Steve and Jean Case threw a grand opening party for their Early Mountain Vineyards winery on Saturday, showcasing their renovated property and their innovative vision for promoting not just their own wines, but Virginia’s best from other producers as well.
When you’re as prominent as the Cases, the governor will come to your party.
“Our hope is that you can do for Virginia wine what you did for the Internet,” Gov. Bob McDonnell told the America Online co-founder before a crowd of about 100 in the winery’s freshly remodeled tasting room in Madison County, north of Charlottesville.
The governor and First Lady Maureen McDonnell have been tireless champions of Virginia’s wine industry, throughout the Commonwealth and on trade missions around the world. McDonnell even walked fearlessly into the lion’s den last year when he hosted a tasting of Virginia wines for wine trade and media in San Francisco.
But McDonnell has only 16 more months in office and under Virginia law is restricted to one term. After he leaves Richmond, the unofficial mantle of ambassador for Virginia wine may fall to Jean Case.
Shortly after the Cases bought the bankrupt Sweely Estate winery last year, Jean Case outlined to me an ambitious plan to boost the state’s wine industry in the eyes of consumers, sommeliers and retailers throughout the region. By promoting not just her own wines but those she considers the “Best of Virginia,” she said she hopes to make the market aware of the potential quality of Virginia vino.
“People ask if I’m on the payroll, because I champion Virginia,” Jean Case told a small gathering of wine bloggers before the governor’s arrival on Saturday. “But many years ago when Steve and I went to a wine festival and tried our first Virginia wine — well, it wasn’t good. So we didn’t come back to Virginia wine for many years.”
They changed that impression a few years ago visiting wineries during a Charlottesville vacation. “We were blown away, and we wondered why doesn’t the world know about this?” she said.
After purchasing the property, the Cases closed Sweely Estate to the public while they remodeled the tasting room. They reopened in June as Early Mountain Vineyards, offering not just their own releases but also wines from “partner” wineries selected by wine retail veteran Michelle Gueydan, who acts as the winery’s sommelier. The tasting room also offers excellent charcuterie, sandwiches and small plates that feature local ingredients.
The initial winery partners were Ankida Ridge, Barboursville, Breaux, Chatham, King Family, Linden and Thibaut-Janisson. Now, Barboursville and Breaux are well-known established wineries that don’t need help marketing their wines. Ankida Ridge however, is a new small production family winery located on a steep mountain between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, remote and open only by appointment. Chatham is located on the Eastern Shore, far from the usual winery tourist traffic. For small wineries like these, the Best of Virginia program offers a chance to reach consumers. And consumers can try some wines that would be hard to find otherwise.
Steve Case acknowledged that some in the industry were skeptical that these idealistic newcomers were sincere in wanting to help promote other producers’ wines, and he said he had no illusions that their effort would be easy. But he’d heard it all before.
“We know this is a business that requires perseverance, and we are in it for the long run,” he said. “When we started America Online 27 years ago, only about 3 percent of Americans were online, and for an average of about an hour a week. People thought we were crazy.”
(Current Early Mountain Vineyard releases include the crisp and refreshing 2011 Pinot Gris and an excellent 2011 Chardonnay, as well as an elegant 2008 Merlot. The winemaker is Frantz Ventre, who also made the wines under the previous owners.)
This post appeared in slightly different form on September 17, 2012, on The Washington Post’s “All We Can Eat” blog.