The roots run deep at Early Mountain Vineyards. According to legend, Joseph Early was the first white landowner of the property in foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A veteran of the Revolutionary War, Lt. Early heard a traveler in the area needed shelter and sent word welcoming him, only to discover that the stranger was Gen. George Washington, under whom he had served at Valley Forge.
So George Washington did, indeed, sleep at this site on the historic Monticello Wine Trail. Early Mountain in Madison County, Virginia, is about 90 miles east of Washington, D.C. and a stone’s throw from Monticello, the home of the premier American oenophile, Thomas Jefferson.
“Some people say it was Robert Mondavi who started everything,” observed Peter Hoehn, CEO of the winery. “But before Mondavi, there was Jefferson.”
Hoehn was recently in the Napa Valley, along with two other members of the Early Mountain team, assistant wine maker Steve Monson, and vineyard manager Jonathan Hollerith. They were here to participate in workshops at Opus One Winery and also to talk about what’s happening in Virginia. Over lunch, paired with Early Mountain wines, they emphasized than even more than Virginia’s storied past, it’s the forward-looking vision that’s propelling the state into winemaking prominence.
The 300-acre property was home to the bankrupt Sweely Estate Winery when former AOL executives Jean and Steve Case bought it in 2011. After renovations, they reopened it as Early Mountain in 2012.
According David McIntyre of the Washington Post, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, attending the grand opening, told the Cases, “Our hope is that you can do for Virginia wine what you did for the Internet.”
The basis of Early Mountain is wine making as a social enterprise. “Our goal is not to make money but instead to make a difference, with a particular focus on enabling Virginia to compete with the leading wine regions around the world,” the winery’s mission statement reads.
To this end, the winery’s profits go to a state-wide effort to build the Virginia brand and share knowledge that will benefit grape growers and winemakers. Jean Chase has described it as “strengthening the Virginia wine industry and the sector’s future growth, innovation, adaptation and learning.”
A 30-year resident of Virginia, Chase has said she strongly believes that Virginia has the potential to take its place “amongst the world’s top wine regions.”
With this goal in mind, the 18,000-square-foot Early Mountain hospitality center, which includes a spacious tasting room and ballroom, offers not just its own wines but wines from partner wineries throughout the state, including Ankida Ridge, Barboursville, Breaux, Chatham, King Family, Linden and Thibaut-Janisson.
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The result is a “Virginia wine tour under one roof,” said Hohen, a native of Switzerland who has managed hotels and restaurants around the world. He became a staunch advocate of Virginia wines through his work with the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville. Offering different combinations of flights of wines from several wineries, the Best of Virginia program has proved to be a hit with visitors, he added. “They love it.”
Another part of the program is the “eat local effort” that showcases regional foods in the winery market. Expansion plans include a restaurant on site and an inn, but for now the action is focused in a 28,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art winery building where Hollerith and Monson produced about 4,000 cases of wine this year.
Hollerith, whose family originally came from Germany and has a long tradition of winemaking, studied at UC Davis and worked in Germany, before joining the Early Mountain team. “It’s just really exciting to be part of this,” he said.
“We’re getting there,” said Monson, who was in charge of creating and operating an experimental winery at the University of Missouri as part of his master’s degree work. Monson also worked in Bordeaux and Portland, Ore. before coming to Virginia. “I would say in
15 years Virginia will be regarded on par with Oregon,” he predicted.
Forty acres of the Early Mountain property are planted to grapes. Although viognier is most associated with Virginia, Monson said, they are concentrating on Bordeaux varieties in new planting.
The three visitors agreed that although the Virginia weather is not as predictable or as easy for grape growing as California, they are confident that they can make wines with their own grapes or with grapes sourced from other Virginia vineyards.
The Early Mountain label includes pinot gris, merlot, chardonnay, viogner, a Port-style dessert wine called Muscat Dolce and Handshake Red, a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The wine was so named because it is a collaborative effort between Early Mountain and a Virginia grower “settled upon by a handshake,” said Hohen, explaining that it unites the estate’s history with its present-day emphasis on hospitality.
“Jean likes to share this story as this land was a place where George Washington laid his head and now is a place where people can feel a warm welcome when they enter our doors, just as he did with Mr. Early.”