Wine 101: American Wine Regions: Virginia

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazing wide range of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wines. I mean, Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast. So whether you’re new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. We look forward to serving you enjoyment in moments that matter. Cheers.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores another prominent American wine region: Virginia, which traces its wine efforts back to colonial times and Thomas Jefferson. Today, the modern wine industry in Virginia is quickly expanding and gaining national attention for its memorable wines. Tune in to learn more.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, has assured me — because he read an article about it — that that button of closing the door in the elevator is actually a placebo.

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. What’s going on? OK, so we’re going to go from the Pacific Northwest all the way to where it all began: Virginia. Virginia is for lovers, and now it’s for wine. Well, it was and it wasn’t. Then it was. We’ll get into it.

All right, people. I have to say, this might be one of the most exciting episodes of “Wine 101” that I’ve had a chance to do. And it’s because I am obsessed with the United States in wine. I’m obsessed with the fact, I’m always saying this, that we’re a young country and our wine industry is even younger. And we have so much to explore. When we talk about Virginia, it’s one of the most exciting places because it’s even younger than Washington and Oregon. I mean, it isn’t, but it is. I’ll get into all this. But I also must say that 13 years of my life was spent in the DMV. The DMV is what we refer to as the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. I grew up in a county called Montgomery County. When I was coming up in the ’90s, no one talked about wine. Except for, like, one winemaker, which I’ll get into. But I love Virginia, just as a state. Just so you know, because it’s a place I used to live, there might be a little sidebar or two as I’m talking about this stuff.

Let’s talk about Virginia and wine. I’m going to make what might be a controversial statement, but I think maybe not. I don’t know. I think it’s going to work. Virginia is one of the most historic wine places we have in our country. But it’s not until the modern era that we really start to see Virginia shine. Virginia’s wine story is really in the ‘80s, just like a lot of these newer wine regions. But obviously, we have to talk briefly about what happened well before the ‘80s. Actually, let’s go about 480 million years into the past. So around that time, 480 million years ago, the Earth was in what is called the Ordovician period. It’s the second of six periods in the Paleozoic era, and this period lasted 41.6 million years. That’s how long it lasted. It’s during this period that, on the Eastern Seaboard of what we know as the United States, a mountain range was formed. And this mountain range was as tall as today’s Rockies and some parts of the Alps. But over millions of years, this mountain range began to erode.

Today we know this mountain range as the Appalachian Mountain Range. Yes, I said Appalachian. Now, I know it’s also called the Appalachian Mountain Range. But I’m half- hillbilly and my family comes from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. So when I was growing up, we were camping all over the Smoky Mountains, all over the Appalachians, and that’s what we called it. So I apologize. I will be calling you the Appalachians for the duration of this episode. The thing is, the word “Appalachian” was derived from a Native American tribe just north of today’s Tallahassee, Fla. — another place I lived for like eight years — and they were called the Appalachian Nation. Their language is now extinct. However you want to say it, Spanish conquistadors took that name and applied it to the mountain range. When I was a kid, I actually camped in the Appalachian reservations; it was pretty wild. They have these burial mounds, whatever. It was really cool.

The Appalachian Mountains run from Newfoundland up in northeastern Canada, all the way down to southwest Alabama. That’s 1,500 miles north to south. It’s about 200 to 300 miles east to west, depending on where you are in the Appalachians. As these mountain ranges start running up through the south towards the Mason-Dixon Line, it gets into Virginia. The mountain range of the Appalachians and Virginia covers mostly the central western part of the state, north to west. Here is where we have what’s called the Blue Ridge Mountains; it’s one of the ranges of the Appalachians.

There’s also a very famous valley here called Shenandoah Valley, or the Shenandoah Mountain Range. These are some of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. I love this. I grew up in this area. The Blue Ridge Parkway is absolutely amazing. Oh, my God. Nowadays, it’s all about wine. It’s just crazy. We’re going to get into that in a second. But this mountain range that runs through central Virginia is a major concentration of wine activity in Virginia; mountain ranges, valleys, slopes. But there’s also one activity happening towards the coast of Virginia. That gets us closer to the origins of wine in America. A lot of this is going to be in my three-part series for the history of American wines, so I’m not going to get totally heavy into Virginia’s colonial history and all that. But this is where we have the James River and this is where we have the first vines going into the soil in the early 1600s in a town called Jamestown. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s in Jamestown where the first wine being made from indigenous grapes in this country is recorded. If you listen to the series I do about American wine history, you’ll see how terribly that went.

