The Virginia Wine Melting Pot

It's a beautiful thing: Immigrants, Old World grapes, and some very American ideals

Winemaking in the New World is inclusive by nature; the endless challenges can only be met through alliance. Beetles invade, mildew overwhelms, and deer party in the vineyards like drunken sailors. Mysteries pop up, tractors break down, and sometimes borrowed equipment - and shared wisdom - is the only thing that gets winemakers through a tough vintage. In adversity, everyone speaks the same language.

At harvest time, the promise that lies in those yellow bins of Old World grapes – many once thought to be ungrowable here – is often brought to fruition by men and women who worked those same vines in Italy, France, Germany, or Greece. In their countries, many were tasting wine at the family table while still in single digits, and through their work on generational farms they became experts in the grapes of their regions: cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, riesling. Being in Virginia, though, gives them freedom.

Dip into any region in the Commonwealth and you’ll see the cultural melting pot: at Barboursville Vineyards, winemakers from Italy work with acres of grapes native to their homeland, but even more from France. Nearby, at Afton Mountain Vineyards, a Frenchman from Beaujolais is creating buzz with the Spanish grape, albariño. Meanwhile, a Spaniard at Potomac Point Winery in Northern Virginia anchors a popular red blend with the Tuscan grape, sangiovese.  

We're not all grapes from foreign lands; Virginia has its own native grapes, too, like Norton -- which is made into sparkling wine by the daughter of the Brazilian owner at Casanel Vineyards. And some wineries favor hybrid grapes, like the Cayuga White that German-born Warner Hambsch will pour for you at his Loving Cup Winery near Charlottesville, and the tannic Carmine, grown in the Shenandoah Valley at Wisteria Vineyard by a winemaker from Lebanon.

Dozens of winery owners, growers and winemakers have made their way to Virginia’s wine country over the last 40 years, by design or happenstance. Some fled rebel militias, like El Salvador's Fernando Franco, master grower of Barboursville Vineyards. Others, like Damien Blanchon of Afton Mountain Vineyards, came to learn and just never went home -- the mysteries of a new wine region were too alluring for him.

Today, Franco grows French sauvignon blanc alongside Italian vermentino, and Blanchon blends sangiovese with petit verdot and tannat and it all makes perfect sense to them.

Virginia’s wineries show that diversity, both in grapes and in people, is at home here, creating a rich and balanced blend.

Luca Paschina and Fernando Franco, Barboursville Vineyards

Winemaker Luca Paschina and Vineyard Manager Fernando Franco, Barboursville Vineyards

Winemaker and Vineyard Manager Damien Blanchon, Afton Mountain Vineyards

Winemaker Damien Blanchon, Afton Mountain Vineyards

David Pagan Castano, Potomac Point Winery 

David Pagan Castano, Potomac Point Winery

Nelson DeSouza, Casanel Vineyards

Nelson DeSouza and friend, Casanel Vineyards

Warner Hambsch, Loving Cup Winery

Warner Hambsch, Loving Cup Winery (c) Andrew Shurtleff

  Moussa Ishak, Wisteria Vineyard

Moussa Ishak, Wisteria Vineyard