Clinking. Laughing. A celebratory toast. On a summery evening last September, the management team from Early Mountain Vineyards paused a frantic harvest season to celebrate the debut of the vineyard’s finest release since its founding in 2012. The name of the new wine? Rise.
Gazing from floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Potomac River, storm clouds darkened, the group murmured, aware that Hurricane Florence was forecasted to tear through Virginia. But fears of a damaged crop were suspended during this intimate gathering at Jean and Steve Case’s home in Washington, DC. The event convened a collection of wine journalists, restauranteurs, members of Virginia’s Wine Board, beverage distributors, friends and family. On this rainy evening, they gathered together to sample Early Mountain’s best wines.
The evening was a long time in the making, going back 20 years, when the Cases, founders of AOL and the Case Foundation, first began exploring Virginia’s historic wine country.
The Case Family Discovers Virginia Wines
When Steve and Jean Case embrace a new project, they customarily rotate who will take the lead. Both are renowned visionaries in the world of collaborative technologies and entrepreneurial ventures. Steve was the founder of America Online (AOL) and Jean began her career as an executive in the private sector. She also led marketing and branding efforts for AOL. Together, they established the Case Foundation in 1997, a philanthropy whose mission is to invest in people and ideas that change the world. Jean is the CEO of the Case Foundation, chairwoman of the National Geographic Society and the author of a new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.
When these oenophiles first sampled Virginia wines, they were not enthusiastic. Still, the relaxing lifestyle of rural Virginia enticed Jean and Steve so much, they acquired a farm.
Fast forward a decade to when friends convinced the Cases to give Virginia wines a second look. This time the couple had a different impression. “We scheduled a weekend in Charlottesville and went all around,” Jean reminisces. “Some friends of ours curated the wines that we would taste and we simply couldn’t believe the difference from our first tasting and what we were tasting now. So, we got super excited.”
When the Cases get excited, they tend to make things happen—like their early adoption of the fast-moving technology of the internet—and Jean and Steve saw lucrative possibilities in marketing Virginia wine. “We started going to school on Virginia wines and we realized that as an economic sector, Virginia wine had really powerful potential for our state, but it was truly under-leveraged,” Jean explains.
When Early Mountain first went on sale in 2011, the Case’s decided to drive down to take a look. Jean says that while some people dream of owning a vineyard, it was never the Case’s long-term plan. They did not invest in Early Mountain as a passion project; rather they saw the potential of the Virginia wine industry to become a profitable driver for the state’s economy, and they planned to attract worldwide attention by creating a notable wine product.
In this project, Jean took the lead: “When we went there, we had a dream. Maybe if we bought this vineyard and invested heavily in the vineyard, and we put together a team, maybe, just maybe, we could produce a world class grand wine ourselves that would help establish the reputation of Virginia as a world class wine region.” So, she set out to do this.
One of the first steps was hiring Ben Jordan. Hailing from the Shenandoah Valley, Jordan began his career as a playwright in New York City before moving to California and working at boutique wineries in Sonoma County. Jordan quickly discovered that winemaking combined both his creativity and his technical skills. He returned to Virginia to work with the admired Charlottesville-based winemaker Michael Shaps, whose wine won the Governor’s Cup in 2017. After recruiting Jordan to Early Mountain, the Cases commenced harvesting and blending the grapes from Early Mountain, plus a second vineyard they purchased called Quaker Run, in their on-site state-of-the-art facility.
Jean was not content to make Early Mountain just a popular destination. Her vision was to advance respect for Virginia wines overall. Jean and her staff implemented the Best of Virginia program, a selection of acclaimed Virginia wines they would pour in Early Mountain’s tasting room. Now, visitors may sample Early Mountain’s wines while gaining exposure to other high-quality Virginia wines during the same visit.
Early Mountain is a Member of the Historic Monticello AVA
The majority of Virginia wine makers produce just enough to pour and sell to visitors and members of their wine clubs. But this is changing, says George Hodson, president of the Monticello AVA, the American Viticultural Area based in Charlottesville.
Hodson has a long history in wine making. His parents started Veritas Winery in Afton, Virginia, and he and his siblings co-own Flying Fox Vineyard, also in Afton. Having watched Jean Case’s impact on Virginia wine, Hodson observes, “She has a lot of aspirations for the industry. She creates a direction for the winemakers, and I’m grateful for it. If you need to have a large voice, her voice carries a little bit larger.”
Hodson notes that Charlottesville is the birthplace of American wine, harkening back to Thomas Jefferson, the first resident to fully document his wine making efforts in the region. “My family’s life work and our goal was for the Monticello AVA to be part of the world’s conversation on wine,” he explains. “The food and wine culture of this area is authentic product. These farms were the hub of culture and learning, and we are just now realizing Jefferson’s dream.”
Virginia wine makers pay close attention to improving quality and enhancing sustainability. “Our organization of 30 wineries share best practices,” Hodson notes. “We genuinely root for each other’s successes, and you won’t find another region that is more collaborative.” Hodson says wineries in Napa or Sonoma do not customarily share information. “We recognize that this rising tide is going to float all of our boats.” Hence the inspiration for the name Rise, the Case’s newest wine.
How to Distinguish Virginia Wines from Other Wine Regions
The Commonwealth of Virginia has long acknowledged the value of vineyards, and the state uses taxes from wine purchases to help fund the Virginia Wine Board. Annette Boyd is director of marketing for the Board and oversees development of their annual wine guide, website and “Virginia Wine” app, which includes information like hours of operation, wine styles and maps. It’s a helpful resource to use while driving through the Virginia countryside.
Boyd says Virginia is a young wine region compared to Europe and even California. “We don’t have massive wine producers here; we are structured more like Oregon or Burgundy (France). A lot of vineyards in Burgundy have been in families for centuries. A wine maker may have started with 20 acres, then they hand down land to their three sons. Those three sons have two sons, and vineyards in Burgundy may be half an acre after three centuries. The land keeps getting divided.”
So, how does Boyd distinguish Virginia wines from other wines? “Our climate is similar to Europe, as most of California is a desert,” says Boyd. “Look at the Rhone Valley, Burgundy or Bordeaux. The amount of rain they get a year, their soil; both geographically and stylistically, Virginia wines are more like the Old World wines of Europe than New World wines of California. Our wines are more fruit forward and not as ‘jammy’ as West Coast wines. In California, the sugar gets really high. We don’t get that here,” explains Boyd. “We get what our climate gives us. Ours tend to have higher natural acidity, and the American palate is coming to that.”
The Virginia Tourism Corporation published 2018 statistics on the impact made by Virginia winemakers. On average, wine travelers spend more than $900 per trip and stay an average of 3.6 nights. Among the Mid-Atlantic states, Virginia has the most visitors traveling for wine tourism at 27 percent, with the majority driving from Washington, DC, at 20 percent and about 19 percent coming from New York, Baltimore and Richmond combined. The most popular months to visit Virginia wineries are in October, March and June, and the average Virginia wine visitor has an annual income of more than $90,000. The majority of international visitors come from Canada and the United Kingdom; China, Germany, France and India are not far behind. Virginia is listed eighth in the U.S. in number of wineries at 360, as of March 2018. The Virginia Wine Board reports the state’s wine industry contributes $1.37 billion to the state’s economy and 8,218 full-time jobs. Early Mountain Winery Earns American Winery of the Year Nomination
Jean Case’s managers at Early Mountain have fully embraced the mission she set forth. Dave Kostelnik, general manager at Early Mountain, says they were delighted to win USA Today’s Best American Tasting Room in 2016, but even more important, they were finalists for Wine Enthusiast’s American Winery of the Year–2018. “We are the first Virginia winery ever to be nominated—there aren’t many outside the West Coast,” Kostelnik says. “It’s nice to see them recognize Virginia, to take us a little more seriously, and include us with these well-established wineries nationwide. We are definitely able to break new ground here.”
Another Early Mountain executive is Aileen Sevier, a wine business expert who promoted international wineries and managed the beverage program at Legal Sea Foods. Currently, she oversees the marketing of Early Mountain wines. “Most vineyards focus on brands within their own umbrella and never highlight their neighbors,” Sevier says. “We are at the point as a wine region that everyone is helping each other out. We want to put Virginia wines on a national stage.” Early Mountain recently launched sales in New York, introducing the region to a vital new market for wine explorers. Early Mountain also produces the rosé wine served at Founding Farmers restaurant. Now, with the introduction of Rise, they sell to wine collectors too. Sevier says agri-tourism is a distinct driver of economic growth: “Overall, in Virginia, 2.3 million tourists visited wine country in 2017. Napa Valley has about 3.5 million, but is in decline, while Virginia is growing.”
Boyd of the Wine Board believes Virginia wine is “the state’s best kept secret.” The commonwealth’s largest distributors are Barboursville and the Trump Winery—each produce more than 40,000 cases per year, and sell in 30 states. Compared to other regions, that’s not massive. Producers like Robert Mondavi in Napa or Chateau St. Michelle in Washington state sell millions of cases every year.
The Scene at Early Mountain Winery
What makes Early Mountain a standout? “Look at other wine districts and they have large concentrations around them. It’s easy to plan a daytrip in Loudoun,” says Boyd. “Early Mountain is more of a destination. They offer a fabulous restaurant, beautiful views and many things to do when you get there. You can taste Best of Virginia wines from 10 other vineyards, and they make incredible wines in their own right.” Last year, Early Mountain hosted 70 weddings and an oyster festival. Their stylish tasting room features charcuterie and artisanal cheese plates, as well as elegant salads, sandwiches and desserts.
On many afternoons, you’ll see children playing in the lush green fields at the vineyard. Sevier says her young twins love living in Charlottesville. “I’ve been in Charlottesville for three years now. It’s a great combination of rural-esque with all the things you want—a vibrant dining and art scene—things you find in a big city.”
A Rising Tide for Virginia Wine
Back at the Case’s sophisticated home, Jean invites Ben Jordan, Early Mountain’s chief winemaker, to share the inspiration behind Rise. He said, “We wanted to make a wine that showed who we are and where we are. We are working with mountainside vineyards in Virginia. We don’t want to mimic Bordeaux or California; we want to embrace what we have and bring something new to the table. We want to work in the elusive area of power and finesse. We are embracing the aromatic qualities of Virginia grapes.”
As the assembled wine enthusiasts take a first sip, Steve Case smiles at his wife and declares, “On this, Jean has taken the lead. I drink the wine, and she does all the work.
This has worked out spectacularly well!” The group laughs, as they marvel over Rise’s aroma, complexity and body; hopeful for the future of Virginia wines. “I’m enjoying this wine,” Steve adds. “And as Jean said, I think we got it. Our intention around celebrating the Best of Virginia has given us a stronger wine community in Virginia, spotlighting the great things happening here. It’s a collective effort and a region on the rise. Thanks to Jean for making this happen. Let’s all rise!”
If You Go
Early Mountain Vineyard lays resplendent upon the Piedmont, about 18 miles from the Swift Run Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park. Located on 6109 Wolftown-Hood Road off Route 29, the property includes the winery production building, a cottage for guests and their award-winning tasting room, an expansive brick and stone building with cozy fireplaces and indoor and outdoor seating. The vineyard frequently showcases local performers on the patio or bar where you can order $12 flights of wines in categories like Best of Virginia, Bright Whites and Refreshing Reds. Those seeking private, affordable accommodations, should consider Getaway House, pastoral cabins located on 80 acres of woods. It’s a serene place to disconnect and refresh. For a luxurious escape, consider the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange, Virginia. Book a treatment at this boutique inn’s Mill House Spa, and don’t miss their Butterfinger Bars in Vintage, the inn’s Forbes Four-Star restaurant.