Also, it has to be mentioned, but it’s also in the American wine history series, this is where Albemarle County is. This is where Thomas Jefferson was advocating for wine for this country to be a wine-producing country. Actually, he’s our first wine advocate. I mean, this guy was being sent wine from all over, all the way through to Ohio. And even if he didn’t like the wine, he sent letters back saying, “Keep going, don’t stop.” He was that desperate to have this be a wine-producing nation. And it is today. So it worked, but it took a long time.

That’s why we’re not going to talk about the big gap in time for Virginia. I want to start in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I don’t know what was happening in the ’60s for wine in Virginia, but towards the mid- to late ‘60s, there were some farmers that began to convert their farms into vineyards. It was a small push, but it was happening. But by 1979, there were still only six wineries in the entire state of Virginia. Now, 1976 happened: the Judgment of Paris. And this is when the nation was like, “OK, so we’re a wine nation now.” Thomas Jefferson’s like, “Sweet.” And up until the 1980s, there was wine being made in Virginia.

There’s been wine being attempted to be made in Virginia since Colonial times. It never really stopped. The thing was, the majority of the varieties that were being or used were either the hybrid varieties that were created back in the day during the phylloxera days, or they were international varieties like Bordeaux varieties, but they just were not planted in the right places. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of trial and error happening in Virginia. And then in 1983, a man named Jim Law and his family moved from California to Virginia and they landed in the Blue Ridge Mountains and they started a winery. Now, this is not the beginning of everything. He and his family opened something called Linden Vineyards. It really is a moment in Virginia that helps to sprout all these winemakers that stay in Virginia and work in Virginia, they don’t go anywhere else. Jim Law at some point starts an internship program. And from what I understand, that internship program was like, “Look, you can come here and learn under me and my family and my people. But when you leave this internship, we want you to stay in Virginia.” Because of that, through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, we started seeing more and more winemakers finding more and more spots in Virginia to make wine.

In 1983, the Shenandoah Valley, which is bordered by the Blue Ridge Mountains and is where Jim Law was doing his thing, was awarded the first AVA of Virginia. And by the 1990s, there were 50 wineries in Virginia at this time. So it’s growing. And this right here is where I think Virginia’s wine history really does begin. I should say this: This is the part of Virginia’s wine history that you and I can get very excited about because a lot of things happened in the ‘90s. Not only Jim Law, but it was a big collaborative decade in Virginia because Virginia’s a very difficult place to grow. Vines have a lot of climatic challenges. There are climatic challenges everywhere. But it was Virginia’s time to figure out what varieties work in what places so they can thrive.

And it wasn’t just a collaborative effort with wineries and winemakers themselves, but the local state government also funneled money into wine. In Virginia, there’s something called the Governor’s Cup, where wines are judged and they get a Governor’s Cup Trophy. The state government saw a lot of opportunities for wine tourism because of the excitement of what was happening with modern wine, and also the aspect of history with Thomas Jefferson in Monticello and Albemarle County and all that. Right now is the time to get into Virginia. Today, there are over 4,000 acres under vine across the entire state of Virginia. There are 300 and counting wineries in Virginia right now.

Here’s the thing: Virginia is happening very fast right now. When you read about Virginia right now, there’s really about eight distinct AVAs, one of which I don’t even know what’s going on. But the potential is unbelievable. I’m going to tell you about some of these places. But the thing is, know that at some point there’s going to be more AVAs in Virginia. There’s actually one called James River that’s near that whole Jamestown area. I read about it last year becoming an AVA. But as I look into these things, I don’t see it as a distinct AVA yet. I need to talk to Virginia people once a month for the next two years to make sure I understand what’s going on there. But here are the places that are currently AVAs. And a quick side note here. People and winemakers of Virginia might see it differently. And if so, Virginia, tell me. But it seems right now in Virginia, there’s not a specific variety for certain appellations or a certain AVA doing well in Virginia. There’s a bunch of them. It’s not like, well, if you’re in New York, you’ve gotta have Riesling. If you’re in the Willamette Valley, you’re going to have Pinot Noir. When you’re in Virginia, it’s going to be a very wide range of fun. I’ll talk about that after I get all the AVAs out of the way, just to kind of get you guys excited about what’s happening in Virginia. Also know that some of these AVAs don’t have enough wine coming out of them that you can actually go find them in stores. You have to go to Virginia. And we’re going to talk about that, absolutely.

Also, some of the names of these AVAs are really cool. For example, in the eastern part of Virginia, towards the coast, we have two AVAs. One that’s up in this northern peninsula called the Northern Neck. It’s in the Tidewater region of Virginia between the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River. This is called — ready? Northern Neck George Washington’s Birthplace AVA. It’s a very long name, but it’s a really cool name. Now, I don’t know a lot about what’s happening here. It’s an AVA that I have not been able to try wine from. I don’t know how many wineries there are and what’s going on. But I’m excited because I’m getting Long Island vibes with that climate, so it should be interesting. One of the advantages of this wine region, from what I was reading, is that it has more frost-free days than other wine regions. Which makes complete sense, being on the coast. And frost can seriously damage grapevines. Then just south of that, you have another area called Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA. It’s literally 70 miles of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. That’s literally not even 100 feet above sea level. I’ve heard of a couple of wineries in this area. I have actually never tried the wine. I would love to. Virginia, if you’re listening, I’d love to try wines from all of your AVAs. But again, it’s right there on the coast, so I’m not really sure. Again, I’m getting that Long Island vibe. I’m really curious to see what’s going on there. So that’s the eastern part. And I can’t wait to see, like I said, what’s coming out of those areas. But it’s in the central western part of the state where a lot of wine activity is happening.

It’s these wineries and these wines and these winemakers here in this part of the state that are causing all of the excitement in the United States about Virginia wine. Fifty miles west of D.C., in the Piedmont region of Virginia — which is a big plateau between the ocean and the mountains — is Middleburg AVA. Just south of that is the first AVA awarded to Virginia called the Shenandoah Valley AVA. That’s bounded by the Blue Ridge. That’s where it all kind of began. And there are the Appalachians and what’s called the Allegheny Plateau. This is where we’re starting to get those really high-acid winds I was talking about. Just west of the Shenandoah Valley is the Monticello AVA. That is, of course, named after Thomas Jefferson’s famous estate. And not only is that historically important, but there is the ability to grow vines there and make great wine.

South of those two pretty large AVAs is a smaller AVA on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny Mountains, which is a ridge of the Appalachians. It’s called North Fork of Roanoke AVA. Here, fog is key along with elevations getting up to well over 2,000 feet above sea level. All of that is the makings for really awesome mountain fruit in awesome wine. Then you have what I believe is the smallest AVA in Virginia, if not the country. It’s only 9,000 acres. It’s called Rocky Knob AVA. It’s kind of southeast of the North Fork of Roanoke AVA. It’s extremely mountainous, and it’s right near the Blue Ridge Parkway in southwest Virginia, which is kind of cool. The concentration of wine is on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And what they say here is the elevation of these mountains and very strong westerly winds protect it from any kind of mildew. Those are the main AVAs in Virginia. But there’s this one all the way down the south that actually straddles the border between Virginia and North Carolina. It’s called Appalachian High Country AVA. It’s brand new, and there’s not a lot going on there. But again, it’s very exciting to see how this region is going to develop.

So that’s an overview of Virginia. But what I have to say is, Virginia for a long time was a state that made awesome wine that was very hard to get because the production level of these wines are very small. They are starting to ramp up a little bit. Virginia is such a beautiful place, with the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Eastern Shore and the historical nature of Monticello. The thing is, you should visit Virginia. It’s an exciting time to visit this new-ish wine country that we have, this old wine country that became new again through modern technology and new collaborations. In 2015, there were 2.3 million visits to Virginia wineries. So it’s happening. And the state only has 8.3 million people in it.

Virginia is doing wonderful things with varieties that you know, like Cab Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay. But it’s also doing amazing things with varieties you may not be familiar with but are amazing. Like I said, Petit Manseng is a blending variety from southwest France, but it is getting Chardonnay-like vibes in Virginia. They’re making great wine from the Tannat grape, another southwestern variety from France that’s also doing a really great job in Uruguay. There are also some Petit Verdot and some really nice aromatic Viognier.

Recently, a group of winemakers from Virginia came to the VinePair offices and they popped some of their bottles for us to try. I gotta say, wine lovers, this is some amazing American wine that’s being made in Virginia. It’s definitely not only worth paying attention to, but it’s worth following. Let’s watch this wine region develop. I mean, it’s already developed, but it’s going to go further. This is only the beginning of Virginia. So there’s a little overview. But that’s Virginia. It’s yet another one of our awesome wine regions. It is fairly new, even though it’s really, really old. But if you haven’t had a chance to try Virginia wine, just go for it. Go out there, buy it. No matter what AVA it’s from, no matter what grape it’s made from — unless you want a specific variety — try it. Get that balance, understand it. Get into it. Virginia’s here. I’ll talk to you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.