Virginia Wine Comes of Age

By Posted on May 04 2010 | By

Fauquier County Reaping Benefits of Centuries of Virginia Winemaking Challenges

Winery at LaGrange

By the end of 2010, it’s anticipated Virginia will be home to 170 wineries. Here in Fauquier County, twenty bonded wineries are providing citizens and visiting wine lovers a relaxing life style and a healthful libation undreamed of thirty years ago.

Simply put, Fauquier may well be on the path to becoming the new Napa Valley if this extraordinary growth continues.

This accelerating expansion is all the more startlingly coming from a state known more for tobacco, battlefields and presidents than fine wine. How did it come about?

Virginia’s emergence as a promising wine powerhouse has been a long time in the making. 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 their 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. Our forefather vintners encountered a host of problems, not the least of which was the 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 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 Virginia. 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. Not all of them good.

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.

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. This species of vine produces all of the world’s most popular wines.

The good doctor traveled to Virginia and taught a small group of dedicated growers 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.

Fauquier County resident Treville Lawrence, who owned an estate in the The Plains called Highbury, was an enthusiastic supporter of Dr. Frank. His experimental vineyards produced some of the first classic Eurasian grape varietals in Virginia. The seeds of success were planted.

Based on these early achievements, Virginia began to take 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.

So with today’s vineyard successes, is this end of our story? Not at all.

What started as an embryonic industry, with one commercial Virginia winery in 1975, has blossomed into a thriving enterprise with over 3,000 acres of vineyards statewide. The next ten years will see even greater advancement as the caliber and knowledge of our viticulturalists and winemakers deepens.

As a result of the efforts in the 1970s, we are fortunate today to be growing numerous classic wine grapes. Two in particular are performing beautifully in both the vineyard and the wine cellar. Let’s take a closer look at the grapes that are enhancing the landscape of many Fauquier County vineyards.


As with many French names, this grape can be a bit difficult to pronounce at first. Say vee-own-YEA. The grape hails from the northern Rhone Valley in France and is thought to have originated from the Romans who introduced it into Gaul over 2,000 years ago. It was once widely planted in the Rhone Valley but slipped into obscurity as it became more difficult to grow.

During the 1960s, there was less that thirty acres of Viognier planted in all of France, a nation with over two million acres of vineyards. The grape was clearly in decline.

In the mid 1980s, a California winemaker of wide repute, Joseph Phelps, adopted the vine and anticipated it might be the next Chardonnay, one of the most popular white wines in the world. Unfortunately, it did not achieve the popularity in California he anticipated. Then, about twenty years ago, it was introduced into Virginia’s vineyards. Here, it has taken to our terroir like a kitten to catnip.

The wine produces a medley of luscious aromas and flavors redolent with honeysuckle, peach, pear and melon. It can be vinified in oak or crafted in a clean, crisp style that eschews oak undertones. In either case, its ancient lineage glows with a creamy mouth feel and soft spice finish. It is a wonderful alternative for those drinkers known as ABCers–Anything But Chardonnay.


This grape has been the workhorse of red blended wines for centuries. The majority of appellations around the world use the grape to enhance other classic reds. Since it produces a wine somewhat lighter in color and tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, many Bordeaux reds contain 20% or more of this grape. It is aromatic with a wide range of flavors centered on raspberry, plum, cherry and spice. And its firm acidity produces a food friendly beverage.

The attributes that favor growing the grape in Virginia are its cold hardiness and early ripening traits. Coaxing the best out of a wine grape requires meticulous management of the vineyard. Possessing inherent strong qualities in the vine itself eases the vineyard manager’s work. Cabernet Franc’s qualities are well suited to our state’s soil and climate.

In Virginia, many Cabernet Francs are blended with a touch of other reds. For a wine to be labeled the name of a grape it must contain at least 75% of that specific wine. Often you will find our state’s Cabernet Francs contain a dash of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot or Malbec. This blending strategy mirrors in reverse the technique used in Bordeaux.

As with Viognier, our Cabernet Franc has garnered a host of competition medals and awards. We can count on even finer bottlings in the years ahead as our winemakers learn more about showcasing this wine’s unique character.


So the next time you are visiting one of our Fauquier County wineries, take the time to linger over these two winning wines and a host of other quality bottlings being produced locally. Experience more fully the magic of handcrafted wine enjoyed in beautiful settings typical of our county wineries.

There’s no need to travel to France or California to experience world-renowned scenery and wine. In less than a thirty minute drive from anywhere in the county you may well discover your next favorite tasting room and bottle of wine.

As an added attraction, county wineries host a variety of events on most weekends throughout the year. In addition to the traditional wine tastings, look for live entertainment, barrel tastings, luncheons and the ever popular wine dinners. And if you have house guests from out of town, you will easily impress them with the delicious vintages and sweeping scenery that is the hallmark of our local wine country.

Indeed, Virginia and Fauquier County are poised on the threshold of wine greatness.

Our first winemakers must be softly smiling.

For a listing of all of Fauquier County wineries, tasting room hours and directions, visit:

Published in the May 2010 edition of the Warrenton Lifestyle.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES