Exploring Virginia’s Viticulture History — Post-Jefferson, Pre-Furnace, Zonin, and Rausse : Monticello Wine Company (1873 – 1916), (2013 – Present)

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‘The cultivation of the grape has assumed considerable importance in Virginia within the last few years, the fresh fruit being sent in large quantities to the markets of the larger cities further north, and the production of wine having also grown up at a rapidly increasing rate.’  ~ J.W. Mallet, Professor of Applied Chemistry, University of Virginia, Chemical News, 1875

For serious wine enthusiasts with an equally serious passion for U.S. history, the Commonwealth of Virginia provides ample opportunity to explore the intersection of these passions.

Though most accounts of Virginia’s viticulture history tend to focus on Thomas Jefferson’s many attempts and failures with grape cultivation at Monticello, the Commonwealth has a long history of viticulture, before and after the man described as America’s first oenophile.

The most notable Virginia viticulture milestone in the 150 years between Jefferson and the beginning of the modern-day industry — which began in the 1970’s when Elizabeth Furness started Piedmont Vineyards and the Zonin family established Barboursville — was the establishment of a farming cooperative called the Monticello Wine Company.

In 1873, a group of local grape growers led by Oscar Reierson, a German farmer living in the area, founded the Monticello Wine Company in Charlottesville.  The winery was housed in a four-story building a few blocks north of the area now known as the downtown mall.

Monticello Wine Company building, Charlottesville, VA.

Monticello Wine Company building circa 1916, Charlottesville, VA.

The co-op of growers produced wines from native and hybrid grape varieties including Delaware, Catawba, Norton, Clinton, and Ives Seedling, as well as a brandy. [1]

Monticello Wine Company Advertisement. Picture Credit: The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Illustrated History

Monticello Wine Company Advertisement. Picture Credit: The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Directory, Illustrated History

Monticello Wine Company’s most popular wine — Extra Virginia Claret, made from Norton grapes — found international acclaim, including an award for ‘best red wine of all nations’ at the 1876 Vienna Exposition and a silver medal at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. [2]

With a 200,000 gallon production capacity, the Monticello Wine Company was an ambitious enterprise.[3]  At the height of production, around 1890, the Monticello Wine Company was the largest winery in the southern U.S.  Around that same time, in 1888, there were 3,000 acres of vines (native and hybrid) planted in Albemarle County that served as a source of fruit for the co-op. [4]  (For context, there were 3,088 bearing acres of wine grapes were planted in Virginia as of yearend 2013. [5])

Sadly, as a result of economic conditions, competition from California  wineries, vineyard disease pressures like black rot (which still plagues Virginia vineyards today), and ‘the beginning of Prohibitionist sentiment,’ hopes that Virginia might become ‘the wine cellar of America’ faded and the Monticello Wine Company folded in 1916.[6]

The former Monticello Wine Company building was, unfortunately, destroyed by fire in 1937.

In 2005, a state historic marker (Q-31) was installed in the triangle median at the intersection of Perry Drive and McIntire Road in Charlottesville, to commemorate the location of the Monticello Wine Company.

Photo credit: J. J. Prats, via HMbd.org (http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=17993)

Photo credit: J. J. Prats, via HMbd.org (http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=17993)

Historical marker notwithstanding, the Monticello Wine Company may have faded further into viticulture obscurity if not for two brothers, Luke and Michael Macfarlan, who officially reestablished the company in 2013, nearly a century after it closed.

“We grew up in Earlysville [about 10 miles north of Charlottesville], and both of us are very interested in the intersection of history, viticulture and winemaking in Virginia,” says Luke Macfarlan about his interest in reestablishing this historical wine company.  “I have a degree in history from James Madison University and Michael is the winemaker at Glass House Winery [in Free Union, about 15 miles north of Charlottesville] so wine and history are an important part of our lives.”

It was Luke and Michael’s background and interest in the intersection of history and wine that led the brothers to pursue the idea of reestablishing the Monticello Wine Company after first learning about the historic winery in the most unlikely of ways.

“I first heard of the Monticello Wine Company while my wife Jodi and I were on a guided ghost tour of the downtown Charlottesville area,” notes Michael.  “During the tour, the guide pointed out the original location of the winery building, which was at the north end of Wine Street.”

This unlikely introduction to the historic winery served as the catalyst for the brothers to begin researching the history of the winery, as well as searching for any descendants of the original principles that might still be in the area, and exploring the possibility of even resurrecting the company.

While the Macfarlans were not able to find any descendants of the original principles of the company (Ed Hase, grandson of Adolph Russow, the original Superintendent, died in 2012), they were able to review many original documents and photos preserved at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society library.

After determining that the name Monticello Wine Company was not owned by anyone and could legally be used again, they officially incorporated and started planning their first vintage and identifying quality vineyards to source fruit.

2013MoWineCoLogo

The Macfarlans have no near-term plans to plant vineyards or open a tasting room.  Instead, they will continue to source fruit from vineyards throughout Virginia with a focus on vineyards in the Monticello AVA and will make the wine at Glass House Winery.

“We want Monticello Wine Company to serve as an ambassador for the region and showcase what the Monticello AVA can do in each bottle,” concludes Michael.

The inaugural Monticello Wine Company wines will be released later this fall and will include three bottlings from the 2013 vintage; a Chardonnay, with 11% Viognier made from fruit sourced throughout the Monticello AVA (27 cases), a Rose made from Merlot (190 cases), and a red Bordeaux-style blend called Virdeaux (125 cases).

Monticello Wine Company wines will be available in boutique wine shops in the Charlottesville area this fall.

* This is an abridged version of an article that will be published later this fall.

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[1] Pinney, Thomas. ‘A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition.’ Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb63q/. p. 414.
[2] Ibid. p. 414.
[3] Ibid. p. 413.
[4] Ibid. p. 414.
[5] 2013 Commercial Grape Report. Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office.  March 2014. VirginiaWine.org
[6] Sharrer, G. Terry, ‘A Kind of Fate: Agricultural Change in Virginia, 1861-1920.’  p. 74.

Picture of Monticello Wine Co. Extra Virginia Claret (1904 or 1906) that I took at the home of Mike Bowles of Mont Domaine.

Picture of Monticello Wine Co. Extra Virginia Claret (1904 or 1906) that I took at the home of Mike Bowles of Mont Domaine.

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