As we headed for our final tasting of the day, Glen Manor Vineyards, Betsy again pulls out her traveling hors d’oeuvre tray and serves cheese and crackers to the pilot, co-pilot and her sweetie.  During wine tours you get to keep your trays in the permanent down position since all the landings are soft…and yummy.

Jeff  White, proprietor and winemaker at Glen Manor Vineyards, located south of Front Royal, belongs to a long line of Virginia farmers whose origins date back to 1787 when the property encompassed 14,000 acres.  Today, the estate consists of 212 acres, about 15 of which are under vine.  Unlike all of the wineries we had previously visited, Glen Manor is tucked at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains and provides sweeping views upward of open pasture land, vineyards, and the faint trace of Skyline Drive at the top of the mountains. Beauty in reverse.

White, like Jim Law who he formerly worked for, considers himself a winegrower foremost, letting the quality of his fruit dictate his final wines.  His philosophy is apparent in the glass as we drifted through two Sauvignon Blancs and three deeply flavored reds. Building memory lane is fun.

Philip Carter Winery Vineyards

With our afternoon fading into evening, we drove south via Route 340 to the town of Luray.  I had reserved two suites at the historic Mimslyn Inn, built in 1931, and the recipient of a multi-million dollar restoration a few years back.  The suites are beautifully appointed and after checking in and enjoying an hour’s respite to reflect on the day’s adventures, our foursome met for dinner in the comfy Speakeasy restaurant.  My dinner of baby back ribs and fries were a perfect match for an accompanying glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

After dinner we sat out on the third floor patio, star gazing and chatting until our eyelids began to droop.  Time for dreamland.

Monday morning gifted us with typical Virginia August weather…hot and sunny.  We breakfasted in the elegant and cool Circa ’31 dining room.  Sliding away from the table an hour later we all realized there would be no need to eat till dinnertime.

As I pointed our winemobile east and drove up and over the lush Shenandoah National Park we fought the temptation to stop at few more wineries in route home.  Between the samplings of fermented grapes enjoyed the day before and the belt expanding breakfast we just consumed, we made a group decision the weekend had been properly seized.  Carpe Vino.

Planning your own wine getaway is as easy as consulting two web sites:  First go to and find a listing and descriptions of all the wineries in VA.  Then Google and choose a bed & breakfast to match your proposed itinerary.

Your own Virginia staycation awaits you.  Release the travel agent inside you and start planning your trip today.

Mimslyn Inn, Luray, VA

Published in the November 25, 2010 edition of the Culpeper Times.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES

John’s September Pick of the Month

Posted on Oct 02 2010 | By

Fox Meadow Vineyards
FMV Le Renard Gris

2009 Le Renard Gris

Owners Dan & Cheryl Mortland—and their widely respected consultant Tom Payette— have been clever as foxes in blending 40% chardonnay, 40% Vidal Blanc and 20% Pinot Grigio to create their Le Renard Gris. Bright, crisp, and fruit forward, the wine showcases peach, grapefruit and lemon notes. This exceptionally clean white is captured sunshine in a bottle. Pair with grilled marinated prawns and fresh melon salsa. Drink now.

Fox Meadow Vineyards is located at 3310 Freezeland Road, Linden, VA. The tasting room features an expansive deck with adjoining gazebo offering impressive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winery is opened Monday through Friday 11am to 5pm and on weekends 11am to 6pm. (540) 636-6777.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

The Ubiquitous Wine Bottle

Posted on Oct 01 2010 | By

Billions Are used Annually  but Humble Vessel has Fascinating Past

In the mid-1600s, the Dutch produced square wine bottles similar to our traditional olive oil bottles of today.  It enabled wine to be stored and shipped more efficiently.  But for some unknown reason the idea went down a rabbit hole and was never heard from again.

But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Glass was in use during the Roman times but was rare and expensive.  The Romans even used cork occasionally to seal such containers but with the collapse of the empire the technology would not be rediscovered until the 1600s.  The second time around its advantages was so obvious that the marriage of bottle & cork continues to enjoy a passionate relationship to this day.

Fact is, without a wine bottle sealed with an almost airtight closure, wine could not age or blossom into something greater than its original self.  During the long history of wine production—some 9,000 years—the libation had to be enjoyed within in a year of its production.  If it wasn’t, it would be quickly consumed by a variety of nasty bacteria rather than thirsty humans.  “Drink up” had a very real meaning in the good old days.  The stuff tasted terrible after a year or so.

