The Makeup of the Monticello Wine Trail
In some ways the wine scene along the Monticello Wine Trail is reminiscent of Napa and Sonoma 25 years ago, where tasting rooms are not overly crowded, tasting fees are non-existent or minimal and visitors get undivided attention from managers, vintners or owners themselves. However, this is where the similarities end. Virginia wine country is clearly not striving to be the next Napa – as refreshing for visitors as it is for the region. It's interesting to note, that the consistent shining stars for Virginia's grape frontier are typically secondary varietals in California, with the likes of Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot repeatedly rising to the top of the tasting ladder. The wineries themselves tend towards the boutique end of the spectrum, with a handful of large producers and many small production estates contributing to the Old Dominion's overall wine volume.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has over 150 wineries with the Monticello AVA being the largest of Virginia’s six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and host to 24 wineries and counting. Some of the most popular wineries include Barboursville Vineyards, Jefferson Vineyards, Kluge, Keswick Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, Del Fosse, Mountfair Vineyards, Veritas Vineyards and Blenheim Vineyards.
Thomas Jefferson, America's First Wine Connoisseur
The story of the Monticello Wine Trail truly starts with Thomas Jefferson, America's first wine connoisseur, who spent 30 years trying to establish vines to make wines on his Monticello Estate, but due in large part to vineyard disease, his vision of crafting Virginia wines never came to fruition. However, his vineyard dreams, though delayed over 200 years, have finally come to pass. Jefferson would be proud to know that Virginia has been successfully cultivating vines and making wines for the past 30 years, with the wines taking a tremendous leap in both quality and consistency over the last decade in particular, as verified by well-deserved recognition and awards coming on both the national and international stage.
Wineries to Visit on the Monticello Wine Trail:
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate and the apt name of the surrounding wine route, is a choice place to start a Virginia wine country adventure. Not only will your historical bearings be set, but an appreciation for Thomas Jefferson's profound influence on both the state’s and the nation’s wine future will be cemented. Not to mention the close proximity that many of the trail’s best wineries share with the famed Monticello estate. Though Jefferson was never able to produce a bottle of wine from his vineyards, today there are grapes grown and wines made from the soil that he once worked numerous vines in vain. The Monticello gift shop sells a limited quantity of wines made from the esteemed Monticello vineyards, under the watchful eye of Gabriele Rausse. The Monticello wines go on sale the first Monday of the year, but interested parties had better be quick as they typically sell out in a single day. If you aren't quick enough to grab one of Rausse's Monticello wines, fret not, he sells a compelling series of wine under his own label at the gift shop as well. The dense, concentrated flavors of Gabriele Rausse's Touriga is exceptional with grilled game.
Jefferson Vineyards: A mere mile southeast of Monticello will take you to Jefferson Vineyards, where you can see firsthand where Thomas Jefferson’s Italian viticultural partner, Philip Mazzei, planted the first vineyards on a 400 acre estate adjacent to Monticello. Vines were planted repeatedly, but pests and disease prevented the vineyards from ever producing a bottle of wine. Fast-forward to 1981 and find another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, replanting the vineyards once again, but this time with notable success. Known for vibrant Viognier, Jefferson Vineyards puts together a stunning rendition of this northern Rhone grape. Today Jefferson Vineyards cultivates 20 acres of vines (and sources when needed) to produce 4,000 to 8,000 cases of wine annually. Find Jefferson Vineyards wine recommendations here.
Dave Matthews fans will appreciate Blenheim Vineyards, a five mile jaunt from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello off of Carters Mountain road. Owned by the Dave Matthews family and run by Kirsty Harmon, ambitious winemaker and general manager – whose been charged with the not always easy task of simply “making good wine.” Blenheim Vineyards is making good, quality wines that are approachable and capable of bringing out the best in both food and friends. Check out the wine recommendations for Blenheim Vineyards here.
Kluge Estate is practically neighbors with James Monroe's former residence, Ash Lawn-Highland, another jewel on the Monticello Wine Trail. Kluge maintains a keen focus on sparkling wines and embraces the title as one of Virginia’s larger producers (to the tune of 30,000 cases a year). See Kluge Estate wine recommendations here.