The History Lesson You Never Learned About Virginia Wine

Posted by Wine Gourmet on

While most revel in beer during Oktoberfest, did you know October is Virginia Wine Month? This month marks the 30th annual celebration of Virginian viticulture! With over 300 wineries in the commonwealth, Virginia has become the second-largest wine producer in the south and the fifth largest in the nation. Our land is rich in history as Virginia’s wine production dates back to 17th century colonization and our founding fathers. From laws requiring the landowners to tend their own grapevines to Thomas Jefferson’s life-long connection with wine making. In elementary school we all learned about American colonization and agriculture, but they never told us about the colonists attempts at growing wine. Now that’s the big kid history lesson we want to learn, so we’ve here is a bit of Virginia’s wealth of wine history!
The first attempt at American-made wine was in Jacksonville, FL by the French Huguenots in the late 16th century. They pursued cultivating native grapes but it resulted in a less than pleasant. Next up on the list were the early settlers of Jamestown. They planted the common grape vine as a potential cash crop (like tobacco) but that too ultimately failed because the common grape vine is native to Europe. Jump to 1619, when Virginia’s First General Assembly, The House of Burgesses, enacted 70 new laws to be upheld by the colonists. One of which pertained to the growing of vines and stated as follows:

Moreover, be it enacted by this present assembly that every householder does yearly plant and maintain ten vines, until they have attained to the art and experience of dressing a vineyard, either by their own industry or by the instruction of some vigneron. And that upon what penalty soever the Governor and Council of Estate shall think fit to impose upon the neglecters of this act. (Source)

With the knowledge that they had land at their fingertips, lawmakers in the General Assembly saw an opportunity and sought for Virginia to become a leader in winemaking. Now I definitely don’t remember learning that in school… but it doesn’t seem like a half bad idea. Among the only to prove prosperous under this law as a man named John Johnson: His 85 acres now make up part of Williamsburg Winery that was founded in 1985. Similar laws were imposed on colonists throughout the years but never proved entirely successful.
Now fast-forward to 1685 when political and religious unrest relocated French Huguenots to Virginia in a town along the James River. With the laws offering rewards for fruitful wine-makers, the French decided this was their chance to jump at a prosperous industry, as many of them were vignerons themselves. Soon enough the French proved to be up to the task and began producing wine and brandy despite what some saw as less than ideal conditions for bottling wine. Leave it to the French to prove their winemaking skills transcend history through the world. 
Keep in mind that French influence. Have you ever heard of Monticello Wine Company? That’s right, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was a vintner. According to Monticello Wine Company, “Thomas Jefferson, described as America's ‘first distinguished viticulturist’ and ‘the greatest patron of wine and wine growing that this country has yet had,’ established two vineyards at Monticello.” As a child, Thomas Jefferson’s family moved across the James River from the town in which the French Huguenots settled. Throughout his childhood, Jefferson’s family garnered several friends of Huguenot descent exposing him to French influence and heritage. One can only assume that this may have ignited his curiosity for his venture of growing and producing the classic European grape vine. Jefferson of course ventured into other grape species to better understand the growing conditions of this new world. His successes were short-lived but that never stopped him. Monticello regards Jefferson vineyards as a representation “of a plant collector, an experimenter rather than a serious wine maker”. Although he never succeeded, Jefferson’s pursuit and influence has helped shape Virginia viticulture.
In 1835 in Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Daniel Norton was experimenting with crossbreeding grape species to produce a grape that would survive the growing conditions in North America. During the course of his experimentation he discovered a grape that would potentially be resilient enough in Virginia’s soil and climate. Thus the Norton grape would go on to win awards for the Monticello Wine Company in the late 1800’s.
Virginia’s wine industry was later halted by things like prohibition but was reignited in 1976 when an Italian winemaker expanded his venture into Charlottesville, Virginia. He sent his vineyard manager, Gabriele Rausse, to once again join the masses of attempting to grow European grapes in Virginia. This time though… the winemaker became the first to successfully grow and cultivate the common grape vine. He is now revered as the founder of Virginia’s grape industry. Rausse’s success marked the true beginning of promise for the growth of the Virginia wine industry and to this day, he oversees the production of wines at Monticello Wine Company.
Who would have ever thought that the history behind Virginia’s wine industry would be so interesting and interconnected? Now you can school all your friends on the history lesson they wish they learned.
Prime harvesting in Virginia is August and October, and it’s only fitting that we celebrate the fruits of Virginia Wine during the month of October! Cabernet Franc and Viognier are considered Virginia’s top varietals, so grab yourself a bottle, sit back, and appreciate what it took to for Virginia’s wine industry to become what it is today. Or grab a bottle of Virginia wine and try our House Sangria recipe! Click  to view!

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