In Old Dominion, a brand-new terroir

Winemaker helps put Virginia on the world’s wine map

Adrienne Carter / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

On a humid afternoon in late May, Luca Paschina, a winemaker born in northern Italy, made his pitch to the owner of a wine shop on Long Island. Pouring a cabernet franc reserve and a Bordeaux-style blend, he described how the red wines were aged for more than a year in French oak. He recounted the history of Barboursville Vineyards, the 870-acre property in central Virginia where the wines were made.

During the 30-minute tasting, the owner peppered Paschina with questions. Why did he move to Virginia? What grapes does he grow?

But Paschina recognized the signs around him: The shelves filled with wines from established regions, the focus on brand names. He wasn’t going to make a sale. Outside of his own state, even Paschina’s lilting Italian accent can’t quite compensate for the bewildering idea of “Virginia wine.”

“Most shops need a certain selection of wines that are very well-known, that are good moneymakers,” he said. “With the rest, they either take the time to dig through the pile and find the gems that are hidden or fill their shelves with things that are a given. We’re more of a hidden gem.”

For more than two decades, Paschina has been trying to make the case that Virginia wine deserves a place at the table with Barolo and Bordeaux. While his goal is to make Barboursville a world-class vineyard, he recognizes that it will have more success if Virginia is recognized as a world-class wine district. So he spends weekends pouring samples at wine festivals. He attends technical tastings to share ideas with winemakers, and he works with state officials to develop local marketing efforts and international trade missions.

He and other winemakers in the state have had remarkable — even improbable — success. When Paschina moved to Virginia from Italy in 1990, the state had fewer than 50 wineries. Now it has 275, making Virginia the sixth-largest wine region in the country, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

In Virginia, wineries and vineyards, with their related jobs, taxes and sales, add roughly $750 million to the economy.

“Wine is one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture,” said Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry. “We can’t be California, but we can be the East Coast capital for wine and wine tourism.”

Therein lies a challenge for Virginia and other fledgling wine districts. Many wineries can sell their entire production in their tasting rooms. But some wine purists bristle at the tourist trade, saying it draws rowdy fun-seekers or weekenders and not many serious oenophiles. The worry is that, in catering to this tourist market, quality suffers, making it hard to gain national and international recognition.

Transition to new world

Paschina pours his energy into Barboursville, now one of the largest wineries in the state, selling more than 38,000 cases a year. The winery, with its restaurant and inn, generates $6 million in revenue a year. Paschina concentrates on grape varieties that thrive in Virginia’s red clay soil, and he adapts to the region’s unpredictable growing seasons, which can offer heat waves, hail and heavy rainstorms. If a vintage isn’t good, Paschina will not make certain wines, rather than put out an inferior product.

All his exacting work has a purpose. If Virginia wine doesn’t connote excellence and refinement, Barboursville is a harder sell among serious connoisseurs in New York and London.

Dressed in his usual uniform of jeans, button-down shirt, vest and Merrell boots, Paschina, 51, surveyed the acres at Barboursville, in the rolling foothills of the Southwest Mountains near Charlottes- ville. He pointed to a promising part of the vineyard, indicating where he planned to replace some cabernet sauvignon vines with cabernet franc, one of the main grapes in Octagon, Barboursville’s high-end wine that sells for nearly $50 a bottle for the 2008 vintage. He turned to a recently cleared parcel of land, describing efforts to grow fiano, a grape usually associated with southern Italy. If he succeeds, he hopes to use the grape in a premium white blend, with viognier and vermentino.

It has taken time to understand this terroir — the unique, indefinable combination of land, soil and climate that characterizes a vineyard. When Paschina took over, the vineyard consisted mainly of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and pinot noir grapes, popular varieties in the United States at the time. But they didn’t all necessarily grow well in Virginia. Riesling and pinot noir, for example, favor cooler climates, not the hot, sticky summers of Virginia.

“I’m gradually thinking out 15 years for us,” Paschina said. “I can make a good pinot grigio, but not world-class. Vermentino, viognier are accessible, sophisticated. So that’s what we’re moving to.”

Acre by acre, he is slowly replanting, making better use of the land and climate. In doing so, he sees the potential to increase overall revenue. Pinot grigio, for which he isn’t planting additional vines, is nearly $15 a bottle. By comparison, the viognier reserve goes for $22. Octagon, the $50 Bordeaux blend, is at the high end of the spectrum for Virginia wines.

The wine business has helped reshape Virginia agriculture, creating opportunities in a state dominated by livestock and field crops. Barboursville occupies a former sheep meadow. Black Angus cows once grazed on the granite hillside where RdV Vineyards, a 90-acre property in Delaplane, now produces some of the state’s most expensive wines. Fifteen miles west, Linden Vineyards, started by the industry pioneer Jim Law in 1983, sits on a former apple orchard. Several tobacco farmers, including the Williams family that started the Homeplace Vineyard in 2004, turned to winemaking as subsidies for tobacco largely dried up.

