The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History will unveil a new exhibit next week called “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” A major part of this exhibit – which anyone who eats or drinks should visit – covers the growth of the US wine industry.
The wine section focuses on California – obviously, and rightly. But at the end there’s a display called “Return to Virginia.” It represents the growth of the regional wine industry: the US went from 758 wineries in 24 states in 1950 to more than 2,900 in all 50 states by the turn of the century. It features Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Virginia, which has been a champion of several grape varieties, most notably Norton.
At first glance the display does not seem striking; in fact, I thought it a bit underwhelming when I saw it during a private tour of the exhibit last week, courtesy of the five-member team at the Smithsonian that put it together. (For more details, see my column in this coming Sunday’s special Washington Post Food section.)
But then I honed in on the most innocuous item in the display – a simple easel with a flip chart and some wild scribblings in red marker. It looked like a flavor wheel of viognier, a pie chart explaining the various scents and flavors of this exotic grape. And I realized – I was looking at the genesis of a winery. The pie chart was part of a presentation by winemaker Alan Kinne to Jennifer McCloud, an entrepreneur interested in a second career as a vintner. Paula Johnson, the Smithsonian’s project manager for the exhibit, explained that the sheets of paper on the easel would be flipped every few days to preserve the paper, so visitors will see different diagrams depending on when they visit.
“This was sort of Alan’s ‘so you want to start a winery’ presentation,” McCloud said in a telephone interview this week. “We talked business models, development of the winery, direct-to-consumer marketing, all sorts of ‘here’s what you’ll be getting into.” McCloud could not recall exactly when this exercise took place – sometime in 1995 or 1996 after she had sold her successful computer business and decided to start a winery. “I was ABC at that point – I had been straitjacketed into drinking cabernet and chardonnay,” she said. “So I engaged Alan to educate me on grape varieties.”
Kinne at the time was winemaker at Horton Vineyards, and had made the 1992 Horton Viognier that put Virginia on the country’s wine map. McCloud hired Kinne for Chrysalis, and then he decamped for California and Oregon before returning to Chrysalis early last year. “A hell of a lot of credit needs to go to Alan Kinne, who’s kind of the unsung hero here in Virginia,” McCloud said. While Dennis Horton earns well-deserved credit for bringing Norton back to Virginia and experimenting with other varieties such as pinotage, rkatsiteli, and viognier, “Alan kept on the tradition,” McCloud said. “I had never heard of albarino until Alan suggested that the humidity of Galicia would make it suitable for Virginia. And there wouldn’t be any petit manseng in Virginia today if Alan hadn’t suggested that its combination of high acidity and sweetness would make an ideal vinifera dessert wine for Virginia.”
Chrysalis went on to win several awards for its wines and has become a popular winery stop for Virginia oenophiles. McCloud’s story has been well documented in Todd Kliman’s terrific book, The Wild Vine.
And to think it all started with a simple flip chart – an easel, a magic marker and an idea.