In the Beginning Was Archie

By Posted on Jun 10 2009 | By


How  would you describe a successful Virginia winery today?

vineyardProduces 35,000 cases a year? Winner of two Governor’s Cups and myriad other medals and awards? Distributed in fourteen states? A client list of thirty-five restaurants and wine shops in Washington, DC? And oh, the proprietor and winemaker a graduate of Oxford?

A succinct description. But, the business profile of our hypothetical winery is accurate except for the year. It was, in fact, the actual performance of the second commercial winery to open in the Old Dominion, Meredyth Vineyards, located in Middleburg. And it reached this level of success twenty-four years ago, in 1985.

The driving force behind this remarkable story was Archie M. Smith III, who died of complications of cancer on January 3 this year.

Archie M. Smith Jr., and his son Archie M. III, built the most successful winery in Virginia when the industry was in its embryonic stage. Archie, Jr. was a struggling cattle farmer in Middleburg when he conceived the idea of growing wine grapes instead of herding cows. Many of his fellow farmers scoffed at the idea of making wine in Virginia, much less turning it into a viable enterprise.

But, father and son had contrarian views. Perhaps it was the aggressive and courageous streak that ran through both men that turned a questionable venture into a booming business.

f4u-corsairArchie Jr. had been a World War II Marine fighter pilot. During the battle for Okinawa, his F4U Corsair was shot down and he had to ditch in the Pacific Ocean near Guadalcanal. Native “Coastal Watchers” rescued him. The following night, he was silently rowed to a waiting submarine and safely returned to his assigned aircraft carrier.

His son, Archie III, graduated from the University of Virginia and attended Oxford University, receiving a degree in Philosophy and continuing on as an Associate Professor. Clearly, intelligence and determination played a significant role in the formation of both men and their success.

In 1977, two years after the winery was founded, Archie’s father convinced his son to return from England and take control of the fledging business. Archie’s experience as the coach and captain of Oxford’s competitive wine tasting team might have been the impetus that pulled him back across the Atlantic. But, whatever the motivator, it was an easy decision for Archie given his love of rural Virginia and creative instincts.

In the early years, the vineyard was planted almost exclusively in hybrid varieties such as Seyval Blanc, Villard Blanc, Rayon d’or, Aurora, Marechal Foch, Villard Noir and others. The planting of the Vitis Vinifera species—which produces ninety-nine percent of the world’s wines—had not yet begun in Virginia. When the breakthrough did occur, Meredyth Vineyards led the way producing some of the first Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot on a commercial basis.

The story of Meredyth—the Welsh spelling and the name of Archie’s maternal great grandmother—also embraced other family members. Archie’s sister, Susan, served as director of marketing, traveling tirelessly in the early years promoting the wines and is credited with its extensive distribution. And his younger brother, Robby, with a degree in architecture from Tulane, designed the winery’s permanent tasting room and wine cellar.

smith00-r1-e003Nonetheless, it was Archie III who brought his formidable powers of intellect and passion to bear on the wines and their acceptance in the market place. Beyond his commitment to the family business, he became actively involved in the state’s emerging wine industry. He was a member of the Virginia Wine Growers Advisory Board, serving as chairman for a period. He also was president of the Virginia Wineries Association. These were important organizations created when only a handful of wineries existed statewide. Today, we largely take for granted the early support groups that helped catapult Virginia to the top tier of wine producing states.

One of the most far-reaching actions that Archie and his father undertook was their work in achieving passage of the Virginia Farm Winery Law in 1980. One important element of the law was the right granted to farm wineries to operate a retail outlet in the form of a tasting room. A winery’s success is closely tied to the “sip in order to sell” concept. Once a potential customer experienced a producer’s quality wines, sales began to accelerate. Both father and son recognized the importance of this freedom early on and worked tirelessly to make it a reality. The proof of their wisdom was reflected in the rapid expansion of the industry after the law was enacted.

As Meredyth’s success grew, it began attracting a host of wine lovers out to enjoy a day in the Virginia countryside. Visitors included philosophers, Oxford intellectuals, eclectic individuals of a wide variety and the general public. Archie surrounded himself with family, friends and, of course, the de rigueur friendly wine dogs. Beyond the tasting room, the winery hosted the first wine dinner in Virginia, followed by weddings, receptions and parties, all done in a low-key style compatible with its bucolic surroundings.

Reflecting his academic background, Archie began writing widely on the subject of wine. Advancing the interests of Virginia, he penned a regular column for Wine East magazine. Michael O’Donnell, owner of one of the state’s first circuit rider bottling firms, recalls Archie telling him during a bottling operation to, “Always challenge people to think.” It was admonition that was at the center of Archie’s worldview; all things improve with thoughtful consideration followed by action. Evidence of this belief was the awards and accolades that accumulated over the years.

RedskinsIn 1986, he produced a custom bottling for the Washington Redskins to celebrate its 50th anniversary. He also enlisted noted sommeliers and wine critics to act as judges in the Governor’s Cup competition. Archie knew that to earn gravitas and national recognition, the knowledge of the judges rating the state’s wines had to be of the first order. In 1988, Governor Gerald Baliles honored the Smith family with a personal visit to the winery, recognizing the important role they were playing in the establishment of the industry in Virginia.

When Archie’s father decided to retire in 1993, the land was sold and leased back to the Smith family so that the vineyard and winery could continue. In 1998, Archie’s father passed away followed two years later with the death of his mother. Insufficient operating capital, coupled with Archie’s declining health, led to the painful decision to shutter the winery’s doors in 2000.

In retirement, Archie continued to write, focusing on philosophy articles, short stories and a book on philosophy and wine, which was not completed before his death.

img_0214Today, in tasting rooms throughout the state, the daily soft clinking of wine glasses and the murmur of convivial conversation is the legacy that Archie M. Smith III has left to all Virginia wine lovers.


Published in the 2009 summer edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES