Pairing Wine and History

By Matt
Fitzsimmons

Pairing Wine and History

Wine and history are two of my favorite past times. Luckily for me, Virginia is the perfect state to pair them.

Virginia is the birthplace of American wine, going back to 1619 when settlers in Jamestown were required by law to plant grape vines. Thomas Jefferson also experimented with cultivating European grapes at his plantation at Monticello. While unexpected challenges ultimately defeated his efforts, he’s still considered the “Founding Father of American Wine” due to his love of wine and willingness to experiment.

Whether you’re interested in early American history, the Civil War, or World War II, there’s a Virginia winery out there to complete your trip.

Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville is one of Virginia’s most iconic wineries; not just for the wine but their history. The winery is built on the former estate of James Barbour, a prominent Virginian and friend of Jefferson. Jefferson designed Barbour’s manor house in the Italian inspired, neo-classical style that became his hallmark. You can find other examples of Jeffersonian architecture at nearby Monticello, Poplar Forest, and the University of Virginia.

Fire gutted the Barbour home in 1884, but you can still view the ruins on their property. Be sure to check out their “Shakespeare at the ruins” event the next time it’s offered.

Of course, this is a winery first and foremost, and Barboursville is one of the largest in the state. They have a restaurant and large tasting room, but my favorite is the “Library 1821” where they do flights of rarer vintages – some from the mid-2000s.

As befitting of having an Italian winemaker they also grow several Italian grape varietals; I especially love the Vermentino Reserve, although the Barbera and Nebbiolo are also excellent. But best of all they offer flights of their flagship wine – Octagon.

Few Virginia wines are as famous as Octagon; it’s a perennial contender in the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition because it’s THAT GOOD.  Winemaker Luca Paschina named it Octagon as a tribute to Thomas Jefferson and the octagonal shape of the Barbour home, depicted on the label. Jefferson wrote this shape was a symbol of ‘balance and elegance’ – exactly the qualities Luca was looking for. With a description like that, how can you go wrong?

Effingham Manor Winery

While many wineries can boast that historic events took place on their property, few can make that history tangible to visitors. Effingham is such an exception.

The centerpiece of the property is the 250-year old Tidewater-style home originally built by William Alexander, whose father is the namesake of Alexandria, VA. While the building has had extensive alterations over the years, much of the original structure is still intact.

As interesting as the main home is, the rest of the property is equally historic. Several original outbuildings still exist, including the blacksmith shop, smokehouse and slave quarters. But the part I loved the most was the Western Red Cedar tree which is thought have been brought back by explorers Lewis and Clark.

Be sure to ask for a guided tour so you can get the full experience. But even without one, you’ll be able to relax in one of the home’s historically-themed sitting rooms or lounge on the back porch overlooking the old pasture while sipping your wine.

Speaking of wine – Effingham has a great selection. My go-to is usually their Tannat, but on a warm day I often try their Rosé or Chardonnay. If you want to complete the history theme, get a bottle of “Virginia Heritage”, the result of a collaboration of 16 Virginia wineries celebrating the state’s 400-year winemaking tradition.

Rogers Ford Farm Winery

 

Rogers Ford is one of the best hidden gems in the Virginia wine scene. Owner/winemaker Johnny Puckett is often behind the tasting bar, which adds to their ‘make yourself at home’ vibe. I’ve found lots of friendly people at wineries, but this is the only place where strangers who saw me sitting alone offered to let me join their birthday celebration.

Rogers Ford boasts an outstanding range for such a tiny location. Their Petit Verdot holds a special place in my heart because theirs is the first place I truly noticed how this grape makes outstanding wine. But the bright southern-hemisphere style Chardonnay, “Goldvein” orange wine and off-dry “First Frost” Vidal are also wonderful.

The winery is named after one of the natural fords in the nearby Rappahannock River, which often served as a de-facto boundary between the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Both sides would use these fords to launch cavalry raids; think of them as not-so-friendly reminders that the ‘other side’ was still there.

The war’s largest cavalry battle occurred at nearby Brandy Station in June 1863, often described as the first battle of the Gettysburg campaign. The Union withdrew from the fight, but their near-victory demonstrated the Confederate cavalry wasn’t invincible.

Today you can learn more about Brandy Station at the Graffiti House museum, a pre-Civil War home next to the battlefield that periodically served as both a hospital and headquarters. It’s awe-inspiring to see ‘graffiti’ etched in the house’s plaster featuring messages, drawings, and signatures made by soldiers of both sides.

 

Vint Hill Craft Winery

Vint Hill’s history is more recent. In mid-1942, local farmers realized their ham radios were picking up signals from Germany. The Army Signal Corp investigated and realized this wasn’t a joke – these radio transmissions weren’t just from Germany, but all over the world.

They soon discovered Vint Hill benefits from a quirk of geography; it’s one of a handful of locations worldwide that acts as a natural signal collector. The Army purchased the farm and set up Monitoring Station No. 1, tasked with intercepting and decrypting the enemy’s most sensitive secrets. Perhaps the most famous was a message from a Japanese military attaché describing German fortifications along the coast of France; General Eisenhower described this intercept as having an important contribution to the D-Day invasion.

Post-war, Vint Hill continued to play a role in the US intelligence community until the base was decommissioned in 1997. Today it houses both the US Cold War Museum and Vint Hill Craft winery, with both a café and brewery next door.

The winery has a different set up than many others in Virginia. While Vint Hill offers bottle sales and tastings, it doesn’t have the same vineyard views that other wineries have. Instead, it offers winemaking classes, ranging from (professionally guided) do-it-yourself winemaking to more high-end training. Not satisfied with buying a case of wine? How about making an entire barrel of it!

When you visit, try out their “Enigma” red blend – named after another WW II intelligence success story. Also tour the Cold War museum; they have an amazing array of artifacts on display.

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