Early Days for Virginia’s Early Mountain Vineyards

P1050858It is still early days for Early Mountain Vineyards, the ambitious and progressive new project that Jean Case has started along with her husband Steve (of AOL fame).

The goal (and the challenge) goes beyond establishing a destination winery in the Monticello AVA. The Cases want to help elevate the profile of Virginia’s growing wine industry generally.

That’s a worthwhile aim, but not a simple or easy one in today’s competitive market environment. As one friend put it, early days and a mountain to climb.

Virginia Wine Mosaic

We were in Virginia to visit Sue’s parents Mike and Gert who live near Richmond and came to Early Mountain on the advice Frank J. Morgan who writes the popular Drink What You Like blog, which analyzes Virginia wine.   With about  200 wineries of various sizes and foci and 15 AVAs, Virginia presents the potential wine tourist with many choices. Frank suggested several interesting winery targets and I selected Early Mountain both for its proximity to Charlottesville and for its ambitious stance.

The Cases are big fans of all things Virginia and saw in the bankrupt Sweely Estate winery an opportunity to contribute to the wine industry here. The Sweelys built an impressive facility — a 20,000 case winery and a separate spectacular hospitality and event center, but they were apparently better at making wine than selling it for profit.

Early Mountain (named for the famously hospitable Early family who lived in these hills in Revolutionary War times) rose from these financial ashes in 2011 with the double mission to add to the chorus of Virginia wineries and also help the whole industry open a new era.

Best of Virginia

The most obvious evidence of this broader purpose is the Best of Virginia wine program at Early Mountain. The winery has partnered with the nine wineries shown above and promotes their products along with its own. This is done mainly through a series of tasting flights, only one of which is based on Early Mountain wines alone.

The rest feature a mix of products from the ten different producers carefully selected by Michelle Gueydan, a sommelier employed specifically for the Best of Virginia program. The flights are changed up periodically to both broaden the range of wines so promoted and to encourage visitors to return repeatedly to see what’s new.

I understand that there are also plans to eventually channel winery profits to promote Virginia wines in line with Case’s Revolution concept of social entrepreneurship. Profits seem a long way off, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations of revenues and costs, but a patient capital philosophy rules.

Early Days for Wine Identity

We enjoyed platters of local cheeses and meats, which paired very well with an Early Mountain Pinot Gris. The focus on local producers was both clear and delicious.We then turned our attention to a red wine flight that showcased four wineries and four grape varieties or blends. The Barboursville Sangiovese (they are owned by the Italian Zonin family) and the ’08 Early Mountain Merlot were Gert’s favorites among the reds we tasted. I was attracted to a distinctive Petite Verdot.

I’m optimistic about this project (as I am about the future of Virginia wine more generally), but I think everyone agrees that it is still early days. Early Mountain is still building up its wine portfolio, which necessarily takes a few years to accomplish. (If you were starting from scratch you would wait for the wines before opening the hospitality center but the desire to seize the opportunity caused the cart to be put ahead of the horse for now).

My perspective is that the components for success are coming into place and need to be lined up effectively into an identity for the winery and a message for the industry. I think the Early Mountain project is about Virginia hospitality and while that is clear in a sensual way when you step into the big open room, it could be communicated more explicitly in other ways.

The Early Mountain wines themselves don’t seem to have an identity yet, but that is perhaps natural since they are still works in progress. But they will need to be more clearly defined at some point, too, and that is not a trivial problem. The most successful wineries know who they are and express this identity consistently from first greeting through the wines and the wine experience on down to the product design and promotion materials and throughout every member of the staff.

An American [Wine] Dream

The Best of Virginia idea is a good one, but at this point the wines more or less speak for themselves and while visitors might find individual wines that they enjoy from around the state, I would like to see a better developed educational element to draw them progressively into Virginia wine in a way that includes the varieties and styles, the wineries, the AVAs and the terroir and of course a cultural element that connects to local history and cuisine.

An educated consumer is more than just a buyer — she can be an ambassador for Virginia wines and that’s where the real pay-off comes. It might seem like I am demanding a lot — and I am — but this is a rare opportunity due to the resources and commitment of the Case family and it would be great if it succeeded on all fronts.

This is not just Early Mountain’s problem, of course, but an issue that the Virginia industry needs to wrap its head around. Right now it seems to this outsider that the Virginians, like wine producers in many regions, are working through the debate about the need for a signature grape variety. Viognier? Cabernet Franc? Petite Verdot? It seems to me that this is an unproductive debate (or maybe a counter-productive one).

Virginia makes lots of different wines (Barboursville apparently makes a helluva Nebbiolo – who would have guessed?) from many grapes varieties in many styles (something the Early Mountain flights demonstrate). Defining the region by one grape or two wouldn’t do justice to this diversity.

Virginia also makes some disappointing wines, as is the case with most developing wine regions, and the store shelves feature many sweet wines and fruit wines, too, which may be very good but certainly provide a mixed message. Perhaps  a focus on more consistently high quality (and not signature grape) is the road ahead? I think that’s part of the Best of Virginia plan — to draw attention to high quality and try to raise the bar for everyone.

As the recently published  American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy teaches us, America is full of wine and wineries — they are not just in the big states or made by the big producers. I dream of an America where wine is made everywhere and enjoyed everywhere. Early Mountain can be a part of that dream. I wish them success.

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Thanks to Allison, Dave, Steve, Erich and Jacob at Early Mountain for their hospitality and willingness to answer all our questions. Thanks to Frank for his advice. Thanks to my most senior research assistants Mike and Gert for their able assistance and to Sue for photographs and her sharp eye and keen ear.

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Update June 5, 2013. A nice article about Virginia wines (including a mention of the Early Mountain “Best of Virginia” partnership) has been posted on the Appellation America website. Enjoy!

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