When it comes to wine, Virginia has had a long tradition of failure. After the colonists settled in Jamestown, the local government decreed in 1619 that every man had to plant vines and ship wine back to mother England. But the vines bore little fruit. Thomas Jefferson planted European grape varietals at Monticello; although he tried for years, he never harvested enough to make wine.

More than a century later, in the early 1960s, the Zonin family, which now owns one of the largest private winemaking companies in Italy, set out to bring old-world ways to new-world wine. The family patriarch, Gianni Zonin, spent more than a decade trying to find the right spot to produce an Italian-style wine. In his view, the Napa Valley of California was too established. It was time-consuming to travel to the up-and-coming Willamette Valley in Oregon. And the cold, wet weather in the Finger Lakes region of New York was nothing like the Mediterranean climate needed for many Italian varietals.

In 1976, Zonin settled on Barboursville in Virginia, likening the soil attributes and warm climate to those of his Italian home. He also appreciated the history; the mansion on the property, the ruins of which remain, was designed by Jefferson for James Barbour, a governor of Virginia in the early 19th century.

Surrounded by cattle and horse farms, Barboursville was an aberration. It was only the fifth winery in the state. Gabriele Rausse, who made the first wines at Barboursville, recalls explaining to a skeptical state agriculture official that there was something to the budding wine industry.

Instead of encouragement, the official pulled out a box of cigars and said, “The future of Virginia is tobacco, not wine.”

The first year, Barboursville produced just three bottles of cabernet sauvignon. After Rausse, Barboursville had a series of winemakers who produced serviceable wine, drinkable but hardly noteworthy. In 1990, Zonin recruited Paschina to take over the operations. The first year was tough, with a frost in the spring and a rainy fall.

“It was a good vintage for asparagus,” Paschina said.

But the Zonin family, which still owns the winery, was patient, plowing money into the business for another nine years before it was self-supporting.

“From the beginning, there was an understanding to establish a wine region,” Paschina said. “It happened slowly. We only grow grapes once a year.”

A third-generation winemaker, Paschina was born in Piemonte, a storied wine region known for producing Barolo and Barbaresco. As a child, he played in vineyards, having grape fights with friends. At 14, he made wine in his backyard, an Italian red called brachetto.

After studying winemaking and viticulture, he was an intern at vineyards in the Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes. Later, he moved back to Italy, spending two years growing grapes and another two in sales and marketing. But the sales job, which included selling nonalcoholic wine in Saudi Arabia, wasn’t satisfying.

“That reached the bottom for me,” Paschina said. “It wasn’t my passion.”

When he arrived at Barboursville in 1990, winemaking was a tiny industry in Virginia and many winemakers knew one another by name. They met regularly to share techniques. They also worked closely with professors at Virginia Tech to develop scientific research on soil characteristics and pests.

Setting the standard

The collaborative approach was vital. Wine regions tend to be painted with the same broad strokes. So raising the quality of the individual wines can help elevate the entire area.

“In Italy, you respect your competition, but you don’t want to help,” Paschina said. “Here in Virginia, we still have a lot of room to grow. The more good wine, the better it is for all of us.”

His standards are exacting. In 2011, much of the Eastern Seaboard was hit by storms in late summer and early fall, the crucial part of the growing season. The rain diluted the amount of sugar and flavor in the grapes. So he and his team had to pick them early, when they had less color and harsher tannin, the natural compound that helps gives wine its texture. Because the grapes weren’t up to par, Barboursville didn’t make its premium Bordeaux blend, Octagon, or its cabernet sauvignon reserve, which require extensive aging in oak barrels. With many of the reds that year, Paschina largely used stainless steel to help retain the grapes’ fruity, fresh flavors.

At the beginning, “you could sell almost anything,” he said. “If a very bad vintage comes now, it’s harder. Consumers have a higher expectation of quality.”

Such expectations, of course, are what he aims to cultivate.

Paschina wants to elevate appreciation and understanding. It’s part of his long-running effort to change the perception of Virginia wine. Twelve years ago, he wrote a letter to Henry Bishop, the sommelier at Spiaggia, a top Italian restaurant in Chicago.

“I thought, ‘That’s the type of people I want to taste my wine,’” Paschina said.

A few weeks later, Bishop drove his jeep to Barboursville and picked up 20 cases of nebbiolo, barbera and pinot grigio.

Outreach is still just as important. Four or five times a year, Paschina goes to New York or other major cities to meet with wine buyers and sommeliers. Typically, Virginia wine is referred to as a “hand sale.” That is, shop owners or sommeliers need to push Virginia wine, since consumers rarely ask for it unprompted.

With a product that dates from biblical times, Paschina understands that perceptions evolve slowly. But the changes have been noticeable.

“In the 1990s, people said: ‘Virginia wines are not very good. They’re overpriced,’” he said. “Today, it’s the opposite. The perception has dramatically changed, and the consumer has changed. They’re more knowledgeable.”