It’s a Jungle Out There

By Posted on Jun 14 2010 | By

From a distance it often looks like an enormous green flag lying softly upon the land. Row upon row of sculpted grape vines undulating over the hills and swales. The vineyard beckons.

We know the scene well because countless works of art have depicted the iconic view. It embodies all that is rewarding about working the land. Woodie Guthrie memorialized it in his song Pastures of Plenty with the line, “Cut the grapes from your vine…to set on your table your light sparkling wine.”

But like many of life’s visions, there is the reality of it all. Especially in Virginia. Growing European wine grapes in the Old Dominion can be as difficult cultivating corn in Alaska. Well, maybe not quite that hard.

Virginia’s emergence as a promising wine powerhouse has been a long time coming. About 400 years long. The English colonists who landed at Jamestown in 1607 recognized the lucrative potential in winemaking. Their new home abounded with native grapes and within two years they had produced the first wine. It tasted awful.

Thus began a 350-year trail of tears, as generation after generation of winemakers tried to commercially produce wine in our state. The vintners encountered a host of problems, not the least of which was our climate, soil, and varied insect life, or what the French call terroir…the “somewhereness” of the fruit’s cultivation.

One of the major hurdles that could not be breached was the disappointing aroma and flavor of our native grapes. Yes, they grew in profusion and still do. But achieving anything resembling a quality bottle of wine from them was not possible. One of the abiding characteristics of indigenous wine is its foxy aroma and taste, or more pointedly, “wet dog” nuances. Taste a cabernet sauvignon along side a scuppernong and you would not be spending a lot of time fermenting the latter.

An interesting cultural phenomenon emerged because of this failure to produce wine in America. Our nation was launched on a path of beer and hard liquor consumption. Since fruits, grain and corn were cultivated with relative ease, folks fermented or distilled these agricultural products so as to have an alcoholic drink at hand. Alcohol was consumed in prodigious amounts in our nation’s early history. Think of it as that era’s social libation, plus an over-the-counter painkiller and physic drug cabinet, containing Prozac, Zoloft and Valium. Alcohol was the genie in a bottle and it granted our ancestors many wishes.

After the initial failure to produce palatable native wine, French vines were imported, followed by French vinegrowers, or vignerons, to work their magic. This time the vines did not even reach maturity before they withered and died. It became apparent wealth was not going to be amassed pursuing winemaking. Instead, the colonists decided to plant a crop that grew like a weed, tobacco. And while it was commercially viable, it also destroyed the land not to mention countless addicted smokers.

So what were the mysterious problems the early winemakers encountered? Why couldn’t they make decent wine? Let us count the ways.

First, ninety-nine percent of all wine is produced from the grape species Vitis vinifera. The grape is commonly referred to as the Eurasian grape vine because its origins were at the meeting point of Europe and Asia. Over eons the fruit developed traits enabling it to thrive in these environs. Unfortunately, this was not the grape species our colonists stumbled upon.

When the delicate European plant was shipped to America it landed on hostile shores. Cold winters, hot humid summers and a host of above and below ground insects were lying in wait for the tasty, little plants. No matter how experienced a winegrower was, successfully growing such tender fruit was not in the cards. Most vines succumbed within a few years of planting. An entire vineyard could be defoliated in a matter of days by beetles alone. It must have been heartbreaking for those early winegrowers to encounter failure year after year, while gazing at the thriving native grapes all around them.

Even Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s first wine connoisseur, tried to grow the European grape for over thirty years without success. Nonetheless, over time, the native grapes did hybridize with its high-class kin to produce wines that were more acceptable to the taste buds. But American hybrids never achieved more than regional curiosity status.

Then in the 1970s, vine growing embraced science and a wine industry began to emerge. One early leader was Dr. Konstantin Frank, a winegrower from New York State who expounded the idea that the delicate Vitis vinifera grape could thrive in the mid-Atlantic region. The good doctor traveled to Virginia and instructed a small group of dedicated growers on the methods of deep vine planting, proper root stock selection, correct trellising systems, canopy management, targeted spray programs and a host of other techniques he had perfected in the Empire State.

Virginia began to take some tentative steps into the world of serious winemaking. It was a thrilling and scary time for these wine pioneers as they rolled grapes onto the roulette wheel of fine wine production. It was also when the technique of keeping your fingers crossed while holding a wine glass was perfected.

After proper rootstock selection, canopy management and spray programs are the keys to the successful production of the classic wine grapes. Because Virginia’s soil is largely clay, it easily retains water and stimulates excessive vine vigor. Unless relentlessly pruned, the unchecked foliage can swamp a vine, denying the fruit of much needed air and sunlight to ripen the berries. It also can incubate lethal funguses and mildews waiting to spread across a vineyard, defoliating vines and limiting the cover and nutrients necessary for successful fruit maturation.

So with today’s vineyard successes, is this end of our story? Not at all. ‘Tis just the beginning. What started as an embryonic industry with one commercial winery in 1975 has blossomed into some 160 Virginia wineries and 3,000 acres of vineyards. The next ten years will see even greater progress and recognition of our wines as the caliber and knowledge of our viticulturalists and winemakers advances even further.

Indeed, Virginia is poised on the threshold of wine greatness. Our first winemakers must be softly smiling.

Published in the Summer 2010 edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES