Centuries after a Founding Father first had a vision to transform Central Virginia into one of the premiere wine regions on the planet, on Wednesday night local winemakers celebrated a remarkable accomplishment.
“We are finally achieving and realizing Thomas Jefferson’s dream,” George Hodson, vice chair of the Virginia Wine Board and general manager of Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton, said from the stage at Southwest Mountains Vineyards, which only just opened last month in Keswick.
Roughly 100 people, winemakers, business leaders, press and politicians among them, had gathered for the gala occasion, which was originally billed as a celebration of a nomination; Charlottesville was among the finalists for Wine Enthusiast’s "Wine Region of the Year" award.
But as Hodson and a select few others knew when planning for the event back in September, Charlottesville and its blossoming wine industry had done more than win a nomination. Among five finalists that included winegrowing regions in France, Italy, Australia and South Africa, Wine Enthusiast named the Monticello American Viticultural Area that surrounds Charlottesville the greatest wine region in the world.
It is a prestigious award, and especially impressive considering how relatively new the local wine industry is.
Brantley Ussery, director of public relations for the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that while the history of Virginia wine dates all the way back to Jefferson, the area has only been actively producing wine for 40 or 50 years.
“Compared to France, Italy and those other regions we were up against, we’re young,” Ussery told The Daily Progress. “So to be a young wine region and to already be recognized by a publication like Wine Enthusiast as wine region of the year, it’s quite a feather in our cap.”
Hodson took time to thank the people who helped Charlottesville reach this moment, saying the current industry “stands on the shoulders of giants,” including the late David King, who founded King Family Vineyards in Crozet roughly two decades ago and was influential in the local wine community.
“The unofficial motto of the AVA, which was used by David King, is that ‘a rising tide floats all boats.’ That’s why we’re so thrilled tonight, because the tide is rising,” Hodson said.
That was among the themes of the evening. This award, people told The Daily Progress, will not just help boost the wine industry, but the entire local economy.
“The tide is rising here in Charlottesville. It rises it for vineyards, for wineries, but also for hotels, for restaurants, for all of the things that bring people to Charlottesville,” Hodson said. “And so we are ready, we are welcoming, and we want to make sure that they see what we put all of our heart and soul and our lives into, which is creating incredible wine in this area.”
Ussery said of the roughly 300 wineries in Virginia, more than 40 are in the Charlottesville area.
“This is going to elevate not only what we’re doing here with wine, but what the entire state is doing with it. So it’s a big win for Virginia wine, it’s a big win for us,” Ussery said. “And it’s going to be a big win for the economy in general.”
Virginia wine has already been doing quite well. According to the National Association of Wineries, it is tied for 7th among 50 states in the amount of wine it produces annually and 9th in economic impact to the tune of nearly $6 billion per year.
“Virginia’s wine industry is at a place where it’s really growing. We’ve got a lot of momentum. I think we’re the fifth-largest state in the country for a number of wineries,” Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matt Lohr told The Daily Progress.
Wednesday night, he said, was an opportunity to celebrate and promote the award, as well as expand the growing industry even further.
“I was so ecstatic,” Lohr said upon hearing of the award. “We knew that we were in the top five, which is a tremendous honor in itself. And then about a month ago I found out that we actually won, and so it was really hard to keep it a secret.”
Justin Falco, owner and winemaker at Montifalco Vineyards southwest of Ruckersville, told The Daily Progress the award was a big deal for him and the rest of the wine community.
“For years, I’ve been hoping we would have more national recognition,” he said. “And now we’re there. We finally got it.”
There were 22 members of the Monticello AVA that donated wine to the occasion Wednesday, a list that included Montifalco’s 2021 red blend. Falco said generations before him helped the region reach this moment.
“We’ve gotten the attention of wine critics who realized that we’re producing high-quality wine out of the Monticello AVA,” he said. “Side by side with international wine regions.”
Matt Harmon, owner of Harmony Wine, was featured in a new commercial promoting the wine country unveiled Wednesday night. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” upon hearing of the award.
“I knew that Charlottesville had the potential to be one of the best if not the best, but for it to happen this soon, as young as the wine region of Charlottesville is, I think is really cool,” Harmon told The Daily Progress.
The region has made outstanding wines in recent years, he said, but that alone is not what powered Charlottesville to the top prize, he added.
“It’s not just about the wineries. It’s about what they’re doing with the wine,” Harmon said. “Each of the wineries has been able to show that they’re approachable and accessible not just to a certain demographic of people.”
Wine Enthusiast wrote that it honored Charlottesville with the award, “For its place in American wine history and ability to move toward a future of wine-style diversity and consumer inclusivity.”
Lohr said he thinks Charlottesville was honored with the award because it offers “the total package.”
“It’s the quality of the wines. It’s the beautiful views,” he said. “It’s a destination. And I think that’s what they look for is a destination.”
Bea LaPisto-Kirtley, Albemarle County Supervisor for the Rivanna District, agreed.
“Thousands of people come here for vineyards. And they come here for world-class mountain views,” she told The Daily Progress at Wednesday night’s gala. “I would say we have the best views in the world, and now to have the best wines to present with those views is extremely important for us.”
She and Hodson were among those presented with a resolution signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was not in attendance Wednesday but who Lohr said is “so, so incredibly excited” by the award.
Just as Hodson said a rising tide lifts all boats, Wednesday night was a celebration of an entire wine community that has worked together to put Charlottesville on the map.
“It’s all about how can we help the next person succeed,” Lohr said. “There’s really no secrets. It’s not a competition. It’s about how we can all work together to elevate the entire group, and I’ve seen that firsthand.”
That sense of community and cooperation was on display Wednesday night, including in a corner bar in Southwest Mountains Vineyards tasting room, where Kephany Powell of Chiswell Farm and Winery and Athena Eastwood of Eastwood Farm and Winery stood side by side, pouring glasses for guests.
“Two different wineries pouring together, celebrating the wine community and friendship,” Powell told The Daily Progress. “We lift each other up. We help each other. We visit each other. We go to each other’s wineries. We recommend our customers go to other wineries.”
“I think that’s a big reason why we’ve become successful. There’s not a competition,” Powell said
In fact, Eastwood has gone so far as to open a winemaking incubator in Charlottesville which will have five suites for independent winemakers. Winemaking is extremely expensive and has high barriers of entry. Eastwood aims to incubate a younger, more diverse generation of future winemakers at its new facility.
“If we’re going to be the best wine region in the world, we’re going to start to really attract some top winemaking talent,” Eastwood said. “You need places for them to experiment with their own labels too.”
Big or small, Hodson told the crowd that AVA wineries are known for their cooperative nature and for being aligned toward a single goal “to make the very best wine that we can possibly make.”
Wednesday was a formal recognition that goal has been achieved.
That work will continue in the future, perhaps on a grander scale than previously seen. Charlottesville, after all, is now the best wine region on earth.