Fifteen minutes outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, lay some of the East Coast’s most pastoral landscapes. Where tobacco plantations once dotted the rolling hills around Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s Neoclassical estate—a different kind of agricultural crop has now taken root. Vineyards are springing up everywhere, producing good wines and bringing together locals and visitors to enjoy history, music, food, and sports in what may be America’s most bucolic countryside.
Owners of Virginia vineyards are as varied as the terroir. Musician Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band bought Blenheim Vineyards in 1999, and Guy and Lizzy Pelly (among Prince William and Prince Harry’s oldest friends) have just bought Merrie Mill Farm, a 400-acre farm right next to Castalia, philanthropist Paul Manning’s estate. And of course there is Trump Vineyards, the 2,000-acre estate Patricia Kluge famously bankrupted herself trying to save. The estate is still making wine, albeit with much larger gold letters on the labels.
But more than the famous and not-so-famous people who live there, a visit to Virginia wine country is as much about a peek into the country life of the locals as it is about wine tastings.
Murdoch Matheson and his wife, Susie, have lived on a farm just outside Charlottesville for years. “It’s about supporting local businesses and enjoying country life,” says Susie from the back of the horse she rides every day into the hills behind her house, accompanied by at least six dogs of various shapes and sizes.
Virginia locals have always understood that the combination of great music, rich history, easy access to the outdoors, and the intellectual prestige of the University of Virginia made Charlottesville a great place to live. Recently, wine tours have started enticing weekend visitors from much further afield.
Once thought of as barely drinkable, Virginia wines have gone through a renaissance in the last 10 to 15 years.
“They’re apples and oranges,” says George Hodson, CEO of Veritas Vineyards, when describing the differences between Virginia wines and those of Napa, America’s more famous wine-growing region.
Virginia wines, according to Hodson, are more akin to old-world wines, refined and austere, and more similar to Burgundy than to Bordeaux. Due to Virginia’s variable climate, the growing season there is shorter than California’s, resulting in wines with less sugar content than their Napa Valley counterparts.
Improvements to the product have come through trial and error; early attempts to plant five acres here or there of cabernet sauvignon grapes did not succeed. But viognier, petit verdot, and cabernet franc have thrived in the region.
“When we try to imitate Napa Valley, we fail,” says Hodson. “We try to be our own thing and dial in our own viticultural practices. Now, we’ve found our lane.”
One of the practices that Virginia wines has been experimenting with is a new collective local label called True Heritage. Spearheaded by George Hodson and his sister, Veritas’ vintner Emily Pelton, True Heritage is a way for the small-time wine grower to acquire name recognition and branding in stores and restaurants outside their immediate local area. Because premier restaurants often won’t stock wines they might run out of, smaller labels often are passed over in favor of better-known wines.
“The True Heritage idea came out of trying to get a bunch of these boutique farms together in order to meet the demand of enough wine for restaurants or distributors. The idea was to have a master brand, ‘True Heritage,’ and underneath that have a Castalia, Merrie Mill, or Ben Coolyn label, so we can sell to the high-end restaurants,” says Paul Manning, one of the founding members of True Heritage and whose 424-acre farm, Castalia, was named after the sacred spring of Delphi, Greece.
Once the owner has put in the vines and planted the grapes, True Heritage will harvest them, make the wine, design the label with the name of the farm, and market the product locally and nationally. The goal is to put Keswick Valley Wines on the map, similar to New Zealand’s Marlborough District or California’s Napa Valley.
And like Napa Valley, the Virginia wine-tour experience aims to cater to an affluent crowd. Five-star places are popping up, like the 48-room Keswick Hall, opening in 2020, which will provide the perfect base from which to venture out to explore the area. Golf, horseback riding, and hiking are just a few of the activities in the nearby area. Polo matches are held at King Family Vineyards on Sundays in the summer, where spectators can watch games while sipping rosé under shaded tables.
But no matter how high-end parts of wine country become, Virginia’s vineyards hope to retain their relaxed vibe. On my way to the airport, I stopped at Chisholm Vineyards, owned by Andrea Chisholm and her husband Charles Matheson; Andrea inherited the property from her grandmother through an ancestor who migrated to the U.S. in 1730. Chisholm Vineyards hosts tastings, and also hosts live music every weekend. The ambiance is informal and fun. “People are very friendly,” says Andrea.
And there is another reason why local winemakers are keen to foster the degree of community spirit that tastings encourage: The vineyards bring all different kinds of people together. After the protests and the deadly car attack in 2017, Charlottesville was devastated. Many of the winemakers brought up the tragedy during our conversations. Tourism in Charlottesville was badly affected, and while visitors have drifted back, the emotional wounds the event inflicted touched everyone.
As Manning tells me, “That was a tragedy for this beautiful place. I’ve traveled a lot and people do mention it to us. The community is healed and healing. The wine businesses are helping people come here, because they are trying to let that go a little and recover from it.”