Wine Bottles---Then & Now

When the bottle was first widely adopted, it was used mainly to convey wine from the cask to the table. Its shape was similar to a large light bulb with a flat bottom.  During its evolution it was first known as the “globe and spike” and then the “onion,” rather perfect descriptions of their actual shapes.  Over time, the bulbous shape was drawn out and made thinner and longer to enhance the storage capability of the bottles.

Early versions of wine bottles produced in Italy were quite fragile and thus wrapped in straw, wicker or leather baskets to protect them during shipping.  The word “fiasco” in Italian means flask or bottle but it morphed into “failure” when cheap glass resulted in wine bottle breakage.  Truly, a real fiasco.

Tradition Rules

The wine bottle is so laden with tradition that some of its features are still uselessly built into its design.  For example, the “punt”, or indented part of the bottom of each bottle, was originally where the blowpipe was attached to the molten glass during its production.  As a glassmaker finished each bottle, he spun it and indented the hot glass to disengage his pipe from the vessel.  This created a firm base and an area where sediment could be captured.

Today, there’s no significant reason for the punt’s existence other than the traditional look it provides a wine bottle.  Interestingly, one wine analysis revealed that the deeper the punt the higher the quality of wine (caution: don’t faithfully take this advice to the bank, uh, wine shop.  It was only one study).  But if it’s true, most likely the reason is that winemakers who charge big bucks for their product want to  consumers “feel” they are getting their money’s worth.  In other words, the deeper your pockets the deeper the punts.

Another feature of the modern bottle that dates to three hundred years ago is the capsule.  This is the tin sleeve at the top of each bottle.  Its origins was born out of necessity when uncapped bottles were exposed to weevils and rodents that ate their way through the corks in dank cellars, exposing the wine to damaging oxygen.  The capsule was a protective measure and surely irritated a host of little critters intent on living off of the tasty cork.  Today, the only purpose the capsule serves is cosmetic.  It makes the finished product look…er, finished.

There is no date certain when folks actually began sticking a cork in a wine bottle.  The late 1600s seems to be when it began gaining wider acceptance in the marketplace.  Nonetheless, in 1598 Shakespeare penned the following words for Rosalind in his play As you Like It:  “I pray thee take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.”  Clearly, even then the cork was being inserted in other openings than just the mouth.  We’ll assume it included wine bottles.

Name that Bottle
Perhaps one of the more fascinating pieces of bottle lore was the naming many of the various sized bottles for biblical characters.  To this day the historical names are still in use.  A “Jeroboam”—named after the First King of Northern Kingdom—contains three liters.  Other names employed for obscure reasons were Methuselah, Mordechai, Salmanazar, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar.  The eleventh bottle in the long list is appropriately called Solomon—the King of Israel, Son of David.  And it would be a decision worthy of Solomon to consume its contents in one sitting since it holds 20 liters—or 676 ounces—of the transformed grape.

Happiness Spent!

Over the centuries, the shapes of wine bottles have evolved into four basic sizes, each containing 750 milliliters or 25.6 ounces.

  • Bordeaux: straight-sided and high shouldered with a pronounced punt.  Normally used for reds, except Pinot noir.
  • Burgundy: fuller bodied with sloping shoulders. Many whites and one red call these bottles home, especially Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
  • Rhine or Hock: Tall, narrow and with a flat bottom.  German Rieslings and many off-dry wines are housed in these sleek vessels.
  • Champagne: Thick-walled and wide with a deep, pronounced punt and sloping shoulder.  These bottles must be sturdy to withstand the pressure of the naturally carbonated liquid.  An unimpeded cork leaving a champagne bottle is traveling at over 50 MPH.

So with over three hundred years of history bottled up in the traditional wine receptacle, can we expect it to endure for centuries more?  Not necessarily. Even as we peacefully sip our Sauvignon Blanc, creative minds are planning a possible overthrow of the glass bottle.

A small but growing segment of producers are beginning to use plastic.  The weight of such containers are dramatically less than glass and are cheaper to make and ship, taking up to 20% less storage space.  The bag-in-the-box technology is also advancing, with sleeker, more attractive packaging designs catching the eye of younger consumers.  And there is Tetra Pak technology—used in packaging soy milk and chicken stock—that some vintners are also eyeing.  Many of these innovative materials can also be shaped into square containers—just like milk—enhancing storage and shipping capabilities.

But hey, wait a minute. Didn’t somebody already think of the square wine container back in the 1600s?

Hmmmm…what goes around comes around.

Published in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES