Calvin Howe writes I am a dipWSET candidate currently working with the Scratch Restaurant Group, based in Austin, Texas as a Sommelier. I am a Virginia native, and while I hold no financial ties to the success of the industry, I am proud to see what it has become. Rural Virginia will always hold a place in my heart, and the restoration of a deeply rooted and culturally beautiful community is something I am happy to celebrate.
The tobacco industry of Virginia was once considered core and central to its identity. For the better part of four hundred years, Virginia farmers had a reliable crop that would always sell. However when the tobacco industry began to fall, what they were left with was shrinking purchase quotas and nutrient depleted soil. The state legislature stepped up to aid the industry that Virginia was built on, creating brand new programs to make sure these very farmers were able to continue on. This is the story of how grapes are helping save some of the oldest communities in America.
The reliance of Virginia's economy on tobacco truly cannot be understated, as it accounted for almost fifty percent of the state's agricultural output even in the year 2000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With such a substantial percentage of the agricultural sector on a consistent decline, new programs began to emerge and people began to take initiative. The idea to grow grapes didn’t begin here though, some intrepid individuals had been growing grapes since the seventies. One of those such people, Gabriele Rausse, was part of the very first wave of winemakers to plant in modern times. Even if he still couldn’t sell it directly to customers, something Virginian’s should feel very silly about in retrospect, he was there to make great wine.
Trusted to be a guiding hand in a brand new region, and even eventually tending the grape vines on Thomas Jefferson’s original home at Monticello, Gabriele seemed to have it figured out. It was not easy for others at first, and Gabriele recounted his story of how shocking the early Virginia wine industry was in an interview with Southern Food Ways. While I believe the entire interview is an incredible and humorous look into what starting a new culture of wine really looks like, his recollection of farming and winemaking practices is most relevant. He recounts his first day consulting with a new winery and finding grapes left in presses from years prior, a practice that is equal parts concerningly unsanitary as well as practically guaranteed to produce poor quality wine. It was not out of negligence that any of this was done, but rather a simple naivete. People really had no clue what to do in the very beginning, and it is completely understandable.
While Gabriele led one of the very first wineries in the state, Barboursville Vineyards, and lent his hand to many others over the decades, arguably his largest impact was convincing others that growing grapes was not only possible but a smart decision. He helped create a new foundation of knowledge alongside other pioneers in the regions such as Jim Law and Dennis Horton, all equally deserving of their own articles. With the knowledge that fifty wineries had succeeded in the state, and that there was untapped potential, Virginia began to give funding for new organizations and programs. Virginia Tech was given grants to research soil and the propagation of vines in nicotine ridden soil to be given as public knowledge for farmers looking to make the switch. The nicotine left by tobacco has some of the most drastic effects compared to other viable crops on soil chemistry, acidifying the land in as little as five years. Without proper knowledge and if not treated correctly, very little can grow in tobacco’s wake, so knowledge was key. Outside of soil programs, bailouts were given to farmers who needed the money to switch to new crops so that they could take time to properly establish new fields and learn proper methods. Smaller organizations such as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, have created grants and resources worth over one billion dollars in value to assist small farmers. On a state level, the Burley Tobacco Buyout Program stated that Virginia would buy a certain amount of Burley Tobacco for one year in order to give extra time for farmers to adapt. In order to facilitate these programs, the Piedmont Virginia Community College began to host seminars with those who had previously made wine in the area prior to the necessity for change, in order for new farmers to better understand the upkeep of a rather finicky perennial crop such as grapes. In a time when some believed it best to not clean your tanks, the need for education could not have been clearer!
In a matter of years, what was once a burgeoning industry of fifty brave wineries had blossomed into hundreds and begun to garner some attention. The gamble had paid off, and not only was agriculture seeing a brand new crop thrive on the back of well taught new regenerative farming practices, tourism followed shortly after as the natural beauty of Virginia drove many properties to diversify into Hospitality as well. Restaurants, wedding venues, gorgeous tasting rooms, and even fields to watch live polo all began to pop up in the countryside. The rural communities facing bleak futures now had the opportunity to bring from all over the state to their backyards and share their passion. It became fashionable to be a farmer. Now the state is proud to represent over five hundred wineries according to the latest TTB reports, and it shows no sign of stopping. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office now coordinates joint efforts amongst members to push the industry even further. Both to celebrate their successes with events such as the Governor’s Cup to find the best wine in the state, as well as sponsoring tasting events in new markets and competitions to promote the state's exports.
While tobacco sales may have dropped over fifty percent since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of wineries has grown tenfold, as the state's soils get healthier every year and grapes take root in the culture where tobacco stood for centuries. Where there were once quiet farming towns struggling to get by, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, you can now enjoy incredible hospitality and support local families. Give a bottle of Virginia wine a chance, and know that it supports the small communities who make it, and those who care.
Header photograph is courtesy of Kristi Blokhin; second image is the author's own.