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The ebb and flow of Virginia winemaking talent – Jake Busching’s new gig at Mr. Juliet

Anyone familiar with the Virginia wine industry knows the name Jake Busching, or if they don’t know Jake by name, they are certainly familiar with the superb, award-winning wines he crafted during his tenure at Pollak Vineyards.  Virginia wine fans may also know Jake from his role in Vintage: The Winemakers Year, a documentary film that explores the growth of the Virginia wine industry and the people behind the vines that are making it happen.

I first met Jake during a visit to Pollak Vineyards in 2009, and have been a huge fan of his wines and winemaking style (and that dryish sense of humor that I never know when he’s serious or kidding).  I recently interviewed Jake as part of an article that I’m writing for a print publication, and during our discussion he mentioned that he would be leaving Pollak.  Given the ebb and flow of winemaking talent here in Virginia, coupled with Jake’s reputation for making stellar wines, I wasn’t too surprised when he told me that he was moving on to new opportunity.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Jake to get the scoop on this move and his new endeavor. (will follow up with photos post)

DWYL:  Jake, although you have been a prominent fixture in the Virginia wine industry since 1997, some readers may not be familiar with your background.  Tell us about your time and experiences here in the Virginia wine industry.

I was born in Minnesota on a beef farm and farmed until I was 18. Following high school I spent years exploring the world of music and engineering. Landed in the Virginia wine industry in 1997 as the farm manager at Jefferson Vineyards where Chris Hill began training me as a vineyard manager. Michael Shaps was the winemaker at the time. I spent 4 years managing the vines and estate at Jefferson. Horton Vineyards was my next brief stop where I assisted Sharon in their vineyards for the coldest months of 2001 before taking a job at Keswick Vineyards as assistant vineyard manager. I became vineyard manager there in 02 and was there for the development of the vines and winery until late 2003 when I was offered the helm of a startup project for the Pollaks.  I worked with the Pollaks as the winemaker at Pollak Vineyards for seven years.

DWYL:  You’ve recently moved on to a new opportunity as the winemaker at Grace Estates at Mt. Juliet, one of the most respected vineyards in Virginia. Tell us about the history of Mr. Juliet vineyards.

Mount Juliet Vineyards is in White Hall with a Crozet address. The 50+ acres of grapes were planted by Jose Morejon with the guidance of Chris Hill beginning in the late 90’s. The site has produced high quality wine grapes for years with unique terrain at elevations between 750-1000’. The current owners have had the property for about 6 years. I love the terrior of this place! Viognier, Vidal, Chardonnay, and Petit Manseng comprise the white varietals, and Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tannat, and Petit Verdot make up the red list. There are many open acres of land that can be expanded into grape production as well. I would love to try some Sauvignon Blanc on one of the fields here as well as a different clone of Cab Franc.

I love to tell people that this farm has grown more gold medal wines than people realize. Mount Juliet has been supplying grapes to the industry for many years. I’ve bought fruit from here myself in past lives and was amazed at the characteristics of the wine. With a more focused viticulture program the dirt here will come roaring through the resultant wines. Our plan to make wine begins this year with a small quantity of almost everything, which will be bottled under the name Grace Estates (The name of the owners). I want to work with the grapes in small lots for the first few years and get to know the dirt before committing to a varietal program. I’m very excited by the potential here. The Viognier, Petit Verdot, and Merlot will be my starting points. All three varietals have proven themselves time and again to be exceptional from this site. The winery is still a figment of my mind on paper and I don’t have a release date or opening schedule yet. But I’m shooting for 2012. We’ll see how it goes.

DWYL:  What excites you most about Grace Estates?

Potential is something I really groove on. I love to look at a project and see what it could be and then engage in taking it there. Mount Juliet was planted with that very thing in mind. Now I get to make it happen. It is a huge undertaking but the very sort of thing that makes me tick.

DWYL:  What do you foresee as your biggest challenge(s) with this new role? 

I see reorganizing and reworking the vineyards as my biggest initial challenges. Some of the clones and rootstocks here are way wrong for the soils. Every disease and pest imaginable has a foothold here. The ‘clean-up’ is going to be the hardest part because this sort of thing takes years and years to get right. No one has tried to change the vineyard here since it got planted. The learning curve is pretty steep when it comes to microclimate terrior and that is good by me.

DWYL:  Each winemaker has a unique style and personality expressed in their wines.  What will be the ‘Jake Busching stamp‘ at Mt. Juliet?  Will you be making any significant changes in direction (vineyard plantings, style, etc.)?

Dirt is my guide. The wines are a result of best practice farming and serious focus. My greatest joy in this work is riding the cycle of the season and expressing the farm in a bottle. I don’t think of myself as stylistic or having a style. Vintage driven may sum it up. Potential is again, the driving factor. Wine should always be the best it can be in a given year; that is my goal and you all get to interpret it as style. Let me know when you figure it out!!  

DWYL:  You’ve been a part of the Virginia wine industry since 1997, and you’ve witnessed of a lot of change in the industry here – robust growth in the number of wineries and wine produced, market demands, along with trends in viticulture and winemaking.  What would you say is the most notable change you’ve seen in the Virginia wine industry, and how do you plan to leverage your knowledge and lessons learned at Mr. Juliet?

Quality consciousness is the driving growth factor. The Virginia wine industry has grown into a pretty focused young entity. Many growers and vintners have embraced ‘quality over quantity’ and that is what is putting the industry on the map. We are still an agricultural industry with a great story and gorgeous scenery to tell it in. Keeping that going and growing is what it is all about. We want people to come to us to buy our wines from the winery itself.  I am a farmer and I love having people come and see that I’m not just trash talking. Virginia wine is all about agricultural heritage and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Any parting words of wisdom, airing of grievances or grudges, or final thoughts?

This project is a chance for me to put everything I have learned in the past 14 years to work. This is a chance to put another winery on the map with great wines and a joyful expression of dirt.  It is my hope that my love of the industry shines through in the wines and that people that have enjoyed my wines in the past come along for the ride. Honest feedback is a great tool for anyone looking to grow and having caring people to give it is really helpful. Even when the wine isn’t what I had hoped it to be! I look forward to opening the doors at Grace Estates. Hope you do too!  (Editorial Note:  Your correspondent is absolutely looking forward to visiting Grace Estates and seeing the application of your collective 14 years of experience.)

Thank you, Jake for taking time to share the news of your new winemaking endeavor.  Your love of the industry certainly does shine through in your wines.

All the best to Jake at Grace Estates!

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