Virginia Wine Is Born

The Colony of Virginia was the first permanently-settled English colony in North America. Virginia "is where the British Empire began…this was the first colony in the British Empire," said American archaeologist William Kelso, who specializes in Virginia's Colonial period, and in particular, the Jamestown colony.

 

Founding of Jamestown

The Virginia Colony existed briefly during the 16th century, where it was named Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. In 1607, members of a joint venture called the Virginia Company founded Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America on the banks of the James River. Famine in year 1609-1610, disease and conflict with local Native American tribes in the first two years brought Jamestown to the brink of failure before the arrival of a new group of settlers and supplies in 1610.

 

English Interests in Colonization

In order to obtain products such as wine, silk and olive oil, England had to pay cash to Spain and France, its rivals and enemies. One of the persistent objectives of early English colonization was therefore to provide England herself with wine, silk, oil and other commodities. With her own sources, England might laugh at the French king and defy the Spanish, a heady prospect that powerfully influenced the English vision of America.

 

"Acte 12" and the Beginnings of Virginia's Wine Production

Tobacco became Virginia's first profitable export, the production of which had a significant impact on the society and settlement patterns. One of the first laws was to set a minimum price for the sale of tobacco. But Jamestown settlers had such high hopes that Virginia would become a major source of wine for the British Empire that in 1619, they signed into law a requirement for each male settler to plant and tend at least 10 grape vines.

"Acte 12", or the 12th Act enacted by the newly-formed House of Burgesses, the predecessor of the modern Virginia General Assembly, required colonists to plant vineyards, and to feed silkworms, set out six mulberry trees a year.

It required "every householder" to "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." The instruction was to be provided by the "divers skilfull vignerons" who, the company reported, had been sent out in 1619, "with store also from hence of vineplants of the best sort." This is the earliest record of the effort to transplant the European vine to eastern America, and the event may be said to mark the beginning of the second phase of viticultural experimentation in America, the first being that period of brief and unsatisfactory trial of the native grape. There were eight vignerons sent to Virginia in 1619, with Frenchmen Languedoc-Elias La Garde, David Poule, Jacques Bonnall among the names preserved.

However, every effort to grow vinifera, or vines of European origin, in their new environment met with failure caused by the Phylloxera aphid as well as diseases. The booming tobacco trade diluted British interest in the possibilities of American wine, and Americans themselves lost interest. Cider, whiskey, beer and brandy were plentiful enough, and fine wine could still be obtained from Europe.

 

Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

In hopes of one day realizing the promise of Virginia wines, Thomas Jefferson cultivated European grapes for more than 30 years. However, his experiments at Monticello vineyards never produced a single bottle of wine. He wasn't alone in trying. George Washington attempted it as well at his Mount Vernon estate, but too, had nothing to show for his efforts.

 

Charles Carter: The Founding Father of American Wine

In addition to the importance of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in advocating the production of quality wines in Virginia, there were other prominent Virginians interested in producing high-quality European-style wines from both imported vines and domestic grapes. One of these was Charles Carter.

The Carter family was one of Virginia's most prominent families, dating back to the 1600s when Robert "King" Carter (c. 1664-1732), the father of Charles Carter, was a landowner with approximately 300,000 acres and several estates. King Carter served as Speaker of the House of Burgesses, treasurer of the colony, a member of the Governor's Council. And as land agent for the English proprietor Lord Fairfax. He also had a wine cellar at his Corotoman estate containing more than 900 bottles, considered the largest wine collection in the New World.

Charles Carter was the 5th child of King Carter, and after his father's death, Charles assumed many of his father's responsibilities. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and served in every session from 1736 until his death, becoming recognized for his efforts to diversify the Colony's economy.

In 1759, Carter advocated legislation to encourage diversification and provide "bounties and premiums for the speedy and effectual bringing to perfection any art of manufacture of service to the public." He and others were concerned that the tobacco trade upon with the colony had relied for more than 150 years was declining and that the colony needed to invest in other commodities. As chair of an "economic diversification" committee, Carter was in touch with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in London. That same year (1759), he and other members of the Carter family began growing grapes at the Cleve plantation. By 1762, Carter is said to have had 1,800 vines planted.

From his efforts, he sent 12 bottles of wine he produced from an American winter grape and a white Portuguese summer grape to the Royal Society. On October 20, 1762, the Society approved both wines "as excellent wines," awarding Carter a gold medal and making him the first person to "make a spirited attempt towards the accomplishment of their views, respecting wine in America." This signified the first international acclaim for wine excellence in America, as well as America's emergence onto the international wine stage.

The following year, on August 6, 1763, Carter would again be recognized and certified, by Royal Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier for being the first to successfully grow European vines in Virginia. In 1769, with the instrumental involvement of the Carters and others, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that would encourage wine making in the Colony ("An Act for the Encouragement of the Making of Wine.") The spirit of Charles Carter lives on today at the Philip Carter Winery in northern Virginia.

 

Virginia Wine Makes a Splash Worldwide

In the 1820s, wines made from North American grapes finally began to show worldwide success, and it shocked everyone when a Virginia Norton wine was named "best red wine of all nations" at the 1873 Vienna World's Fair. The Norton also won a gold medal at the 1889 Paris World's Fair (which premiered the Eiffel Tower). The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted gave Virginia's nascent wine industry a lift.

 

Into Modern Day

Unfortunately, Prohibition in the 1920s brought the new wine industry to a standstill, and it was slow to bounce back. Seventeen years after the repeal of Prohibition, Virginia had all of 15 acres of commercial wine grapes for production.

In the late 1950s, experimental plantings of vinifera showed promise. With the establishment of six new wineries in the 1970s, Virginia's wine industry recovery was under way. A renewed effort to grow a European Chardonnay succeeded at the Waverly Estate in Middleburg in 1973. Then in 1976, Italian pioneer vintner Gianni Zonin hired Gabriele Rausse to grow and harvest vinifera grapes near Charlottesville. He established Barboursville Vineyards and then helped other vineyard owners do the same.

By 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. By 2005, there were 107. Today, Virginia hosts more than 300 wineries, with the industry still growing. Virginia is now 6th in wine production, following California, Washington State, New York, Oregon and Texas.

Today, the persistence of generations of winemakers if paying off. And the vision of one of Virginia's most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true.